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Fri, 05.20.1808

Thomas Rice, The Face of ‘Jim Crow’ born

Thomas Rice

*Thomas Rice was born on this date in 1808. He was a white-American entertainer and playwright who popularized the Jim Crow character in minstrel shows.

Thomas Dartmouth Rice was born in the lower east side of Manhattan, New York, near the East River docks. Rice received some formal education in his youth, but quit school in his teenage years when he acquired an apprenticeship with a woodcarver named Dodge. Despite his occupational training, Rice quickly made a career as a performer. By 1827, he was a traveling actor, appearing as a stock player in several New York theaters and performing on frontier stages in the coastal South and the Ohio River valley.

The actual origin of the Jim Crow character has been lost to legend. Rice, as identified with the character the most, used African American vernacular speech, song, and dance to become one of the most popular minstrels show entertainers of his time. Several sources describe a tale of Rice encountering an elderly Black stableman working in one of the river towns where Rice was performing. Also, Rice had observed and absorbed the Black experience in song and dance over many years.

Rice appeared onstage at Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1830s and learned to mimic local Black speech: “Coming to New York, he opened up at the old Park Theater, where he introduced his Jim Crow act, impersonating a negro slave". His character dressed in rags, battered hat and torn shoes. Rice blackened his face and hands and impersonated a very nimble and irreverently witty Black field hand who sang, “Turn about and wheel about, and do just so. And every time I turn about I Jump Jim Crow.”

Rice not only performed in more than 100 plays but also created plays of his own, providing himself slight variants on the Jim Crow persona. The Jim Crow period, which started when segregation rules, laws and customs surfaced during the Reconstruction era ended in the 1870s, existed until the mid-1960s when the quest for civil rights in the United States gained national attention. On one of his stage tours in England, Rice married Charlotte B. Gladstone in 1837. She died in 1847, and none of their children survived infancy.

As early as 1840, Rice suffered from a type of paralysis, which began to limit his speech and movements, and eventually led to his death on September 19, 1860.

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