Most lawn jockeys today are white, but over 100 years ago most were black. There are two styles of lawn jockey, the Jocko (black) and the Cavalier Spirit (white). The Jocko is the lawn jockey that interests us now.
The jocko lawn jockey had exaggerated features; big eyes, flat nose, curly hair and large lips. The skin tone was often a gloss black and during the American Civil War, they were made of cast iron. Legend has it that the inspiration for the Jock lawn jockey goes back to an American Revolutionary War hero, under General George Washington, though no supporting evidence has been discovered yet.
Charles Blockson, the curator of the Afro-American Collection at Temple University in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, states the Jockos were used in the underground railroad during the civil war. He goes on to state that a green ribbon tied to the statue meant it was safe and a red ribbon meant it was not safe. Mr. Blockson says that many people who do not know the history of Jocko have feelings of humiliation and anger when they see the statue.
Many people discredit the Underground Railroad affiliation because red and green signals meaning stop/go or danger/safe were not standardized until World War One. If it were not for Judge Benjamin Piatt and his wife, I would have to agree.
Judge Piatt built a house in what is today West Liberty, Ohio; in Logan County. Judge Piatt was also the father of Don and Abram Piatt. The two brothers built the Piatt Castles (Mac-O-Chee and Mac-A-Cheek) after the civil war. The Castles are open for tours from spring to fall. Mrs. Piatt was an abolitionists and Benjamin Piatt a circuit judge. Due to the Fugitive Slave Act, the judge could not associate with his wife’s abolitionist work. Mrs. Piatt used their home as a station for runaway slaves going to Canada. When the judge was away Mrs. Piatt put a small American flag in Jocko’s hand to show it was safe. When the judge was home Mrs. Piatt removed the flag so the conductor and runaway slaves would know it was not safe to stop.
Being an officer of the court the judge had to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and could not be aware of her activities. But of course the judge was no fool and was perfectly aware of his wife’s activities. To ensure he would remain ignorant of his wife’s activities he would always send a messenger to tell his wife when he was coming home.
You decide. Is Jocko an icon of racism or a deliverer of the oppressed?
In the future I will write more about the Piatt family and their wonderful castles.
- ‘The Civil War in America’ at Library of Congress – NYTimes.com (civilwarironclads.wordpress.com)