The story of Jocko is touching, but several problems with the story make it likely that the legend of the lawn jockey is just that: an urban legend. It is unlikely that the original story, from the George Washington era, is true for a few reasons, enumerated by Mount Vernon's librarian Ellen McCallister Clark in her letter to Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library:

  • No record of anybody by the name of Jocko Graves, nor any account of somebody freezing to death holding Washington's horses, exists in the extensive historical record of the time.
  • The Mount Vernon estate was inventoried and described by a multitude of visitors, and there has never been any description or evidence of any such statue.

Further, it is hard to credit the stories about the Underground Railroad using lawn jockeys as signals, for the following practical reasons:

  • Red and green as signal colors meaning "stop" and "go" (or "danger" and "safe") date back to World War I railroad signals. Signals before that time were not standardized well enough to be useful.
  • Slaves would almost certainly have been moved at night, when it is hardest to make the distinction between red and green.
  • Telling the difference between a lantern hung far out on a statue's arm or in close would be difficult at a distance; it would be impractical if not impossible to read this signal without approaching dangerously close to the lawn jockey.

Another blow to the story's authenticity comes from Kenneth Goings, chair of African-American and African Studies. His text Mammy and Uncle Mose is often cited as a source of the Jocko story, but he gives little credence to the story. He is quoted as saying "I don't think that (lawn jockeys) can be reclaimed. They are meant to evoke that Old South, grand plantation, Gone With the Wind mythology, and I'm not sure they can evoke anything else." The text describes the origins of such memorabilia, and another quotation from it refers to the lawn jockeys' use as status symbols among whites. His opinion of the statues is decidedly negative.

While the number of sources online offering the Jocko story far outweigh the number of sites trying to set the record straight, the details of the Jocko myths vary wildly between retellings, and no definitive source is ever given. While it is impossible for me to plainly refute the story, it seems unlikely to me that any such person as Jocko existed. Like the Underground Railroad Quilt Code, I also believe the lantern-and-jockey code to have been fabricated after the fact.

Sources:
http://www.citypaper.com/arts/printready.asp?id=5006
http://www.horseinfo.com/info/misc/jockeyinfo.html
http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a2_152.html

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