Display of lawn-jockey ornament in Saugerties shop window leads to community debate

Two cast-iron lawn ornaments prominently displayed in the window of the Saugerties Antique Center on Main Street on the first weekend of Black History Month — one depicting a shoeless, grinning black child, the other the commonly seen lawn jockey — caused controversy among village residents this week. Many took to Facebook and Yelp reviews to express their outrage.

The statues, according to shop owner Dan Seldin, were taken down immediately after the first complaint was lodged on Monday. The online debate, however, rages on. While an overwhelming majority of comments made online about the Saugerties affair consider the statues a racist caricature, some have contended that the statues have historically been intended to honor the memory of black struggles in America.

“I am a black woman, and I am offended,” said Justine Gauckler, an artist and recent transplant from Brooklyn who came to Saugerties so that her three children, who will be 13, twelve and eleven years old this year. “I’m offended that my children have to pass that on their way to school. “This is 2020, not 1920 or 1820. No one needs a lawn jockey or a slave statue.”

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Gauckler noted that the display was up during the first weekend of Black History Month. “How many people had to walk past those displays?”
Antique Center owner Seldin said that he wants to “look this issue directly in its face.” He said that, as a gay man of Jewish faith, discrimination has played a significant role in his own life.

“We are highly apologetic to anyone who was offended,” he said Monday after the statues had been removed from the display. “We feel terrible. [I wasn’t thinking] of anything at all. I was putting a period display together and everything in the window had to do with the Civil-War period. It was the classical front of a house, an estate, a grand home. If I thought for a second that having that statue in the window would be offensive to anybody, I would never ever put that statue out there. I wouldn’t have it in my store — and it is now gone.”

Seldin said that he has owned the Saugerties Antique Center for the past 27 years, and that he and his family “live in a community [they] love deeply.” The figures in question, he said, were cast in 1840.

Robust discussion of racism

“The only appropriate thing to do with those items is (a) burn them [or] (b) donate them to the Jim Crow Museum,” wrote Susan Linich on Facebook.

“Saugerties Antique Center gets a resounding no,” posted Edie Jones Schwimmer on the store’s Facebook page. “Why? Because they prominently display racist statues in their front window. I frequently a lot of antique shops, but I will not support this business. The entire community has to step up and make it clear that this is not acceptable, not ‘normal’ any more.”

In a rebuke to Schwimmer’s post, Joseph Bailey, who identified himself as an antiques salesman, disagreed. “This is the problem with society today, I am not associated with this store, but have sold several of these myself over the years. It does not make us racist.”

The origin story of the lawn jockey, according to the description that was affixed to the figure at the antique center, took place in December 1776. According to the legend, general George Washington forbade Jocko Graves, a twelve-year-old African-American, from fighting the Redcoats, telling him that he was too young for battle despite his verve. Washington ordered Graves to tend to the horses that we left behind as he and his troops took to the Delaware River to launch a surprise attack, and to keep a lantern blazing so that the soldiers could find their way back to camp. When Washington and his troops returned, they found that Graves had frozen solid, lantern still in hand. Touched by the boy’s display of devotion, Washington commissioned a statue, called the “Faithful Groomsman” depicting his final moments.

However, historians say there is no contemporaneous record of that story’s authenticity. 

Charles Blockson, the curator of the Afro-American collection at Temple University in Philadelphia, contended in his disputed Hippocrene Guide to the Underground Railroad that lawn-jockey statues were used as a clandestine communication tool for escaping slaves: “Green ribbons were tied to the arms of the statue to indicate safety; red ribbons meant to keep going,” he wrote.
Although the Saugerties community is primarily white, Gauckler said she “loves” how inclusive the school district has been. She is a member of the district’s Diversity Committee, run by assistant superintendent Darlene Westinghouse and superintendent Kirk Reinhardt. The group, which meets monthly, has hosted events and discussions “to get the staff, teachers and principals to be more aware of the micro-and macro-aggressions that come with racism.”
At a recently hosted event, “Mix It Up Monday,” students were encouraged to sit next to students of unfamiliar cultures.|

Removal is a good sign

“The fact [is] that he did remove it and he’s saying that he didn’t know it would be offensive,” said Tyrone Wilson of Kingston, who became the head of the Ulster County Human Rights Commission this January. “I’m a firm believer in giving the benefit of the doubt,”

He elaborated. “There’s one thing about people saying something about someone that’s offending them and [the offender] left it there regardless,” Wilson explained. “Then we’re dealing with something serious there. But, given the fact that he made an action to remove it and is showing concern or looking into how this is affecting people and putting an action to it — that’s a good sign. For that reason there, I think there’s enough to give the person the benefit of the doubt .… That’s how we make change. I hope the store owner has it, he got it, and he’ll be more considerate.”

There are 5 comments

  1. Chester Hartwell

    Whoopie Goldberg has a large collection.
    The statues have served to begin civil discourse on the subject.
    Hiding our real history is not the answer.

  2. Michaela Grey

    Whoopie Goldberg is not a white man making a tidy profit off her collection. No one is suggesting eliminating them altogether; rather, the owner was asked to donate them to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Objects, which has an entire section devoted to lawn jockeys for a reason. He and his friends have been anything but apologetic and remorseful online, choosing to insult and cling to abstract, highly debatable academic defenses rather than listen to the people who were directly affected by the display, so I find this article extremely inaccurate and disingenuous.

  3. Firannion

    Growing up on LI in the ’60s, you could tell who the ‘woke’ people in the neighborhood were by the fact that they painted the faces and hands of their lawn jockeys white to avoid the stereotype. They still kinda looked like bug-eyed zombies.

  4. Jess

    If you followed this situation closely (and I did), you would know that the owner ONLY removed those stories AFTER all of the online negative reviews of his business and ethics started rolling in. If he hadn’t gotten another complaint other than the first one, those statues would still be in his front window. I have no doubt of it.
    It’s a terrible and sad state of affairs when people don’t even understand that this is an issue.

  5. Bart Friedman

    Whoopie is black. It means something different when blacks collect their own history. What might it mean when a white displays or owns these lawn jockeys? For a white it may just be sculpture, without meaning or empathy for today’s struggle to deal with our racism. We’re mostly, all of us, racist to some degree and we’re slowly, after all these years, becoming aware of our perverse and tortured history. Why not listen to our neighbors whose ancestors built much of our nation’s wealth in bondage, when they tell us that it hurts when we still refuse to understand this history. Try giving excuses a rest and listen to your neighbors just for this moment so we can correct our course. Slavery and hundreds of years of racism will never be a benign subject.

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