Most people shudder at the sight of a black lawn jockey.
Though sightings are pretty infrequent today, the yard ornaments that portray
blacks in subservient roles have the power to gnaw insatiably at the spirit of
blacks and to disgust others who are unaware of the furtive and notable role
these "Jockos" played in the first half of the 19th
But escaping slaves understood then that the jockey statue would guide them
to the Underground Railroad and to freedom. (In Following the Drinking Gourd,
the lyrics surreptitiously suggested slaves follow the "drinking
gourd," a nickname for the Big Dipper, which pointed to the North Star and
the way to freedom. Among other things, it advised that travel was safest in the
spring – "when the sun comes back.")
The jockey, in a similarly secret way, pointed to safe houses along the
"These statues were used as markers on the Underground Railroad
throughout the South into Canada," said historian/author Charles Blockson,
curator of the Afro-American Collection at Temple University in Philadelphia.
"Green ribbons were tied to the arms of the statue to indicate safety; red
ribbons meant to keep going."
"People who don’t know the history of the jockey have feelings of
humiliation and anger when they see the statue," he added. "But this
figure which was sometimes used in a clandestine nature, and sometimes without
the knowledge of the person who owned the statue, was a positive and supportive
image to American-Americans on the road to freedom."
Sometime, added Blockson, a flag was put into the hand of the statue to
Statues now collectibles
It’s because of this role that jockeys – or their precursors, the
groomsmen, which were dressed in slave clothing – have become sought-after
"For those interested in collecting the jockey, it’s important that
they know the role it played along the way of the Underground Railroad,"
said Glennette Tilley Turner, who lives in Wheaton, Ill., and has written about
the Underground Railroad in DuPage County. In the Chicago area, statues once
signaled safe houses from Glenview to Pullman.
History lessons can come in surprising forms and places.
In the lobby of Temple University’s Sullivan Hall, a groomsman stands
sentinel, sometimes taking visitors aback.
"People who come here to the school for the first time don’t know how
to respond," said Blockson, the statue’s owner. He bought the statue, a
5-foot-tall likeness of a black boy dating from the mid-1800s, in a Greenwich
Village market in 1984. But, added Blockson, "their look of confusion
begins to change when they read the description at its base."
Another groomsman statue makes an unexpected appearance in one of Beverly
Jenkins’ romance novels, Indigo (Avon Books, $5.50). This one leads the
main character to freedom and to love when he sees a lantern in its hands.
Jenkins was inspired to link her love story with the Underground Railroad and
to include the groomsman statue after reading Blockson’s research. "I don’t
collect the statues," the 46-year-old writer said, "but I believe
using African-American history in the backdrop … is one way to educate
Some jockeys still standing
There is no consensus on the statue’s origin and several theories are
passed around. But it is known that the jockey’s precursor, the groomsman, was
born in the Old South. Dressed in slave clothes, the groomsman later evolved
into its jockey image and became a national figure after World War II.
"Residents of new housing developments, perhaps to give themselves more of
a sense of being a member of the privileged master class, began placing ‘Jocko’
on their lawns in great numbers," writes Kenneth W. Goings in his book Mammy
and Uncle Mose (Indian University Press, $22.50).
Jenkins, who lives in rural south-eastern Michigan, said she only has to look
across the road or take a drive through rural America for sightings.
"They may have been taken off lawns in urban America in the 1960s with
the civil rights movement, but they weren’t put out of sight everywhere,"
Blockson said he also spots the jockey statues in parts of America. For him,
these sightings are reminders of the path that was taken to escape slavery.
"There’s a spirituality about the path that was taken to bring
African-Americans to freedom," Blockson said. "When you visit the
stops along the way of the Underground Railroad, you still feel it. It’s
there. It’s not the kind of thing you can show to somebody. It’s the kind of
thing you either feel or you don’t."
‘Jocko’ honored slave, book says
Legend has it that George Washington created the first groomsman hitching
post, or "Jocko," in honor of the frozen slave in the 1770s.
According to Florida Atlantic University history professor Kenneth W. Goings,
in his book Mammy and Uncle Mose (Indiana University Press), Gen.
Washington wanted to mount a surprise attack on a British encampment during the
Revolutionary War. Several blacks – slaves and free men – joined the group.
A young black man named Tom Graves wanted to fight but Washington said he was
too young and asked the boy to hold a lantern for the troops as they crossed the
Delaware, Goings writes. (Some versions of this story say it was Graves’ son,
"Jocko," a nickname or given name, who died holding the reins of the
When the troops rowed back after the battle, instead of finding their horses
hitched to a post, the reins were in the hands of Graves, who had frozen to
death. Washington was moved by the boy’s dedication, Goings writes, and
ordered a statue made in his honor.
Others think the black lawn jockeys were representative of blacks’ role in
organized horse racing. But this connection has been strongly disputed.
From the Lexington Herald-Leader, Sunday, February 22, 1998