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The controversial lawn jockey: A memory of the American Revolution, the Underground Railroad, or something else entirely

Martin Chalakoski
Photo: Jud McCranie - CC BY-SA 4.0

As the Roman philosopher Cicero once said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” In America, it could perhaps be modified to “If you have a yard.” Since the majority of Americans own houses with yards, there is a ton of advice on how to tend and decorate one, from growing the best grass and pruning your flowers to choosing the right decor and color palette for your “outdoor living room,” not to mention how to take outside lighting to a whole other level.

Moreover, we can’t forget about the ornaments that, according to home magazines, showcase of the homeowner’s taste and character.  A cozy chair or a hammock for a nap, for example. A wooden vintage lantern, or a row of gnomes in the garden.

That being said, what does a lawn jockey convey?

An odd-looking garden gnome is believed to bring good fortune, and garish pink flamingos really stand out and make people laugh. But a statue of a stooped black man with vivid red lips, wide eyes, curly hair, and a lantern in his hand set in the front yard, while it can be found in yards today, it makes some people uncomfortable if not angry.

No one really knows the origin story of the statue of the lawn jockey. There is no clear information of who first designed one. The controversial ornament can be found in homes or bought on eBay or Amazon in their vintage, deluxe, cast iron original, or any other lawn jockey edition. They are not just of black figures but also of white ones.

For some, the original lawn jockey statue, the cast iron “Jocko” with his right arm raised as he is eagerly anticipating the reins of a horse, is a hitching post and nothing more. It is a statue showing a past purpose, and they don’t see anything racist about it. For Mark Johnson, the owner of the Ontario-based company Lawnjockey.com, the ornament is “just a statue,” and he says he “doesn’t believe it’s offensive.” He sells them not just in Canada and the United States but overseas as well. Johnson says he ships at least 200 of them each year.

However, for a time they have been considered extremely offensive and provocative to the African American community and were even whitewashed and hand-painted or hand-sprayed by those who hate them.

Today some who own the figures say they reflect the dominance of African Americans in the “sport of kings” during the 19th century. By the end of the century there were races where almost all of the participants were African Americans and they came up as the best jockeys. For instance, at the first Kentucky Derby on May 17, 1875, 13 out of 15 jockeys were African Americans, with the winner Oliver Lewis on his Aristides, also African American. Moreover, they won 15 out of the first 28 famed Kentucky races until World War I came knocking.

But to critics, the lawn jockeys remind everyone most obviously of forced subservience by blacks, of times during the Jim Crow era when black drivers were obliged to yield the right of way to whites at all intersection, and black jockeys were degraded to stable boys and grooms waiting with their hand reaching to grab the reins of the exhausted horse after a race was over.

After the Civil Rights Movement, lawn jockey were disappearing, with the owners labeled racist for owning them. And yet there are some defenders who say the lawn jockey statues helped escaping slaves before the Civil War.

One owner was ostracized and berated not so long ago for owning a lantern holder and displaying it in front of her house. “I often get asked about my lantern footman sitting in my front yard,” says Sandra Dee McNair, a proud African American owner of a lawn jockey who believes that “the image of a black ‘footman’ with a lantern signified the home was a stop on the Underground Railroad.”

She is not the only one. Historian Charles Blockson, the curator of the Afro-American Collection at Temple University in Philadelphia, shares the same view. While according to him, “Most people shudder at the sight of a black lawn jockey,” they don’t fully realize that “these statues were used as markers on the Underground Railroad throughout the South into Canada,” and “escaping slaves understood then that the jockey statue would guide them to the Underground Railroad and to freedom” As he explains in his book Underground Railroad, “green ribbons were tied to the arms of the statue to indicate safety; red ribbons meant to keep going.”

However, the Jim Crow Museum finds this view problematic solely because “runaway slaves often traveled at night and the darkness would have made it difficult to see different shades of cloth.” According to their view, there is little evidence to support this claim.

Last but not least, the existence of the lawn jockey and the question of why it finds homes after all these years could be tied to General George Washington, the American Revolution, and one courageous 12-year-old African American boy named Jocko Graves. According to many accounts and the River Road African American Museum in Louisiana, one freezing night in December 1776 the general aimed to cross the Delaware River and attack the British on the other side in Trenton. Jocko wished to join them but being small and very young, Washington gave him a “much greater task.” He was to stay behind and take care of the horses while holding high a blazing lantern thus marking the territory for them to return.

When the soldiers did, hours later, reportedly they found Jocko frozen to death, the lantern clenched in his fist and all the horses still tied to him. He was a son of a free black man according to the stories and died for a greater cause. Moved by his devotion, General Washington ordered a statue of him, the Faithful Groomsman, to be placed in his honor at his estate in Mount Vernon, that in a way was probably the first lawn jockey ever made.

However, Ellen McCallister Clark, a Mount Vernon librarian, released an official statement in 1987 in which she claimed that the story “is not based on an actual incident. Neither a person by the name of Jocko Graves nor the account of any person freezing to death while holding Washington’s horses has been found in any of the extensive records of the period.”

Related story from us: 19th-century aristocrats hired men to grow long hair and fingernails and pose in the garden as “ornamental hermits”

Perhaps the story of Jocko is a missing page from a history book that now lays on a shelf in someone’s library. Or perhaps not. The lawn jockey could be just another ornament that has no significance at all–or a reflection of an unfortunate era.