A Story About Black History Month & Jocko Graves

jocko gravesFebruary marks the beginning of Black History Month. I’ve always found this an interesting time because one, I always learn something new, and two, I find people’s feelings about this recognition to be interesting.

I’ve heard lots of people express resentment that Blacks have their own month like it’s something the government does to pay tribute to what Blacks have given to America. The simple truth is, the government has nothing to do with it. The whole thing is people originated and involves only those who want to somehow take part.

I believe most Americans see nothing wrong with BHM but even among Blacks there are those who don’t want Black History separated from American History. They believe we all would be

better served if we just honestly acknowledged that all played a part in the nation’s history and helped to make us what we’ve become, good and not so good.

The nation has been through a lot in the past year regarding our racial past and what to do with hurtful symbols. Tempers flew over removing the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s state house. Debate is hot regarding the removal of Robert E. Lee from Georgia’s Stone Mountain. Some Southern colleges have, not without controversy, began removing Confederate and Civil War statuary and renaming buildings that have for decades carried the names of Confederate leaders and heroes.

As a historian it’s difficult to accept the idea that our history should be sanitized. It risks the chance that to forget or bury our past is to endanger our future. I would prefer the scabs and scars and festering wounds of our behavior remain clear for all to see and learn from. That we use the truth as the building blocks for a better America.

Now, let’s talk about Jocko Graves and where he fits in all of this. There is a story that a young black boy was with General Washington as he crossed the Delaware. Graves reportedly remained on the Pennsylvania side of the river tending to the horses and holding a lantern so Washington’s troops could find their way back after sacking the Prussians.

When Washington returned he found a young Jocko Graves frozen to death but still dutifully holding the glowing lantern. To honor his faithful groom Washington had the boy’s image cast in iron and placed on the lawn at Mount Vernon.

There’s also a version that says these statues were a part of signaling runaway slaves along the famous underground railroad. The paint scheme chosen communicated specific information about the person who lived at that property. If the statute was painted in black and white stripes it signaled a fresh horse could be swapped for. Other colors told if the road ahead was safe, if a boat was available to be taken into Canada, if overnight accommodations were available, etc.

The stories contrast and contradict the widely held belief that “lawn jockeys” are racist in origin and to continue displaying one on your lawn is proof of racist tendency.

Before starting this blog I did some a little digging and learned that there isn’t a significant body of evidence to support the positive claims reported above. There is no evidence of there being a young boy with Washington or anyone named Graves or Jocko Graves. There is little to no proof that certain colors carried abolitionists messages to slaves on the run.

The evidence seems to be what Blacks have claimed over the decades, lawn jockey’s were, and remain, hurtful and demeaning reminders of how white America has viewed Blacks.

So, that brings up the question about what we do with the images of Jocko Graves that still sit on many American lawns? Do we melt them into plow shares? Do we hang an apologetic “We’re Sorry!” sign on the lantern ring? Or do we paint Jocko’s face white and pretend we don’t see his exaggerated facial features?

I suppose that’s a question we have to answer as individuals. This is different than symbols on public property and on the racist scorecard I’m going to give South Carolina some points for getting rid of that flag. But, I certainly do want it and its story preserved in a museum as a reminder to all of where they once were. I would hope lawn jockey owners would relegate their piece of history to the scrap yard while some remain in museums as teaching tools.

To those who continue to keep Jocko on their lawn just bear in mind that while that is your right it is also my right to view your doing so as an act of racist defiance little different from the state of Mississippi continuing to include the Confederate flag as a part of the state flag.

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