He strides toward you, dwarflike: Please take this . . . this empty ring . . . this lantern . . . this hand. . . .

He watches you, eyes baked in the sun, as if waiting for a reply.

He says something about race, without saying a word.

Driving along the outskirts of Washington on a late summer afternoon, you sometimes spot a head peeping out of a ragged patch of black-eyed Susans, and you wonder: What is that lawn jockey doing there? Who put him there? Why?

Plaster saints -- we know what those stand for. On a more whimsical note, the same goes for the garden gnome, the stag, the Dutch girl with the fishing rod.

But the lawn jockey? He's a ghost from the days of plantations and magnolias, fox hunts and manorial estates.

To some, particularly African Americans, the lawn jockey is a pint-size monument to repugnant stereotypes, a holdover from the days of slavery and Jim Crow, an artifact of racial prejudice alongside Aunt Jemima.

But others, including some historians and collectors of African American memorabilia, say the lawn jockey has been misunderstood. They say his origins can be traced to a legend of faithful duty during the American Revolution. They say he guided slaves to freedom on the underground railroad. His appearance has evolved over time, reflecting changes in the stature of blacks in U.S. society.

When you see one, he raises the question, especially if he is black: Should he be there? What's his story?

Forty-five years ago, Mildred Kehne, 85, and her husband bought two black lawn jockeys at a roadside store near Hagerstown, Md. They paid $10 for each and put them on posts flanking their driveway in New Market. Neither thought the lawn jockeys would be insulting to anyone, she said. Her husband, Joseph, who died last year at 86, just liked them.

"We had seen them at other places on posts, and he said, 'I think I'd like to have a pair of those on my posts, too,' " Kehne said.

And there the "jockey boys," as the Kehnes called them, stood for about 10 years. Then one morning, as if in a fairy tale, the Kehnes woke up to find them changed.

"They had black faces, and somebody didn't like the black faces, I guess. 'Cause we went out there one day, and they were painted white," Kehne said. "I'd imagine it was some kids. Running around at nighttime and didn't know what to get into, I guess. But we didn't make a big thing about it."

Kehne, who worked 29 years as an elementary school secretary, said maybe it was just a prank. Maybe it was racial. All she knows is that their black faces bothered someone.

"I think it was maybe some colored kids that did it," she said. "I just said, 'Well, somebody didn't want them black and changed them white.' "

And so they stayed.

Today, they wear red vests, red caps, red shoes. Their eyes are painted blue -- all blue. Their faces are white. "We just left them be," Kehne said.

* * *

When Margaret Darby was young enough to think that snow glittered because it was worth something, she imagined owning a horse farm someday. And that farm would have a lawn jockey like the one that stands today in front of Darby's Midnight Meadows farm in Clifton. It was what every horse farm should have, along with a turning circle and a tree-lined drive, she said.

"One of the things that I always had in my vision was driving past one of these lawn jockeys and it holding a lantern," Darby said. Hers is solar-powered, she added.

Now and then, she said, people ask her pointed questions about the dark-skinned groomsman.

"They want to know, 'Why is it a black person?' And I say, 'Hey, that's the way I got him, and that's the way I'll keep him,' " said Darby, who is in her fifties. "It's not any racial thing. It's just, 'Hey, that's the way the history was back then.' "

* * *

Joe and April Peterson's fair-skinned lawn jockey stands about four feet tall in his orange hat, which goes with his orange riding silks. Children love him: They pat his head. They hang on him. They measure themselves head-to-head against him until they grow tall enough not to care.

For birthday parties, the Petersons tie balloons to the lawn jockey so guests can find their house in Libertytown, in Frederick County. On Halloween they sometimes leave a bowl of candy under his lantern. They're talking about maybe dressing him in a Santa suit this Christmas.

The lawn jockey came with the house when they moved in.

"He's the politically correct version," April, 36, said, referring to his whiteness.

"I never knew anybody who had a black lawn jockey," said Joe, 37.

"If he would have been black, I probably would have left him black," April said. "I look at it in the sense that if you were to paint it, it would be like defacing it."

* * *

Lawn jockeys, or groomsmen, are mostly a rural phenomenon in an increasingly urban world. But Russell L. Adams, chairman of the Afro-American studies department at Howard University, said their enormous iconic power cuts across time and place.

"The first time you see it, you have a specific reaction -- almost like a flashback that you didn't know was a flashback," Adams said. His first encounter with one amazed and angered him -- especially the figure's stooped, unmistakably servile posture.

"It was in a picture book, and I wondered, 'What the hell is this?' " Adams said. "It's like an inherited memory that's brought to the surface."

Charles L. Blockson had his fill of lawn jockeys growing up in Norristown, Pa. Blockson, the great-grandson of a slave who escaped to Canada on the underground railroad, said the figures stood outside luxurious homes of Philadelphia's Main Line and on the streets of his own neighborhood. And he hated the sight of them.

"On Halloween, we would go around in cars, or if we didn't have cars, we would go around the neighborhood, and go places where they had those men and try to destroy them, because they were humiliating," said Blockson, 72. "They were painful."

Then in 1983, while retracing his ancestor's journey on the underground railroad, Blockson made a startling discovery: A lawn jockey had shepherded slaves to freedom.

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.