Forgotten history rides behind ugly symbol Statues: Lawn jockeys, with their stereotypical features, mock the original horse jockeys. Most Americans don't know that the first riders to win the Kentucky Derby were black.

October 12, 1997|By ROSEMARY HARRIS

A singular piece of metal is the only evidence that it ever existed; a small, dull, jagged, piece of red hardware.

"These were the lips," he tells me. "Each time, I've kept the lips."

Take these lips. Build a blue-black face around them. Add some big white eyes. Embellish with a cap of wiry dark hair. Put that head on a squat compact body with an outstretched arm.

Now, you have the thing this used to be.

This used to be a lawn jockey, an accessory of the most manicured American front yards.

My visitor and I spent nearly an hour trying to agree on its worth.

The lawn jockey was the greeter. It was the spook who sat by the front gate. It was a sign of what the family inside thought about black folks - or so most people have been led to believe. Including my visitor.

He's a collector of African-American artifacts. He says he has postcards, photos and memorabilia of every sort in his home. These lips belonged to the jockey he discovered near Providence, R.I. - the third such find in a dozen years of collecting.

Bashing it, just as he did the other two, is a show of protest, a way to eliminate one of the most virulent vestiges of the past - or so most people have been led to believe.

Go into an antique store. Or browse a history book. Or peek inside a collectibles catalog. You'll see grinning characters with big red lips, jet black skin, hair like Brillo.

You'll see "Mammy" dolls with aprons and kerchiefs, vintage posters and advertisements featuring "coons" and "jigaboos" and black children as "alligator bait."

You'll see what most people call black collectibles: stereotypes made three dimensional in curios and kitchenware and landscaping accessories like the lawn jockey.

The lawn jockey is the most detestable of all - or so most people have been led to believe.

In Southern college towns, it used to be sport for students to steal those little black metal men and display them in their dormitory rooms.

And as late as 1984, lawn jockeys still caused such a stir that a California town was forced to paint its four Main Street jockeys white.

The reasoning was that changing the complexion made the jockeys less offensive. It might actually have been more offensive.

All the original horse jockeys were black. Most people don't know that.

Most don't know that the first dozen winners of the Kentucky Derby were black men who owned the horses they rode.

The history of the black jockey goes back before the Emancipation Proclamation. Slaveholders used their slaves as jockeys.

A short note in one history book mentions Monkey Simon, who earned his master $100 per ride. The caption under the photograph says he knew his worth, demanded respect and got it.

He was a slave. But, as incongruous as it sounds, in the early 1800s, Monkey Simon was also a celebrity.

His success was not an isolated case.

Isaac Murphy was the first jockey to win three Kentucky Derbys. By 1891, he could earn a $10,000 salary. They say he rode like no other jockey before him and only a few after.

History says that between 1880 and 1905, Isaac Murphy, Soup Perkins and Willie Simms were royalty in the sport of kings.

White jockeys and the Ku Klux Klan forced them out, and by 1910, black jockeys were no longer racing.

If you visit the Kentucky Derby Museum, you'll find their contributions chronicled in a small exhibit of photographs, Currier & Ives prints and a video, "African-Americans in Thoroughbred Racing."

The history is rich. And so is the beauty. I find beauty in the sturdy Mammy doll, mother to all, though she was designed to ridicule black women.

And I see worth in the lawn jockey. He, too, might have been designed as a stereotype, but he actually represents important pioneers.

My visitor carrying the lawn jockey lips wasn't impressed.

We agreed to disagree.

"Glorious history; lousy way to depict it."

He says jockey No. 4 will meet the same fate as the others.

Rosemary Harris is a columnist for the Gazette of Colorado Springs, Colo., where this article first appeared.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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