Lawn jockey

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The "Jocko" style
The "Cavalier Spirit" style

A lawn jockey is a small statue of a man in jockey clothes, intended to be placed in front yards. Most today are white jockeys, but historically black jockeys were commonplace.

The lawn ornament, popular in certain parts of the United States in years past, was a cast replica, usually about half-scale, of a black man dressed in jockey's clothing and holding up one hand as though taking the reins of a horse. The hand sometimes carries a lantern or a metal ring suitable for hitching a horse. Two traditional lawn jockey styles are produced, commonly known as "jocko" and "cavalier spirit". The former is of stockier build, with a hunched posture; the latter is generally slender and erect. Typically these statues are made of concrete but are also made of other materials such as poly resin and aluminum or cast iron. Despite being controversial, lawn jockeys are still in demand. Both styles are still manufactured and sold.

The black lawn jockeys often had exaggerated features, such as big eyes with the whites painted in, large red lips, large, flat nose and curly hair. These pieces were typically painted in gaudy colors for the uniform, with the flesh of the statue a gloss black. These statues are widely considered offensive and racially insensitive and many remaining samples have now been repainted using pink paint for the skin while the original sculpture's exaggerated features remain.

However, some accounts of the figure's origin cause some to see the statue as representing a hero of African American history and culture. According to the River Road African American Museum the figure originated in commemoration of heroic dedication to duty: "It is said that the 'lawn jockey' actually has its roots in the tale of one Jocko Graves, an African-American youth who served with General George Washington at the time that he crossed the Delaware to carry out his surprise attack on British forces at Trenton, NJ. The General thought him too young to take along on such a dangerous attack, so left him on the Pennsylvania side to tend to the horses and to keep a light on the bank for their return. So the story goes, the boy, faithful to his post and his orders, froze to death on the river bank during the night, the lantern still in his hand. The General was so much moved by the boy's devotion to his duty that he had a statue sculpted and cast of him, holding the lantern, and had it installed at his Mount Vernon estate. He called the sculpture 'The Faithful Groomsman'." The most frequently-cited source for the story is Kenneth W. Goings in "Mammy and Uncle Mose" (Indiana University Press), though he regards it as apocryphal. The story was told as well in a 32 page children's book by Earl Kroger Sr., "Jocko: A Legend of the American Revolution." Moreover, there is a 13-page typescript titled "A Horse for the General: The Story of Jocko Graves" by Thomas William Halligan in the archives of the Alaska Pacific University/ University of Alaska-Anchorage consortium library [1]

Charles L. Blockson, Curator Emeritus of the Afro-American Collection at Temple University in Philadelphia, claims that the figures were used in the days of the Underground Railroad to guide escaping slaves to freedom: "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..." [2] Blockson has installed an example of the statue at the entrance to the University's Sullivan Hall.

Neither the Revolutionary War nor the Civil War legends are corroborated by historical records. Mount Vernon's librarian Ellen McCallister Clark wrote in a letter to Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library: "No record of anybody by the name of Jocko Graves, nor any account of somebody freezing to death holding Washington's horses, exists in the extensive historical record of the time." Nor do any of the many historical inventories and descriptions of Washington's estate mention any such statue. Moreover, stories about the Underground Railroad using lawn jockeys as signals are rendered suspect by the fact that red and green as signal colors meaning "stop" and "go" (or "danger" and "safe") were standardized by railway signals during the World War I era. [3]

Cultural references[edit]

  • Le Neg', a 1992 film by Québécois director Robert Morin, about a black adolescent who resents lawn jockeys as racist and destroys one, resulting in his murder.
  • 33 lawn jockeys donated long ago by wealthy patrons adorn the balcony above the entrance of New York City's 21 Club. They're painted to resemble famous jockeys.[4]
  • A lawn jockey comments on racism towards black people in America in the DC Vertigo comic Uncle Sam.
  • In the song "Uncle Remus" by Frank Zappa, he sings of knocking jockeys off of rich people's lawns in Beverly Hills.
  • In an episode of All in the Family, Archie Bunker was given a black lawn jockey as a gift by Burt Munson and Tommy Kelcy, for paying off his mortgage. After seeing it Archie thanked his friend, but refused to put it outside, because he didn't want people bothering him about it.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1][dead link]
  2. ^ "Jockey statues marked Underground Railroad". 1998-02-22. Retrieved 2011-08-01. 
  3. ^ "lawn". 2005-06-21. Retrieved 2011-08-01. 
  4. ^ "21 Club, New York City / Famous NYC Restaurant with Banquet Rooms - History". Retrieved 2011-08-01. 

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