In a Simple Lawn Ornament, Echoes of Slavery, Revolution





Driving along the outskirts of Washington on a late summer afternoon, you sometimes spot a head peeping out of a ragged patch of black-eyed Susans, and you wonder: What is that lawn jockey doing there? Who put him there? Why?

Plaster saints -- we know what those stand for. On a more whimsical note, the same goes for the garden gnome, the stag, the Dutch girl with the fishing rod.

But the lawn jockey? He's a ghost from the days of plantations and magnolias, fox hunts and manorial estates.

To some, particularly African Americans, the lawn jockey is a pint-size monument to repugnant stereotypes, a holdover from the days of slavery and Jim Crow, an artifact of racial prejudice alongside Aunt Jemima.

But others, including some historians and collectors of African American memorabilia, say the lawn jockey has been misunderstood. They say his origins can be traced to a legend of faithful duty during the American Revolution. They say he guided slaves to freedom on the underground railroad. His appearance has evolved over time, reflecting changes in the stature of blacks in U.S. society.

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Michael Finn - 9/18/2006

I worked for a large midwest department store. Located inside the downtown store was a restaurant. Outside the entrance to the restraunt was an ornamental lawn jockey. The jockey was white, not black. This was because in the late 1960s the construction paint shop had gotten an urgent call from the chief executive officer of the store to go to the restaurant and paint the black jockey white. Someone had complained. For many years after that the white jockey stayed and greeted many customers to the restaurant.

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