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In a Simple Lawn Ornament, Echoes of Slavery, Revolution
In a 1984 National Geographic cover story on the underground railroad, Blockson told how the wife of U.S. District Judge Benjamin Piatt had tied a flag to a lawn jockey as a signal to fleeing slaves that it was safe to stop there.
Blockson also came across the Revolutionary War legend of Jocko. The story goes that a 9-year-old New Jersey farm boy named Jocko sneaked out of his house to find his father, a freed slave who had enlisted with George Washington's army.
The boy wound up in an encampment on Christmas Eve, before Washington's crossing of the Delaware. Waiting for his father's return, the boy volunteered to care for the general's horse during a blizzard. The next morning, Washington discovered that the boy had frozen to death, his hands still clinging to the horse's reins.
Earl Koger Sr., an African American publisher and insurance executive from Baltimore, recorded the tale in a 1976 illustrated children's book, "Jocko: A Legend of the American Revolution."
Koger's book notes that Washington was so moved by the boy's sacrifice that he ordered a likeness of Jocko placed on his lawn.
Whatever its origin, the lawn jockey became a symbol of obedient devotion -- and nowhere more welcome than among slaveholders. After the Civil War, however, the figure acquired surprising new associations, Adams said.
By the end of the 19th century, blacks dominated the "sport of kings," with black jockeys having won 15 of the Kentucky Derby's first 28 runnings, and the lawn jockey had become a totemic figure. Keeping one around might have been no more unusual than having a Michael Jordan bobblehead today.
Over time, the stooped lawn jockeys, often with cartoonish features, gave way to more erect, realistic figures -- a change that tracked advances by blacks in American society, Adams said.
But as the civil rights era began, lawn jockeys seemed like embarrassing throwbacks, and many people got rid of them. Only in recent years has interest in them increased, including among African American collectors.
These days, lawn jockeys are offered for sale on eBay and other sites. A small number of companies still make them.
About a year ago, Mark Johnson created an Ontario-based company, Lawnjockey.com, to manufacture them after seeing them on eBay and finding that almost no one was making new ones.
Johnson said he ships about 200 a year to Canada, the United States and "all over the world." His black "Jockos" go for $145 each ($99 unpainted).
Johnson said he was unaware that the statues carry any emotional, racial overtones and knew nothing of their history.
"I don't believe it's offensive," he said. "It's just a statue." He also noted that his Web site has a disclaimer that the figures "are not intended to resemble anyone (dead, living or not yet born)."
What the figure means, of course, still depends on who is looking at it.
In 1983, Blockson donated thousands of pieces of African American memorabilia, including a lawn jockey, to Temple University.
The figure is black, clothed in red trousers and suspenders and an open yellow shirt. He stands perfectly upright with a lantern in his hand. His face is inscrutable.