Revolutionary War origin legend
An apocryphal and never substantiated account of the figure’s origin portrays the statue as representing 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’ has its roots in the tale of one Jocko Graves, an African-American youth who served with General George Washington at the time that he crossed the Delaware to carry out his surprise attack on Hessian forces at Trenton, NJ. The General thought him too young to take along on such a dangerous attack, so left him on the Pennsylvania side to tend to the horses and to keep a light on the bank for their return. So the story goes, the boy, faithful to his post and his orders, froze to death on the river bank during the night, the lantern still in his hand. The General was so much moved by the boy’s devotion to his duty that he had a statue sculpted and cast of him, holding the lantern, and had it installed at his Mount Vernon estate. He called the sculpture The Faithful Groomsman.”
Underground Railroad communication tool
Charles L. Blockson, Curator Emeritus of the Afro-American Collection at Temple University in Philadelphia and author of Hippocrene Guide to the Underground Railroad, claims that 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 indicate 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 installed an example of the statue at the entrance to Temple University’s Sullivan Hall.
Patterns of and markings on the clothing of the statues also are said to have indicated messages understood by fleeing slaves. Blockson’s claim to the contemporary use of color in signalling is substantiated by the Congressional 1848 act which resulted in standardizing red and green colors for channel marker buoys.