USF Libraries | Special & Digital Collections | Exhibits

"Jump Jim Crow"

Thomas Dartmouth Rice's Jump Jim Crow is credited with launching blackface minstrelsy as a musical genre in the United States.  Scholars such as W.T. Lhamon Jr. have painstakingly analyzed these early works from musical, social, and political perspectives.

The persistence of minstrelsy and its widespread influence on all aspects of American culture is well documented by scholars, although its origins are not. No one can be sure when the first white man “blackened up" to play an African American on stage; however, Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice developed the first popularly known blackface minstrel character (called “Jim Crow”) in 1830 and became the “Father of Minstrelsy.”

Born in New York in 1808, Rice became a traveling actor in the 1820s, performing all over the country.  Standing over six feet tall with a wiry build, he was a gifted dancer and actor. Through his experiences growing up in an integrated northern neighborhood and as an actor touring the South, he had an opportunity to observe  African American speech, song and dance over the years and used his observations, along with humor and exaggeration, to develop his first black stage character, “Jim Crow.” Wearing tattered clothing and a burnt-cork blackface mask, Rice accompanied his new song with an explosive dance that he claimed to have learned from an African American slave.

Like his music, Rice’s dance derived from Irish and African American styles, but for most Northern audiences, the combination was altogether new. While his jig-like footwork marked the rhythm, his arms and hands followed the melody. As the extremely exaggerated and stereotypical black buffoon “Jim Crow,” Rice’s  stunning dance moves and witty irreverence quickly inspired a new genre of racialized song and dance: minstrelsy, America’s first unique artistic genre.

Rice's imitation of a black man and perpetuation of stereotypes was extremely popular with whites in both the North and South, and Rice became a very rich man. Although he did not label his act a minstrel show, his use of blackface, black stereotypes and the overall popularity and financial success from the show set the basis for the Virginia Minstrels to perform as the first professional white minstrel troupe in 1843.