Scholars, collectors work to determine the origin of popular lawn figure
In 1963, Earl Koger Jr., an insurance salesman and part-time journalist, published a 32-page pamphlet, “The Legend of Jocko: The Boy Who Inspired George Washington.” It was the story of Jocko Graves, a 12-year-old black boy who died in the service of George Washington on the night Washington and his revolutionary army crossed the Delaware River, an important occasion in American history that led to victory for the colonial forces.
According to the legend, Jocko froze to death while waiting for the colonial forces to cross the river and tending to horses for their use. After the war, so the story goes, Washington had a small statue erected in his memory on the grounds of Mount Vernon.
Koger later said his mother told him the story. She heard the tale from Koger’s late father, a former slave who died when the younger Koger was just three years old.
As he grew up, Koger developed a special affinity for African American history. While at West Virginia State College he sold books on black history to help with his expenses. Following college, where he was editor of the school newspaper, he started his own weekly newspaper in Charleston, W.Va. Not only did this lead to his publication of the Jocko story, but also two other books of African American history. However, it was his version of the Jocko story that survived.
Besides the story about Jocko, another story recounts that the statue, which came to be known as “the faithful groomsman,” was copied and put on the plantations during the period following the U.S. Civil War. Yet another wrinkle to the story claims these statues of African Americans, which were used as hitching posts and lantern holders, were also used as signals for the Underground Railroad.
In later years, these hitching posts, which were made out of solid cast iron, evolved into hollow ornamental lawn figures. Some of the older antique hitching posts have estimated values of more than $1,000, while the more recent collectible lawn jockeys that are so familiar can be purchased for as little as $20.
Questions behind the origin of the African American figure still linger: Is there any truth to the story of Jocko? Paul Casey, who operates the Web site www.lawnjock.com and who has researched their history has an abiding faith in the legend.
“As of today, there is no documented evidence the statues existed before 1860,” he says, “but prior history is based on putting pieces of a puzzle together through eyewitness accounts, legend, and speculation.”
On his Web site, Casey has a newspaper clipping from 1866 that indicates their use on a Southern plantation. He also does a bit of speculation by comparing the similarity of the lawn jockey pose with those of portraits of Washington by Gilbert Stuart and with statues created during the 18th century.
He believes modern research methods will eventually unearth hitching posts depicting a “Jocko” type dating from the antebellum period.
Five of these early African American hitching posts are now in the collection of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. However, when we contacted them, they said they had little information about their origin.
Experts, such as Ann Chandler Howell, who for 20 years has researched the cast iron industry of the 19th century, remain skeptical.
“I have not found a foundry that made them before the Civil War,” she said.
Howell, a retired sociology professor and author of several books on African American history, including Conscious Choices of African-Americans during the American Revolution, was led to her study of the cast iron industry by her search for the origin of the Jocko story.
“I researched Washington thoroughly,” she said, “and there is nothing in his records for ordering any statuary or any commemoration. Many people visited Mount Vernon during that time and there are no records in their accounts of any statue.”
David Pilgrim, curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, at Ferris State University, in Big Rapids, Mich., is even more damning. He said a letter from Ellen McCallister Clark, a Mount Vernon librarian, concluded the story to be “apocryphal.”
“Neither a person by the name of Jocko Graves, nor the account of any person freezing to death while holding Washington’s horses has been found in any of the extensive records of the period,” she wrote. “Likewise, the Mount Vernon estate was inventoried and described by a multitude of visitors over the years and there has never been any indication of anything resembling a ‘jockey’ statue on the grounds.”
Pilgrim said many heroic deeds by African Americans have been ignored in the history books and that he believes it was intentional, in an effort to support the idea that blacks were inferior. However, despite Koger’s intentions to polish the history of blacks in America, he said it is only a “good story, a chest-puffer,” and that “there is no evidence that the Jocko legend is true.”
Howell said that the earliest hitching post type lawn jockeys were created around 1860, and this is supported by Carol Grissom in her book, Zinc Sculpture in America: 1850-1950, who wrote that the earliest such hitching post was based on a model created by the sculptor, Franklin Porteus Holcomb, between 1855 and 1862, and cast by the (Robert) Wood and Perot foundry.
Howell pointed out that this first model, which depicted a boy in work overalls, had aesthetically pleasing facial features and looked nothing at all like the later caricatures, with the bug eyes, oversized lips, and distorted faces that demeaned African Americans.
Pilgrim said he had been trying to identify the first designer of the Jocko version for years without luck, and suggested their origin came from the prevalence of black jockeys during the early days of American horse racing. For instance, he said, at the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, 13 of the 15 riders were African Americans, and blacks rode the winners of 15 of the first 28 Derby races.
“There is no consensus on the jockey’s origin,” Pilgrim said. “But I do believe that there is a consensus view in African American communities that black lawn jockeys are demeaning relics of a racist past. They may not have started out with a racist meaning – or always had that meaning – but that is the meaning they have today.”
Tom Calarco is the author of The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region and People of the Underground Railroad. He has been writing about the world of antiques for 25 years.
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