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The Anomaly of the Black Lawn Jockey: Racist Symbol or Noble Past?


The statue of the lawn jockey usually found at the end of a driveway in either a middle class or upper class neighborhood is probably one of the most mysterious symbols I have come across. At first glance the statues can give the appearance of a passive slave. It will not come as a shock then that the jockey symbol can elicit anger in some the same way a swastika would also bring a swift emotional response. Slavery as well as the genocide and stealing of Native American land is one of the United States original sins; therefore, any reference to an image that seems to be in support of that horrible institution would justifiably invoke outrage. The horrors of slavery are well documented, indeed it was the largest forced migration in the world. Numbers of course vary from 12 million to 20 million, to as high as 100 million depending on what scholar you want to quote. Slaves were literally worked to death, as capitalism and cotton extracted every ounce of life force out of the enslaved Africans who were often viewed more as beast of burden than actual humans. This culture of racism was even enshrined in the language of our Constitution when Africans were counted as 3/5ths of a person. Symbolically five was the number given to a man in good health.

This probably goes back to the time of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras who was fascinated with the number five. Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man stands like a star with five points, and did not Christ have five wounds? For the slave he would not be viewed as a "five"nor as a whole person, for the slave was sub-human only worthy of 3/5ths, and would be treated as such. He was only an object devoid of deeper emotions such as love or feelings like pain.

Even when slavery did not prematurely take lives through poor diet, excessive labor, or outright murder, it could still equally tear out a persons heart as was the case of Henry Box Brown. Henry Box Brown was given the nickname "Box" because he was shipped to freedom in a box from Virginia to Philadelphia. Brown's daring escape would place him in a box for some 28 hours at times traveling upside down even though his box said "this side up." In Brown's autobiography he mentioned that he was never beaten by his master while in bondage; however, his wounds were more internal, for he had to endure the emotional and psychological pain of being separated from his wife and children when the family was split up. The story of the slave and the Native American prove that the United States has a history that is far from "American exceptionalism" though some would see it otherwise. The slavery narrative is constantly being revised by groups like The Sons of the Confederacy and others who preach that slavery was a "noble institution." In doing so they have tried to render slavery as proud "heritage" worthy of being celebrated. Often writing about slavery as if it was a mutual relationship between kind benevolent masters and loyal workers. They often point out that the slaves worked for free, but the burden was also on the master who's duty it was to provide excellent food and housing. The ridiculousness of this argument should be lost on no one. By taking this approach; however, Confederate sympathizers are able to display the symbols of slavery boldly, freely waving Confederate Flags, wearing Confederate t-shirts, and yes even displaying the loyal black lawn jockey in front of homes and driveways without fear of being labeled a racist. There are those in the African-American community that are willing to challenge those who choose to display black lawn jockeys for racist reasons.

What makes the black lawn jockey story even more interesting is there are those that are now saying our interpretation of the lawn jockey is completely wrong, and what many believe to be a racist symbol is actually not racist at all. The person at the front of this argument is African American historian from Philadelphia Charles Blockson. Charles Blockson is a very famous and respected historian around the Philadelphia area. Blockson is a curator associated with Temple University as well as Philadelphia's African-American Museum.

In fact on a personal note I would often use Blockson's book "Liberty Bell Era: The African American Story" as a guide when teaching my United States History class. In that book Blockson does an excellent job highlighting the contributions blacks made to the United States during the era of George Washington and Ben Franklin, contributions that are often whitened out or forgotten. It is Blockson's belief that the black lawn jockey statues are not racist at all, but were actually symbols for the runaway slaves, so that they would know which house was safe enough to stay in. A green ribbon meant safety, and a red ribbon meant to keep going. If Blockson's story is true that would indeed be fascinating. The Underground Railroad is truly one of America's most fascinating and heroic stories, so much so that Hollywood recently cashed in on the subject with John Legends interesting and often entertaining take on this chapter in American history. To his credit Legend's Underground was often compelling to watch with its fast pace, groovy soundtrack, and talented cast, but one must also be reminded to proceed with caution.

Though peoples hearts maybe in the right place, often what happens is the stories are told with such excitement, exuberance, and well intentions that it becomes a mixture of real history with folklore. What is passed off as history is in reality more of an apocryphal version of history. Stories like hidden codes in quilts and coded songs, as well as jockey statues often make for good television, but are very hard to document outside of oral tradition. I often bring up these stories in my class to spark interest among students, but I try to discipline myself by reminding them that most experts in the field are at odds with the reliability of those stories, so they must always keep that in mind. In any case folklore or not what no one is debating is the many real daring and brave escapes, as well as ingenious planning that went into the Underground Railroad. Stories about Harriet Tubman, Henry Box Brown, William and Ellen Craft, and William Still can not be told enough, and they are all easily verified with documentation.

Another interesting take on the black lawn jockey is that it is a boy known by the name of Jocko Graves. Graves was with George Washington and his men when they planned on crossing the Delaware River in order to surprise the unsuspecting British and Hessian soldiers on Christmas Day, as their bellies would most likely be full, and their senses dulled from drinking in the merriment. As the story goes the loyal Jocko was to hold the reins and stand guard over George Washington's horses until he returned. The loyal Jocko true to his word guarded the horses throughout the freezing night dying from hyperthermia all the while never letting go of the horses reins.

