Jump Jim Crow!!

What is Jim Crow?

The year before Catto’s birth, “Jim Crow” became a widely accepted pejorative reference to African Americans. It was popularized by the white minstrel performer, Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice, who performed in blackface doing mockery minstrel shows, depicting  what was characterized as “authentic” black life.  Blackface became an important performance tradition in the American theater.   By the 1840’s, black performers were also performing in blackface.  Frederick Douglass was among the most vocal critics against blackface performance, condemning it as racist and inauthentic of the African American life. However, the practice gained increasing popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the spread of racial stereotypes such as the “happy-go-lucky darky” or the “dandified coon,” both frequently depicted in early motion pictures.

Al Jolson was perhaps the most famous blackface performer in the 20th Century and was called “the king of blackface.” His performing in blackface boosted his career. He wore blackface in virtually all of his shows and was America’s highest paid performer in the 1920’s.

1900 William H. West Minstrel Show Poster, Library of Congress

Blackface was frequently a part of the Philadelphia Mummers Parade until the mid-1960’s.  In 1963, the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) petition the City of Philadelphia to ban blackface. Nonetheless on January 3, 1964, the Hammon Civic Club wore blackface as a show of defiance at its club house at 2nd and Mifflin.   However, under a court injunction, the annual paraded was held on January 4 without blackface performers or interruptions.

Hammon Club, 1963, courtesy of Temple University

Blackface continued in primetime national TV, most famously in the White and Black Minstrel Show, which ended in 1978.

The popular theater form helped to reinforce racial stereotypes, which fed rationales for Jim Crow laws.  Initially, the laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the United States.  All were enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by mostly by white Democratic-dominated state legislatures after the Reconstruction period.  However, segregation practices and policies also existed in Northern communities and were reflected in such practices as school segregation, employment and red-lining.  Jim Crow practices also permeated the federal government, including in the civil service and led to the removal of highly qualified and educated African Americans from federal government positions under Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. Jim Crow restrictions also extended to other people of color and to Jews in some communities. Under Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, federal civil rights legislation starting in 1965 was enacted to address both laws and practices.

Jim Crow Signage