Was John Queen A Real Life Jim Crow? In some ways, John Queen may resemble the minstrel figure that segregation laws were named for.
NPR logo Was John Queen A Real Life Jim Crow?

Was John Queen A Real Life Jim Crow?

In some ways John Queen was a real life Jim Crow, but one whose life ended with an act of defiance.

The term Jim Crow is well known as a system of laws and social customs, largely in the South, that separated whites from blacks and enshrined white superiority.

Less well known is that the name Jim Crow comes from a figure in minstrel shows. Thomas Dartmouth Rice was one of the first actors to perform in blackface. And Rice became famous for the buffoonish character he created in the 1830s that he called Jim Crow — an elderly black man with palsied legs, who flounced and shuffled about the stage.

Rice's popular caricature of a black man who was foolish, elderly, "crippled" and enervated, created long-lasting negative stereotypes.

Like Jim Crow, Queen was elderly. He was 65, and like Jim Crow, his dark hair was speckled with gray. Queen was disabled, too. He fell off a house as a boy and crushed his legs. Queen's family was too poor to buy a wheelchair, so for the rest of his life he got around by dragging himself on the ground.

Queen, who shined shoes, propelled himself with two square, wood shoe-shine boxes about a foot tall. He would thrust the boxes forward, then, holding onto the handles on top, swing his body forward through the boxes.

Fayette, Miss., — where Queen died — held on to the Jim Crow system long into the Civil Rights era. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination in public places. But in 1965, the movie theaters, schools, the town swimming pool and other public places in Fayette were still segregated.

There were still strict rules of social etiquette that defined superiority and inferiority. A black person was still expected to step off the sidewalk when a white person approached. Or let white customers go to the head of the line at the store.

"And you didn't look people, white people, in the eye. You weren't supposed to do that," recalls Barbara Lewis.

Lewis was a teenager in 1965. Today, she's the principal of Jefferson County High School in Fayette. But back then, she remembers sitting in the kitchen with her mother, who wanted to keep her smart, young daughter safe. So she made Lewis recite, and practice those unwritten rules of social order — including how to address a white person.

"And you didn't say 'yes ma'am' or 'no ma'am'," Lewis says. 'You said 'yes'm' and 'no'm'. Because I had to practice on that."

To use more formal terminology would sound too educated or striving, even from children who were taught separate, proper manners around adult African Americans.

"Because we were accustomed to saying 'yes ma'am' or 'no ma'am'. But not 'yes'm' and 'no'm'. So my mother would teach us how to do that so that you would not get into trouble," she says.

When Queen was shot and killed by an off-duty white constable, it was a painful reminder for African Americans in Fayette of their second-class citizenship, says Queen's great niece, Lillie Lee Henderson.

Just four months later, with anger over Queen's death still fresh, black residents took to the streets to protest the broader problems of social inequality and started a successful boycott of white businesses. That activism helped end those Jim Crow rules that had kept them segregated.