Revisited Myth # 143: Lawn Jockeys are not racist; they honor Jocko, a black groom who served General Washington.

Thanks to Sarah Uthoff who sent me this link and suggested it would make a good addition to the blog. Credit for the research goes to David Pilgrim, Curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Michigan. He writes, in part:

The story begins the icy night in December 1776 when General George Washington decided to cross the Delaware River to launch a surprise attack on the British forces at Trenton. Jocko Graves, a twelve-year-old African-American, sought to fight the Redcoats, but Washington deemed him too young and ordered him to look after the horses, asking Jocko to keep a lantern blazing along the Delaware so the company would know where to return after battle. Many hours later, Washington and his men returned to their horses that were tied up to Graves, who had frozen to death with the lantern still clenched in his fist. Washington was so moved by the young boy’s devotion to the revolutionary cause he commissioned a statue of the ‘Faithful Groomsman’ to stand in Graves’s honor at the general’s estate in Mount Vernon, [Baltimore].

I have heard this account from many African Americans and it is frequently cited on Internet sites. It is a heroic tale and, like many such tales, its historical accuracy is questionable. In a 1987 letter to the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Ellen McCallister Clark, a Mount Vernon librarian, concluded that “the story is apocryphal; conveying a message about heroism among blacks during the Revolutionary War and General Washington’s humanitarian concerns, but it is not based on an actual incident. 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. Likewise, the Mount Vernon estate [in Baltimore] 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. I have put the story in the category with the cherry tree and silver dollar, fictional tales that were designed to illustrate a particular point.” 

Yes, this is a myth. For details read David Pilgrim’s entire footnoted (and very interesting!) research paper, see www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/question/july08/index.htm

 

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One Response to Revisited Myth # 143: Lawn Jockeys are not racist; they honor Jocko, a black groom who served General Washington.

  1. Quek Cumberbatch says:

    The statuetes described derrive from “boot blacks” and the estates where in the colonies fox hunting with hounds & riders was practiced.
    Can I prove it? No, but bear with me.
    Boot blacks polished boots, like riding boots for the better off in colonial times but not exclusively. Young boys, often slaves but by no means just restricted to Virginia and south, also held the reins of the horses, being the children of those who tended the hunting and racing horses as well as the general riding stock. They also tended the horses of visitors and occadionally performed such a rein holding service in front of commercial establishments, legitimate and questionable.
    Just how much of a creative reach is it to meld or combine the familiarity with boots and saddles in a “comemorating” statuette? How hard is it to envision a hostess putting on airs snd dressing the child up in smaller riding- to-the-hounds clothing? And, that “darling portrayal” being stylized and captured in the statuette as well?
    Sometimes, its the practical confluence of apparently disparate things that provide the simplest, logicsl answer, even though I like the romance and heroism contsined in the George Washington story.

    Just saying.

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