Thomas D. Rice

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Thomas D. Rice
TD Rice.jpg
BornThomas Dartmouth Rice
(1808-05-20)May 20, 1808
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
DiedSeptember 19, 1860(1860-09-19) (aged 52)
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
OccupationPerformer, playwright
SpouseCharlotte Bridgett Gladstone (1837-1847)

Thomas Dartmouth Rice (May 20, 1808 – September 19, 1860) was an American performer and playwright who performed in blackface and used African American vernacular speech, song and dance to become one of the most popular minstrel show entertainers of his time. He is considered the "father of American minstrelsy".[1][2] His act drew on aspects of African American culture and popularized them with a national, and later international, audience.

Rice's "Jim Crow" character was based on a folk trickster of that name that was long popular among black slaves. Rice also adapted and popularized a traditional slave song called "Jump Jim Crow".[3] The name became used for the "Jim Crow laws" that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States between the 1870s and 1965.


Thomas Dartmouth Rice was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York. His family resided in the commercial district near the East River docks. Rice received some formal education in his youth, but ceased in his teenage years when he acquired an apprenticeship with a woodcarver named Dodge. Despite this occupational training, Rice quickly made a career as a performer.

By 1827, Rice was a traveling actor, appearing not only as a stock player in several New York theaters, but also performing on frontier stages in the coastal South and the Ohio River valley. According to a former stage colleague, Rice was "tall and wiry, and a great deal on the build of Bob Fitzsimmons, the prizefighter", and according to another account he was at least six feet tall.[4] He frequently told stories of George Washington, who he claimed had been a friend of his father.[5]


Thomas D. Rice as Jim Crow as drawn by Edward Williams Clay

Rice had made the Jim Crow character his signature act by 1832.[6] Rice went from one theater to another, singing his Jim Crow Song. He became known as "Jim Crow Rice". There had been other blackface performers before Rice, however it was Rice who became so indelibly associated with a single character. Rice claimed to have been inspired by a crippled black stable groom, who sang and danced as he did his work,[7] and even claimed to have bought the man's clothes for "authenticity." The time, place and truth of this claim have been disputed.

He soon expanded his repertoire, with his most popular routine being his "shadow dance." Rice would appear on stage carrying a sack slung over his shoulder, then sing the song "Me and My Shadow" (not the better-known 1920s song). As Rice began to dance, a child actor in blackface would crawl out of the sack, and emulate each of Rice's moves and steps. Rice also performed as the "Yankee" character, an already-established stage stereotype who represented rural America and dressed in a long blue coat and striped pants.

Rice's greatest prominence came in the 1830s, before the rise of full-blown blackface minstrel shows, when blackface performances were typically part of a variety show or as an entr'acte in another play.[8]

During the years of his peak popularity, from roughly 1832 to 1844, Rice often encountered sold-out houses, with audiences demanding numerous encores.[8] In 1836 he introduced his blackface performances overseas when he appeared in London,[9] although he and his character were known there by reputation at least by 1833.[8]

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—as Cuff in Oh, Hush! (1833), Ginger Blue in Virginia Mummy (1835), and Bone Squash in Bone Squash Diavolo (1835). Shortly after making his first hit in London in Oh, Hush, Rice starred in a more prestigious production, a three-act play at the Adelphi Theatre in London.[10] Moreover, Rice wrote and starred in Otello (1844); he also played the title character in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Starting in 1854 he played in one of the more prominent (and one of the least abolitionist) "Tom shows", loosely based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's book.[11]

"The Virginny Cupids" was an operatic olio and the most popular of the time. It is centered on a song "Coal Black Rose", which predated the playlet. Rice played Cuff, boss of the bootblacks, and he wins the girl, Rose, away from the black dandy Sambo Johnson, a former bootblack who made money by winning a lottery.[12]

According to Broadbent,[13] "T. D. Rice, the celebrated negro comedian, performed "Jump Jim Crow" with witty local allusions" at Ducrow's Royal Amphitheatre (now The Royal Court Theatre), Liverpool, England.

At least initially, blackface could also give voice to an oppositional dynamic that was prohibited by society. As early as 1832, Rice was singing, "An' I caution all white dandies not to come in my way, / For if dey insult me, dey'll in de gutter lay." It also on occasion equated lower-class white and lower-class black audiences; while parodying Shakespeare, Rice sang, "Aldough I'm a black man, de white is call'd my broder."[14]

Personal life and death[edit]

On one of his stage tours in England, Rice married Charlotte Bridgett Gladstone in 1837. She died in 1848. They had four children: Frances Gwynne Gladstone Rice born July 31, 1839 and died July 18,1897, John Joy and Mary Gwynne who both died as babies and Elizabeth Mary Rice born August 31, in the 1840‘s and died on August 28, 1910.

