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)
10 responses to “Jocko … a Racist Icon or Deliverer of the Oppressed?”
You know, it’s things like this that I love in history. You write well about them. Don’t stop.
I am an employee of the Piatt Castles and after careful and diligent research we can not verify that Mrs. Piatt was an Underground Railroad conductor. We only have one story of her helping a slave runaway and the Jocko played no role in that situation whatsoever. It is a great story but should not be taken as truth.
Thank you Amanda. I lived in Bellefontaine from 1991 until 2005 and was a very frequent vistor to West Liberty and both Piatt castles and that is the story the tour guides gave during those years.
One other thing about the Piatt Castles. The two castles were completed after the civil war by Judge Piatt’s sons. The house that the judge lived in is no longer in the Piatt family (the two castles are, though Mac-O-Chee was not for a time). The house Judge Piatt lived in is known today as Pioneer house and is next door to Mac-A-Cheek castle. Pioneer house is two story and on a landing on the stairs is the door to a hidden room that was used to hide runaway slaves (you can see it from the stairs). The Pioneer house is privately owned and operated, seperate from the Piatt castles, as a gift and collectables shop. Though the Piatt castles are closed during the winter, traditionally one of the castles is decorated and opened for Christmas(alternating each year). My favorite time to tour the castles, and in the spring, summer, and fall the grounds are a great place to have a picnic and draw or paint the castles. If you have never seen these two magnificent homes I highly recommend it. Like the Biltmore in North Carolina, the Piatt castles do not belong to a state or federal park system but are still owned by the family.
Back in the day in Detroit, there were a number of those black lawn jockeys. My parents thought they were “sending the wrong message” and were racist. Out here in SoCal, there is a similar yard art that no one but me and hubs thinks is wrong. It’s of a mexican with a sombrero taking a siesta. I’d send a pic if I could in a comment. We think it speaks to a negative stereotype of the lazy worker, mañana.
When I kived in San Diego I saw those. There is also one I saw quite often that was a mexican with a sombrero leading a borro and cart. I do not know anything about the origin those two.
But since I found out that the Jocko’s were used to lead runaway slaves to freedom, I think I might want to invstigate them too. Thank you for reminding me about them. I might not find anthing that changes my mind about them, but I thought that about Jocko too.
Hey…when did you live here? when you were a submariner?
yes I was at the ASW base (sonar school) across the bay from Hotel Del Coronado, twice …’82 and ’84 to ’85