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Costumes renew discussions on lawn jockeys

Dr. Saundra Liggins

FREWSBURG — Community response to Halloween costumes worn by two individuals at recent parties has included renewed discussions on the history of lawn jockeys.

Dr. Saundra Liggins is an associate professor in the English department at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Her teaching interests include African-American literature, minority literatures of the United States, women’s literature, gothic literature, cultural studies, slavery and the Underground Railroad.

Liggins said there is no “definitive answer” as to the origins of images depicting lawn jockeys — statues of a man in jockey clothes placed in front yards. Black lawn jockeys, with exaggerated features, have been deemed symbolic of racism during the eras of slavery and Jim Crow laws in the United States.

“These images might be a reflection of the fact that African Americans were dominant in the early days of professional horse racing,” Liggins said. “People who have these statues in their yards almost certainly don’t consider them to be insulting or racist. But to most people in the African-American community, and to others as well, they are seen as a symbol of Black subservience and inferiority.”

The commander of the American Legion post in Frewsburg resigned last month after two people dressed as Black lawn jockeys attended a Halloween party. The costumes were worn at two Halloween-themed events, one at the American Legion and the other at the Carroll Rod and Gun Club.

Photographs from the Legion event that showed the lawn jockey costumes were shared by the Rod and Gun Club. The pair, who have not been publicly identified, drew scorn on social media and by the national American Legion organization.

“I think that it’s a shame that in 2022 adults don’t know better than to engage in these types of behavior,” Liggins said. “I would hope that if people know enough about the lawn jockey image to be able to use it as a costume, they should be aware enough to know how derogatory it is.”

The Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., has addressed lawn jockeys and word of their origins.

The museum — citing an account by the River Road African American Museum in Louisiana — specifically noted the story of Jocko Graves, a 12-year-old boy said to be a hero in the Revolutionary War. As the story goes, Gen. George Washington told Graves to keep a lantern lit along the Delaware while Washington and his men crossed river to launch a surprise attack on the British.

With assistance from the lantern, Washington and his men knew where to return after the battle. The story goes on to say Graves had froze to death with the lantern still in his hand.

Washington reportedly commissioned a statue in Graves’s honor.

“It is a heroic tale and, like many such tales, its historical accuracy is questionable,” the Jim Crow Museum said in a July 2008 post on the university’s website.

Officials with the museum also have addressed claim that Black lawn jockeys were used on the Underground Railroad as a way to guide runaway slaves to freedom. This was supposedly accomplished through identifying colors or by use of beacons on the lawn ornaments.

Franklin Hughes with the Jim Crow Museum noted in a post on the university’s website in 2020 that enslavement lasted for two centuries and it’s possible someone used a lawn jockey to aid slaves. However, he said there is no evidence the practice was commonplace.

“There is little to no evidence from primary sources to substantiate the story of Jocko Graves,” Hughes wrote in response to a question regarding a social media post that tied to defend the use of lawn jockeys.

“At the Jim Crow Museum, we often bring up these narratives in order to spark discussion,” he continued. “What if the stories about lawn jockeys being used as signaling devices for the Underground Railroad or the story about Jocko Graves are not true? Is there still some value in trying to reclaim and redefine negative imagery into positive messages? Some say yes, and this allows for discussion from multiple standpoints and can lead to a deeper understanding.”

Regarding the use of Black lawn jockeys in Frewsburg, Liggins said it’s important to remember that cultures and ethnic groups, people’s identities, are not costumes.

“It’s certainly fine if someone wants to dress up as a jockey for a Halloween costume,” she said. “Dressing up as a profession is one thing. Doing that doesn’t require darkening your face or wearing an Afro. But dressing up as someone of a different race is culturally insensitive and inappropriate.”

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