This afternoon, when I used the name "Jocko" in a piece of poetry, I remembered seeing several lawn jockeys, or Yardells, as they're sometimes called, on our recent road trip through rural Missouri and Kansas. They're fairly rare here in Ohio, but I remember seeing them quite often as a little girl. They were just as popular, or maybe even more so, as garden gnomes.
Historically, a lawn jockey was a black man, dressed in a jockey uniform, holding out one hand, as though taking the reigns of a horse. The hand sometimes carries a lantern, or a metal ring, suitable for hitching a horse. These statues are widely considered racially insensitive and many of the remaining statues have been repainted.
However, some accounts of the figure's origin represent a hero of African American history and culture. According to the River Road African American Museum, the figure originated in commemoration of heroic dedication to duty. It is said that the lawn jockey actually has its roots in the tale of one Jocko Graves, an African-American youth who served with General George Washington at the time he crossed the Delaware River, to carry out his surprise attack on the British forces at Trenton, New Jersey. The General thought him too young to take along on such a serious attack, and left him on the Pennsylvania side to tend to the horses and keep a light on the bank for their return. Jocko, faithful to his post, sadly froze to death during the night, the lantern still in his hand. Washington was so moved by the boy's devotion, he had a statue sculpted and cast of him, holding the lantern, and had it installed at his Mount Vernon estate. He named the sculpture "The Faithful Groomsman".
Dr. Charles Blockson, curator of the Afro-American Collection at Temple University, Philadelphia, claims the figures were used in the days of the Underground Railroad to guide escaping slaves to freedom. "Green ribbons were tied to the arms of the statue to indicated safety; red ribbons meant to keep going...people who don't know the history of the jockey have feelings of humiliation and anger when they see the statue..." Blockson has installed an example of the statue at the entrance to the university's Sullivan Hall.