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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Should We Learn to Love Lawn Jockeys?

The lawn jockeys I see these days are generally of fair complexion, but the statues had a darker past. Before tonight, I wasn't aware of an effort to rehabilitate these supposed symbols of servility.

Museum curator Charles L. Blockson, the great-grandson of a slave who escaped to Canada on the Underground Railroad, has been trying for two decades to rewrite the history of the lawn jockey on the basis of two stories so good they're just begging to be refuted.

[I]n 1983, while retracing his ancestor's journey on the underground railroad, Blockson made a startling discovery: A lawn jockey had shepherded slaves to freedom.

In a 1984 National Geographic cover story on the underground railroad, Blockson told how the wife of U.S. District Judge Benjamin Piatt had tied a flag to a lawn jockey as a signal to fleeing slaves that it was safe to stop there.

Blockson also came across the Revolutionary War legend of Jocko. The story goes that a 9-year-old New Jersey farm boy named Jocko sneaked out of his house to find his father, a freed slave who had enlisted with George Washington's army.

The boy wound up in an encampment on Christmas Eve, before Washington's crossing of the Delaware. Waiting for his father's return, the boy volunteered to care for the general's horse during a blizzard. The next morning, Washington discovered that the boy had frozen to death, his hands still clinging to the horse's reins. [Link]
Washington was so moved by Jocko's sacrifice that he commissioned a tacky lawn ornament handsome statue of the faithful, frozen groomsman for his estate at Mount Vernon.

Of course, all the web references to the Underground Railroad story trace back to Blockson and no further. And a spokesman for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati has said that "there is no truth to the idea that lawn jockeys were used as part of the Underground Railroad." And the folks at Mount Vernon call the Jocko story "apocryphal." But I will withhold judgment until I've read Blockson's 1984 NG article, "Escape From Slavery: The Underground Railroad." Only then will I decide that I don't believe him.
[Photo source: Lawn Jockey Love (license)]

Janice

Chris,

I find this article very intriguing. I did a little bit of historical investigation. Varying colored uniforms did start being worn in England in the 1700s but I couldn't find any history (at least online) that spoke about how early they were wearing "silks" in the United States. I even went historical portrait hunting and couldn't find anything showing the outfits that we see on lawn jockeys. At least for now, I tend not to believe the story.

J

Chris

I'm equally skeptical (in case you didn't pick up on the subtle hints in my post). I can understand the impulse to co-opt a symbol of bigotry, but you'd better have the evidence to back it up.

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