Upon returning from victory an astonished and moved General Washington had statues of young Jocko commissioned in order to honor his loyalty. If it was all true it would be an interesting story to tell, but most historians say there is not a shred of evidence to the story. Furthermore why would Jocko Graves be dressed in a jockey uniform instead of the typical revolutionary war attire that most of the patriots are portrayed in. As a side note black soldiers participated on both sides during the Revolutionary War, and are often only glossed over in popular culture as exceptions rather than the rule. The Revolutionary War's Continental Army was an integrated army for sure with blacks serving in the thousands. In fact it is said a black soldier by the name of Prince Whipple was with Washington as he crossed the Delaware, so the Jocko Graves story though well intentioned comes off as overly simplified at best, and in the end it naively regulates the black contribution to the Revolutionary War effort as an oddity when in fact it was indispensable.

The final theory on the black lawn jockey statue is one that has rarely been touched on. This theory states that the black lawn jockey represents what it is intended to represent, which is an actual lawn jockey. The argument is brilliant as it is simple, but the obvious connection is lost because most people do not associate blacks with horse racing. In an all but forgotten time blacks dominated horseracing the way they dominate the NFL and NBA today. In fact the very first Kentucky Derby was won by a black rider Oliver Lewis on his horse Aristides, but that only tells part of the story because out of the 15 riders in the very first Kentucky Derby 13 out of the 15 were black.

13 black riders at a Kentucky Derby is hard to imagine today where nary a black face can be found. How is it that blacks became one with the horse? Most would say that it goes back to the time of slavery when caring for horses was a lowly position regulated to slaves who had to brush the horse, shoe the horse, feed the horse, and shovel the horse manure. These were jobs a plantocracy of slave owners would stay far away from. The irony is that the lowly slaves would develop a rapport with the horse in such a way that would allow them to become the best riders of their day, thus enabling them to receive inconceivable riches. Some historians are quick to point out that Africans had a strong tradition of horsemanship even before slavery while still in Africa, and they brought this tradition with them by way of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

Hausa and Fulani tribesman in West Africa are famous for their horsemanship and equestrian skills. The Carthaginian military genius Hannibal was known to hire Numidian horseman as mercenaries. The Nubian Pharoah Piy erected a stele that talked about his love for horses, he even buried his horses with him, so he could ride his favorite steeds in the afterlife.

All of this is said to show that the African was adept in horsemanship prior to slavery. This skill obviously was transferred from one continent to the other. The standout black jockey for his era was none other than Isaac Murphy. Sportswriter William Rhoden calls Murphy "The Michael Jordan of Horseracing." It was Murphy who incredibly won the prestigious Kentucky Derby three times. So what happened to these black jockeys that made them all but a distant memory today. Oddly enough it was the success of the black jockey that lead to their demise. As the sport of horseracing became prominent and lucrative many of these black men became rich right along with it, sadly this was a sight that made many white men insecure, especially during that time. Economically successful black men would be viewed as "uppity"or seen as "not knowing their place,"and uppity blacks could very often be found hanging from trees. The successes of black jockeys was also a threat to the pseudo-scientific racial thinking of the day that said blacks were inferior to whites. In short every time a black jockey won it was viewed as a threat to the social order.

By the time Jimmy Winkfield came on the scene the era of the black jockey was on its death bed. Just when it looked like Jimmy Winkfield would surpass Isaac Murphy in greatness, by winning the Kentucky Derby twice with presumably more in the future, that's when the racist all-white Jockey Club pushed him and the rest of the black jockeys out of the sport. New York Times sportswriter William Rhoden coined the term "jockey-syndrome" a phrase he used to describe the phenomenon of successful black athletes being pushed out of a sport. What happened to Jimmy Winkfield would also happen to baseball player Moses Fleetwood Walker and boxing legend Jack Johnson. No longer allowed to compete in the United States Winkfield was eventually forced to compete overseas in Russia, where he won the Russian Oaks five times. It is shameful and sad what happened to the black jockeys only to be outdone by the equally shameful act of being all but forgotten today. Their only enduring symbol today is the black lawn jockey which has been co-opted by racist and misunderstood by most blacks. I believe it is important to note that historically symbols can and do take on new meanings.

The swastika started out as a Hindu symbol that means good luck, but today it now has a much more sinister meaning, as it was adopted by Hitler's Third Reich. Same can be said about the Revolutionary War flag known as the Gadsden Flag, where once it was associated with unity between the colonies against the British it would later be seen at Tea Party rallies among the "take our country back" crowd protesting the nations first black President, or even still it can be seen flying alongside Confederate Flags at Alt-Right gatherings.

It is quite possible that the black lawn jockey also started out symbolizing one thing and only later its meaning has shifted to represent something else. Today many believe the lawn jockey is a symbol of the loyal passive slave a perfect political relic for the "Lost Cause" Confederacy revisionist; however, wouldn't it be ironic if the black lawn jockey actual symbolized the total opposite? A symbol of a time when blacks through their many victories on horseback proved the racist assumptions and stereotypes wrong.

Further Reading:

Edward Hotaling. The Great Black Jockeys. 1999. Forum/Prima Publishing.

Pellom McDaniels III. The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burnes Murphy. 2013. University Press of Kentucky.

Crystal Hubbard. The Last Black King of the Kentucky Derby. 2008. Lee & Low Books.

William Rhoden. Forty Milllion Dollar Slaves. 2006. Three Rivers Press.

Henry Brown. Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown. 1849.

Eric Foner. Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. 2015. W.W. Nortan & Company, Inc.

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