A Guide to Freedom
Jockey statues marked Underground Railroad
From the Lexington Herald-Leader, Sunday, February 22, 1998
Most people shudder at the sight of a black lawn jockey.
Though sightings are pretty infrequent today, the yard ornaments that portray blacks in subservient roles have the power to gnaw insatiably at the spirit of blacks and to disgust others who are unaware of the furtive and notable role these "Jockos" played in the first half of the 19th century.
But escaping slaves understood then that the jockey statue would guide them to the Underground Railroad and to freedom. (In Following the Drinking Gourd, the lyrics surreptitiously suggested slaves follow the "drinking gourd," a nickname for the Big Dipper, which pointed to the North Star and the way to freedom. Among other things, it advised that travel was safest in the spring – "when the sun comes back.")
The jockey, in a similarly secret way, pointed to safe houses along the Underground Railroad.
"These statues were used as markers on the Underground Railroad throughout the South into Canada," said historian/author Charles Blockson, curator of the Afro-American Collection at Temple University in Philadelphia. "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," he added. "But this figure which was sometimes used in a clandestine nature, and sometimes without the knowledge of the person who owned the statue, was a positive and supportive image to American-Americans on the road to freedom."
Sometime, added Blockson, a flag was put into the hand of the statue to indicate safety.
Legend has it that George Washington created the first groomsman hitching post, or "Jocko," in honor of the frozen slave in the 1770s.
According to Florida Atlantic University history professor Kenneth W. Goings, in his book Mammy and Uncle Mose (Indiana University Press), Gen. Washington wanted to mount a surprise attack on a British encampment during the Revolutionary War. Several blacks – slaves and free men – joined the group.
A young black man named Tom Graves wanted to fight but Washington said he was too young and asked the boy to hold a lantern for the troops as they crossed the Delaware, Goings writes. (Some versions of this story say it was Graves’ son, "Jocko," a nickname or given name, who died holding the reins of the horses.)
Another version of the story:
When the troops rowed back after the battle, instead of finding their horses hitched to a post, the reins were in the hands of Graves, who had frozen to death. Washington was moved by the boy’s dedication, Goings writes, and ordered a statue made in his honor.
All night long Jocko Graves had stood there freezing from the ice and snow. he had crossed earlier with his father; Tom Graves. Tom was among the sixty Negro volunteer troops in Washington's immediate command. When the patriots were needed to take care and herd the horses on the Jersey side, Graves was among the volunteers. His son, Jocko, having the attributes of a normal boy, tagged along with his father. When the horses were gathered, someone asked, "who will hold the General's horses?" Jocko was quick to step forward, saying, "I will."
When George Washington realized the supreme sacrifice made by the little Negro boy, he was very much impressed. He told his officers about it and they in turn told their men whose hopes and valor were restored as if by magic. The Colonials charged the Red Coats and Hessians at Trenton, routing the garrison, killing and capturing over 1,000 royalists. Only four patriots died; two in battle and two frozen to death. Jocko is counted among the latter.
It was the turning point for Washington. Nicholas Cresswell who knew the father of our country personally; wrote the following:
Six weeks ago, I was lamenting the unhappy situation of the Americans and crying the wretched conditions of the much beloved General... But now the scale turned and Washington's name is extolled to the clouds.
After the War, and after serving as the first President of the United States, George Washington returned to his estate at Mount Vernon. There he ordered two sculptures to be erected commemorating America's great political and military crisis: A Dove of Peace in iron-work was added to the cupola as a weather vane and a statue of Jocko stepping bravely forward to hold the horses as if saying, "I will, " was set up on the lawn before the mansion.
Others think the black lawn jockeys were representative of blacks’ role in organized horse racing. But this connection has been strongly disputed.
In the lobby of Temple University’s Sullivan Hall, a groomsman stands sentinel, sometimes taking visitors aback.
"People who come here to the school for the first time don’t know how to respond," said Blockson, the statue’s owner. He bought the statue, a 5-foot-tall likeness of a black boy dating from the mid-1800s, in a Greenwich Village market in 1984. But, added Blockson, "their look of confusion begins to change when they read the description at its base."
Another groomsman statue makes an unexpected appearance in one of Beverly Jenkins’ romance novels, Indigo. This one leads the main character to freedom and to love when he sees a lantern in its hands.
Jenkins was inspired to link her love story with the Underground Railroad and to include the groomsman statue after reading Blockson’s research. "I don’t collect the statues," the 46-year-old writer said, "but I believe using African-American history in the backdrop … is one way to educate people."
There is no consensus on the statue’s origin and several theories are passed around. But it is known that the jockey’s precursor, the groomsman, was born in the Old South. Dressed in slave clothes, the groomsman later evolved into its jockey image and became a national figure after World War II. "Residents of new housing developments, perhaps to give themselves more of a sense of being a member of the privileged master class, began placing ‘Jocko’ on their lawns in great numbers," writes Kenneth W. Goings in his book, Mammy and Uncle Mose.
Jenkins, who lives in rural south-eastern Michigan, said she only has to look across the road or take a drive through rural America for sightings.
"They may have been taken off lawns in urban America in the 1960s with the civil rights movement, but they weren’t put out of sight everywhere," she said.
Blockson said he also spots the jockey statues in parts of America. For him, these sightings are reminders of the path that was taken to escape slavery.
"There’s a spirituality about the path that was taken to bring African-Americans to freedom," Blockson said. "When you visit the stops along the way of the Underground Railroad, you still feel it. It’s there. It’s not the kind of thing you can show to somebody. It’s the kind of thing you either feel or you don’t."