Ryan Howard gnome stirs memories of black lawn jockeys

    Tomorrow night the Reading Phillies – a minor league team – will give away a special promotional item to fans who come to watch them play the Trenton Thunder. It’s a small statue of Ryan Howard made up to look like a garden gnome. Some say it even resembles a black lawn jockey.

    ryan

    Tomorrow night the Reading Phillies – a minor league team – will give away a special promotional item to fans who come to watch them play the Trenton Thunder. It’s a small statue of Ryan Howard made up to look like a garden gnome. Some say it even resembles a black lawn jockey.

    The history of the lawn jockey is long and complicated. The first statue of a black man holding a lantern may have been commissioned by General George Washington to commemorate a valiant African-American horse keeper who died in battle. They may have been used along the Underground Railroad to guide runaway slaves to safe houses.

    But Professor Nathaniel Norment, of the African-American studies department at Temple University, says the jockey became a racist symbol when it adopted grotesque exaggerations of African-American facial features.

    For my generation, in the South, it represents very negative things about black people. If you ever saw this on the lawn of the white person – and it was always a white person – it was something negative.

    Commentators online and in print have made a connection between the lawn jockey and the Ryan Howard garden gnome. Norment says as a black statue dressed in Phillies red and white, intended as a lawn decoration, it’s notably similar, even if Howard’s face is not a caricature. A Reading Phillies spokesman says Howard, who used to play for the team, was consulted and approved the statue.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.