Lawn ornaments have always been a popular expression of culture, whether they be plastic pink flamingos, ceramic gnomes, or stone frogs and lizards. One very popular lawn ornament has a particularly checkered past, however: the black footman or jockey.
Sandra Dee McNair, who owns such a lawn ornament, says she often gets an earful about how “racist” it is. So she took to Facebook to explain:
“I often get asked about my lantern footman sitting in my front yard. I’ve had black people say you shouldn’t have that out that way “it makes people think you are a racist” I laugh, or “its offensive to white people” again I laugh and then explain what the significance of the lantern footman really is.
I’m really amazed at how a lot of people don’t know the real meaning behind these statues, so they vandalize them, bitch about them being racist, etc.
The image of a black ‘footman’ with a lantern signified the home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. These are largely a northern thing, and weren’t commonly found in the South until after WWII when northerners moved there and brought this custom with them.
The clothing of the statue was also coded. A striped jockey’s shirt meant that this was a place to swap horses, while a footman in a tailed coat meant overnight lodgings/food, and a blue sailor’s waistcoat meant the homeowner could take you to a port and get you on a ship to Canada.
I always laugh when I hear black folks talk about how racist these are, because honestly, the cats who had them were likely the LEAST racist. Later, these came back into popularity after WWII, and they were again coded to show the white homeowners supported early civil rights efforts, weren’t Klan, etc.”
Along with McNair’s explanation, there are several other legends that surround the “black jockey/footman” lawn statue:
- When used as a symbol on the Underground Railroad, a green scarf tied around the statue’s neck meant “come in,” while a red scarf meant that the house was being watched and to keep going.
- The “jockey” is a reference to Jocko Graves, an African-American youth who served with General George Washington at the time that he crossed the Delaware. The General thought him too young to take along, so he left him on the Pennsylvania side to tend to the horses and to keep a light on the bank for their return. But the boy froze to death on the river bank during the night, the lantern still in his hand. The General was moved by the boy’s devotion, and had a statue sculpted and installed at his Mount Vernon estate. He called the sculpture “The Faithful Groomsman.”
While the former is likely false, as the colors were based on train signals that weren’t widely used until World War I, the latter is more likely rooted in fact. The story of George Washington and Jocko Graves has appeared in multiple source documents.