Jim Crow Museum
1010 Campus Drive
Big Rapids, MI 49307
Q: Hi, I always viewed lawn jockeys as a symbol of racism. Recently, I saw a post on social media that tried to justify their use by saying they were actually used on the Underground Railroad and should be viewed from that lens. I thought that was odd; there is a little information on the Internet that supports that view. I was wondering if you could help clarify this. I still see it as a racist object.
A: Thanks for the question. We get this question quite often in the museum when people explore our “Racism in the Lawn” section. I refer you to something that Dr. Pilgrim has argued. “When it comes to questions about something that may or may not have happened during enslavement in the United States, it likely did occur; however, that does not mean it was a common occurrence.” Keep in mind that enslavement lasted for two centuries. During that long period, it is possible that someone used the lawn jockey in the way you described; however, there is no evidence that this practice was commonplace.
The story goes that safe houses used beacons placed on lawn jockeys to help guide and signal escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad. “Green ribbons were tied to the arms of the statue to indicate safety; red ribbons meant to keep going” (The Province, 1988). If the escapee saw certain signals, they knew where safe passages were and where the dangers were. The figure of the lawn jockey was apparently known by escaping slaves to be that of Jocko Graves who was “a symbol of freedom during the era of the Underground Railroad” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 1981). The legend holds that conductors of the Underground Railroad used these lawn jockeys, as well as other items, to help guide people toward freedom.
This story seems to have first been written in the mid-1970s by Charles L. Blockson, an African American historian. Blockson and a few others began teaching this narrative as a part of African American history. In some ways, this was a way to reframe or reclaim a racist object but mostly, it was taught as an actual occurrence. However, there is very little, if any, primary source material for the claim that lawn jockeys were used as signaling devices for escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad.
There is another legend about the lawn jockey that is widely distributed and that is the story of the Faithful Groomsman, Jocko Graves. The story goes that Jocko Graves was a young African American boy who served George Washington during the Revolutionary War period. Washington planned to cross the Delaware River into Trenton, New Jersey, for a surprise attack on British troops. Washington deemed the trek too dangerous for the young Jocko, so he instructed him to stay behind on the Pennsylvania side of the river. Graves was tasked to tend to the horses and keep a light lit on the bank for Washington and his men to guide them back during the night. Graves did as he was instructed but froze to death. General Washington was so moved by the dedication of the boy that he had a statue cast of Graves holding the lantern. The statue was called “The Faithful Groomsman,” and was installed at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.
In 1963, the story was told in a 32-page children's book by Earl Kroger Sr., Jocko: A Legend of the American Revolution. In a newspaper article from 1970, Kroger presented the story as a “symbol of racial pride,” that Jocko, and his father Tom, were two of “60-or so negroes who volunteered for the continental army” and served with Washington. Kroger credits his first hearing of the story to a schoolteacher he had as a boy in Reidsville, North Carolina (Austin American-Statesman, 1970).
In 1972, Thomas William Halligan wrote a manuscript about the story in "A Horse for the General: The Story of Jocko Graves.” It is unknown where Halligan first heard the story or if he believed the story to be historically accurate. Likewise, in the mid-1990s, a "local authority on black history" Lee Carter, was highlighted in newspapers recounting the heroic story of the Faithful Groomsman lawn jockey. Carter once saw the lawn jockey as a derogatory object “but now he sees the statue as a tribute to a brave boy” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 1993). Contrarily, black memorabilia writer Kenneth W. Goings also wrote about the Jocko Graves story in Mammy and Uncle Mose, in 1994, however, Goings refers to the story as being purely apocryphal.
There is little to no evidence from primary sources to substantiate the story of Jocko Graves. At the Jim Crow Museum, we often bring up these narratives in order to spark discussion. What if the stories about lawn jockeys being used as signaling devices for the Underground Railroad or the story about Jocko Graves are not true? Is there still some value in trying to reclaim and redefine negative imagery into positive messages? Some say yes, and this allows for discussion from multiple standpoints and can lead to a deeper understanding. African American history is full of negative stories; I can understand why people like the more positive stories about the lawn jockeys. However, it is imperative that we acknowledge that these stories may not be true, and truth matters.
In my opinion, a powerful narrative is the rising and achieving of African Americans despite hundreds of years of resistance in this culture. To operate in a society that is slanted against you, in imagery and all other ways that matter, and still one rises, is a testament to heroic intestinal fortitude.
Jim Crow Museum
Blockson, C. L. (1975). Pennsylvania's Black history. Philadelphia: Portfolio Associates.
Conheim, Maryanne. (1981, November 29). From Barn to Museum: 'Lost' portrait stars in black exhibit. Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved from
Goings, K. W. (1994). Mammy and Uncle Mose: Black collectibles and American stereotyping. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Hampton, C. M. (1970, September 23). Black Man Proud of Statue of Black Boy Holding Reigns. Austin American- Statesman. Retrieved from https://www.newspapers.com/image/355948667/?terms="jocko+graves
Halligan, W. T. (1972). A Horse for the General: The Story of Jocko Graves. Unpublished. In the archives of the Alaska Pacific University/ University of Alaska-Anchorage consortium library.
Koger, E. (1976). Jocko: A Legend of the American Revolution. Prentice-Hall.
Ridder, K. (1988, February 22). Black lawn jockeys pointed to freedom. The Province, Vancouver, British Columbia. Retrieved from https://www.newspapers.com/image/505940543/?terms=%22Green%2Bribbons%2Bwere%2Btied%2Bto%2Bthe%2Barms%2B%22