Jumpin’ Jim Crow and Us

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on October 27, 2020

Probably every literate person in America knows what the infamous term “Jim Crow” stands for – the enforced segregation of Black Americans from public life, especially in the South, legally formalized in the Supreme Court decision, “Plessy v. Ferguson,” in 1896. But few of us upstanding citizens know the origin of the name, Jim Crow. Count me among the vaguely informed. I’ve always known that it had something to do with a popular minstrel character way back when, but that was about it.

Initially enlightened by a long passage in Isabel Wilkerson’s eloquent, epic retelling of the Great Migration of black people from the South to the North, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” I decided to dig into this great American myth and see what was behind it. There are dozens of accounts of this story, but all the versions I have come across had some strikingly similar elements. Every one begins with a man named Thomas Hartman (or Dartmouth) “Daddy” Rice, an itinerant white minstrel performer of the 1830s, decades before the Civil War. Here’s how Wilkerson describes Rice’s most famous song and dance routine: “(Rice did a) jouncy, palsied imitation of a handicapped black man with a song about ‘Jumpin’ Jim Crow.’” (Other accounts identify the tune as “Jump Jim Crow.”) The real Jim Crow could have been an enslaved black stable hand from Kentucky. Or not.

Rice used burnt black cork to darken his face, dressed in rags, mimicked his own version of a black dialect, and danced around the stage like a clumsy buffoon reciting his song:

“Weel about and turn about and do ‘jis so, eb’ry time I weel about, I jump Jim Crow.”

The stage version of Jim Crow, and perhaps his real counterpart, was markedly disabled. One account said, “the man had a crooked leg and a deformed shoulder.” You can Google a picture of Rice’s character, and he looks like a disjointed puppet on a string, kicking his crooked leg high in the air and singing his silly little song. Remember Donald Trump’s famous and famously cruel on-stage mocking of the New York Times reporter, Serge Kovaleski, stricken with arthrogryposis, which causes joint contracture in his arms and hands? Then you have a pretty good idea of Mr. Rice’s act.

How popular was this one-note antic? Wildly popular, a national sensation, say all sources. Rice quickly became the most famous such racist act in America. In fact, his enormous success helped establish minstrelsy as a popular form of entertainment from the 1830s to around 1870. To use Ms. Wilkerson’s words, “impersonating a crippled black man” not only defined minstrelsy but solidified the perception of African Americans, both before and after the war, as lazy, unhinged, untrustworthy, and dim-witted. Jim Crow was used as a slur against black people by 1838, says the author, long before it had anything to do with post-Civil War Jim Crow laws.

And what about the perception of people with disabilities during the same period? The analogies aren’t hard to spot. The general public, re another source, “thought of the disabled as lowly human beings.” People with disabilities, physical and mental, were lumped in with criminals and poor people and left to rot in institutions, like Massachusetts’ “Institution of Idiots,” founded in 1848, or in jails, or on rural work farms, or what came to be known as “lunatic” and “insane asylums.” Many were simply imprisoned in their family homes, objects of shame, and disrepute. One source said that even persons with cerebral palsy were considered mentally deficient. Then the “cure” of eugenics and mass sterilization became the fad. What better way to deal with “defective” people?

So “Jumpin’ Jim Crow,” a ridiculously beloved stage act, not only cemented the despicable idea of the so-called inferiority of black people in the minds of white America, it did its part in popularizing the mockery and dehumanization of the disabled. But, the story of ol’ Thomas “Daddy” Rice has a bizarrely fitting ending, if you are a fan of ironic humor. According to Wilkerson, Rice “died penniless in 1860 of a paralytic condition that limited his speech and movement by the end of his life.”

Disability is an equal opportunity offender.