Rice enjoyed displaying his wealth, and on his return from London wore a blue dress coat with gold guineas for buttons, and a vest on which each gold button bore a solitaire diamond.[4]

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. His funeral services were at St. Thomas Church and he is interred at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York state in what is now an unmarked grave. A reminiscence of him in The New York Times suggests his death was alcohol-related, and states that although he had made a considerable fortune in his time, his later years were spent in a liquor saloon and his burial was paid for by public subscription.[4]

In popular culture[edit]

In the later half of the 19th century a wooden statue of Rice in his "Jim Crow" character stood in various New York locations, including outside the Chatham Garden Theatre.[15] It was painted and made in four pieces, with both arms and the right leg below the knee being separate parts screwed to the trunk.[16] Prior to at least 1871 it had stood on Broadway outside "a well-known resort of actors and showmen".[16] According to an article in The New York Times it had apparently been carved by Rice himself in 1833,[16] although a different account in the same paper says it had been carved by a celebrated figurehead carver called Weeden,[4] and yet another article attributes it to Rice's former employer "Charley" Dodge.[17] It had long been used by Rice as an advertising feature and accompanied him on his successful tour of London.[4]


  1. ^ "Blackface Minstrelsy". Center for American Music, University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved July 15, 2015.
  2. ^ "History of Minstrelsy: From "Jump Jim Crow" to "The Jazz Singer"". University of South Florida Library Special & Digital Collections. Retrieved July 15, 2015.
  3. ^ Padgett, Ken. "Blackface! Minstrel Shows". Archived from the original on September 27, 2014. Retrieved December 10, 2014.
  4. ^ a b c d e The New York Times, August 22, 1887: 'Things At Hand'
  5. ^ The New York Times, May 19, 1907: - 'The Lay of the Last of the Old Minstrels; Interesting Reminiscenses(sic) of Isaac Odell, Who Was A Burnt Cork Artist Sixty Years Ago'.
  6. ^ American Sentinel (Philadelphia), September 11, 1832: "Mr. Rice will appear and sing Jim Crow."
  7. ^ Giles Oakley (1997). The Devil's Music. Da Capo Press. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-306-80743-5.
  8. ^ a b c The Times, Friday, January 18, 1833; pg. 5: 'PARTAKING OF A THEATRICAL ENTERTAINMENT': Describes a performance of Shakespeare's Richard III at the Bowery followed by Rice performing his 'Jim Crow' act.
  9. ^ "SURREY THEATRE: This theatre, which last year was so prolific in sea pieces, has this season been abundant in a novel species of entertainment. A sort of extravaganzas, called "black operas", has superseded the ancient drama, and the Black-Eyed Susan of former days has been obliged to give place to the black-faced Susan of the Transatlantic importations from Boston and New York. Mr. Rice, whose Jim Crow has insured his reputation in every street of the metropolis, and whose admirable representation of the negroes of the United States has raised a host of imitators, is the hero of these black burlettas. Mr Rice is in his way the most accomplished artist on the boards, his personation is the beau ideal of a negro. There is something in his chuckle which is not to be described, but which is equally rich, veracious, and inimitable. He has the faculty of twisting his limbs in such a manner as to represent the distortions of an ill grown African, and the very tibia of his legs appear to shape themselves in aid of his endeavours. The novelty of last night is called, Oh, Hush! or Life in New York. This is merely a vehicle for the exhibition of the very peculiar talent of the performer, and as such it fully answers its purpose. The plot consists in the loves of the black hero and heroine (Mr. W. Smith) who are made to dance, sing and caper through three or four scenes... There is not much point in the songs or the dialogue, but there are several good hits, and of them Mr. Rice made the most." The Times, Wednesday, October 26, 1836; pg. 5; Issue 16244; col G. Rice was so successful he soon transferred to the more upmarket Adelphi Theatre in a play built especially around his Jim Crow character; this was also a hit. The Times, November 8, 1836, p. 5
  10. ^ A Flight to America, or Ten Hours in New York (1836), was the vehicle written for Rice by William Leman Rede. In it the Jim Crow character is developed to share similarities with the 'witty servant' of stage tradition. An Englishman fleeing creditors arrives in New York, where on the quayside he meets Jim Crow and hires him as his valet. The plot involves a beautiful young heiress being forced into a loveless marriage by her rascally uncle, and an episode where the astonished Englishman returns to his lodgings (drunk) to find Jim Crow has invited all his friends there to celebrate "the emancipation of the negroes" – presumably a reference to the ending of slavery in the British Caribbean colonies. Eventually, thanks to Jim Crow, the machinations of the uncle and his wicked associate (a "regular calculating Yankee... from Virginia" [sic]) are defeated. The thwarted villain then claims Jim Crow is an escaped slave but the Englishman buys his freedom and the play ends with the heiress marrying her own true love and Jim Crow marrying his. The Times, November 8, 1836; pg. 5
  11. ^ Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-507832-2. p. 211.
  12. ^ Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-507832-2. p. 133.
  13. ^ Annals of Annals of the Liverpool Stage, from the Earliest Period to the Present Time (New York), 1969:
  14. ^ Ashny, LeRoy, With Amusement for All, University Press of Kentucky, 2006, pg. 17-18
  15. ^ The New York Times, June 22, 1902
  16. ^ a b c The New York Times, April 2, 1871: 'Sidewalk Statues'
  17. ^ The New York Times, May 30, 1882: "Carving Wooden Figures".

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