The Jim Crow laws – a brief summary

The Jim Crow Laws were created in 1876 simply to segregate black people from the white population. Some English Dictionaries define ‘Jim Crow’ as the name for an implement that can straighten or bend iron rails; or, along with ‘Jim Crowism’, systems or practices of racial discrimination or segregation.  The American English Dictionary suggests that the name only emerged in dictionaries in 1904, but it was clearly used generally in 1876, at least.


The origin of Jim Crow goes back to the 1820s and is credited to a song-and-dance man, Thomas Dartmouth ‘Daddy’ Rice.  He implied that he had seen a limping black slave singing the following verse:

‘Come listen all you galls and boys

I’m going to sing a song

My names is Jim Crow

Weel about and turn around and do jis so,

Eb’ry time I weel about and jump Jim Crow.’

Jim CrowIn 1828 Rice was the first man to blacken his face, dress as a plantation slave and perform such a routine, using his own compositions.  As he gained fame he expanded his repertoire and gradually penned forty-four verses, most of them extremely insensitive.  Indeed, his mockery of black people grew to the extent that his derogatory Jim Crow verses helped deepen the gulf between black and white communities.  In 1838, the Southern States passed various laws of racial segregation, focused against the black sectors.  By the turn of the century those laws were called the Jim Crow laws, both north and south.


Between the 1880s and the 1960s the laws expanded. Many cities and states were able to impose legal punishments on people, for example, on those who were deemed to be consorting with or marrying with other races.

In the southern states, in particular, the authorities were extremely strict. In white hospitals for example, only white nurses could tend white patients.  There were different sectors for whites and blacks: trains, buses, restaurants, schools, mental hospitals, parks, cemeteries, and many more.

Early attempts

Jim Crow 2In 1875 an attempt to revert the Jim Crow laws to give black people equal rights as the whites in the southern states was passed but had very little effect. In 1883 the Supreme Court repealed the 1875 act as it was deemed unconstitutional.  In essence, Congress wanted complete control over corporations and people in the private spheres of the Southern States.  Since Congress consisted primary of whites; they had the power to rebuff any prospective changes in the Jim Crow laws, and did so again in 1892 and 1908.

The Jim Crow laws were finally abolished on 2 July 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson historically signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It invoked the commerce clause, outlawing discrimination in public accommodations.  The Voting Rights Act followed in 1965; effectively giving black people the vote.

Stella Milner

See also Stella’s article on the Rev Ralph Abernathy.