Sarah Kramer tells the fascinating story of the typeface “Jim Crow”, and the intersection between typography and wider society.
The typeface is named after the minstrel character Jim Crow, whose name became a shorthand first for Black Americans and then for the system of laws that oppressed and segregated them.
The typeface has a fascinating history, and it’s fascinating even that it’s been in constant use for over a century. But to my mind the most interesting moment in its history was its reclamation by Black designers in the 1960s:
“Graphic designer Archie Boston remembers the moment he first came across the Jim Crow typeface. He and his brother, Bradford, were flipping through thick type specimen books in 1967, looking for a typeface to use in the logo for their new advertising and design agency, Boston & Boston. When he came to the page displaying the Jim Crow typeface, he saw it as the continuation of a white joke at the expense of Black people. He wasn’t surprised: ‘You know, we had grown up in a racist society ourselves. We grew up in Jim Crow.’
“Yet, aesthetically, Archie and Bradford Boston liked the typeface. ‘It’s strong, it has a gradation, which gives it an uplifting feeling’ Archie Boston told me. The boldness and stripes of the typeface felt almost patriotic to him. ‘I have always been a jokester, I do things to try and get reactions, you know, whether positive or negative.’ So Archie and Bradford decided to turn the Jim Crow joke upside down. The Boston brothers would use Jim Crow as their logotype.”