Jim Crow laws, and a painted rock…

jim crow rock- from flickr

Photo by Scott Adams- http://www.flickr.com/photos/10021898@N02/797575782/in/photostream

On the shore a few hundred yards from where I live, is this rock.

It has probably been there since the last ice age, but at some point in the last 150 years someone thought that the point on one side looked like a beak so painted it black and began to call it ‘Jim Crow’. Quite who this was, and what the thinking behind the name was all about is unknown.

In June of this year there was much local controversy as someone painted over the decorations in the rock, restoring it to a natural stone colour. As far as we could tell, this seemed to be a protest against the symbolic meaning of a rock called ‘Jim Crow’. Here is the Dunoon Observers (somewhat partisan) take on the story at the time.

There was much debate as to what should be done about the rock- should it be repainted, or would it be better used as a different kind of community installation- perhaps decorated by different schools once a year…

However before this could be taken any further, someone had repainted the rock in its original colours.

So what is all the fuss about?

Well, the origins of the words ‘Jim Crow’ are pretty dreadful to most post modern sensibilities.

As far back as the middle of the 19th Century, ‘Jim Crow’ was a pejorative negative stereotype of people of Africanjim crow origin. ‘Jump Jim Crow‘ was a popular song and dance routine performed by white men with black faces in 1828 in the USA. The minstrel shows that began in this time became popular all over the world- and would certainly have spread to the music halls catering for day trippers ‘doon the watter’ towards the end of the Victorian era.

The words ‘Jim Crow’ were used as a description of black people at this time- in the same way that others would use ‘Nigger’ or ‘Sambo’.

But the infamy attached to the words was just beginning.

Following the widescale freeing of slaves following the American Civil war, the politics of the Southern states gradually returned to the Conservative whites, and from the 1870’s, a whole series of ‘segregation’ laws were enacted. These were known collectively simply as ‘the Jim Crow Laws’.

The effect of these laws on black Americans in the first half of the 20th Century has been well documented. It took the great struggles for freedom of the 60’s and 70’s to break their power.

There is a sample of the scope and extent of the laws here.

People fought and died over these issues, and for many the struggle against prejudice and narrow judgementalism continues.


jim crow 2

So, back to our little rock in Dunoon.

I have heard it said that the name of the rock comes from the fact that there used to be a local joiners yard owned by Jim Crow opposite the rock. I doubt this myself, but in any case, the words ‘Jim Crow’ had too much resonance in the past to ever have been  neutral or value free, and the decoration on the rock is just too black-and-white-minstrel.

As you can see from here , there are strong opinions locally. One argument goes something like this;

Jim Crow is a local landmark- which has been there for over 100 years, and has nothing to do with racism.

The only people who have a problem with it are ‘incomers’ who have no connection to Dunoon.

For many years we had an American Navy base here, with lots of black sailors. No one ever protested about the rock.

It is a harmless much loved piece of local tradition, and should be left just as it is.


Jim Crow on a photo dated 1905

But the sight of the rock, golliwogged up in garish new paint has always troubled me. I believe that where tradition and culture are in league with prejudice, then it is time to take a closer look at what we actually want to base our local tradition upon.

It’s symbolism may be obscure, but it is no less potent when set alongside recent American history.

I hear that the matter has been discussed in Scottish parliament, and there may yet be further scrutiny of the matter.

Get rid I say.

31 thoughts on “Jim Crow laws, and a painted rock…

  1. I have lived in Duonnon for 30 of my 37 years and it is only this last year I have been aware of the roots of the Jim Crow. To kids brought up in Dunoon it was something to climb and get your photo taken on. It reminds me a lot of halloween, with its roots in Samhain. To kids today it is sweets day as averse to Christmas as toy day and that they get to do fancy dress. However the extreme Christian right will not let you forget its roots, however validly objectionable and gory they may be despit how they are taken today. This seems to me a bit like completing a circle in that you can go so far left that you can end op being on the extreme right. As for halloween, isnt it amazing how your neighbours that don’t want to talk to you the rest of the year are happy to pop in for a chat that day and build relationships.


  2. HI Jaimie

    30 years huh? Does that make you an ‘incomer’ still then? 🙂

    I think I get what you are saying in the comparison with Halloween- that the roots of things are significant, and we should be aware of them. There remains the questions as to how far we take this back however, as the tradition of Chistianising existing festivals seems to have been a good evangelical practise of the Celtic saints. I have more of a problem with the fact that Halloween is only HALF of the celebration of all saints day- and we seem to have forgotten to celebrate the other half!

    I suppose the sobering thought for Christians however is that the Jim Crow laws were fanatically supported by Christian groups in the deep south- they were the forces of darkness in this one…



  3. “Get rid I say”. But where do you stop? Where do you draw the line? Do you get rid of all references to it, all photos, all articles? Do you leave historical newspapers with hols where pictures occured? Do you burn books because you don’t want to be reminded of the past?
    On the river Stour in Canterbury is an old ducking stool, where those accused of witchcraft were ducked to death. A past to be ashamed of, but should we “Get Rid”? What about Auschwitz? Should that go?

    • Hmmmm…

      The difference is that the items you mention all serve as reminders of past oppression and prejudice. They have all undergone a transformation in the minds of those who see them. They are artifacts that show us the worst of what we are, from the pages of a history book, or the glass case of a museum.

      Jim Crow is not like that. It is an unacknowledged and poorly understood symbol of prejudice that anyone who came to this country from the US looks at and has eyebrows that shoot skywards. A bit like going to Japan and finding a swastika wrapped over a star of David.

      I say get rid because in this instance, the rock has no artistic or historical merit, as far as I can see. The decoration and poorly painted letters have been there a long time, but making a positive move away from the shadows of ‘Jim Crow’ would seem to me to be more important than preserving racist folk-memory. There are lots of ways we can do this whilst still telling the story of what Jim Crow WAS…

      Cheers Simon…


  4. So its a bit like Bernard Manning videos on US cable TV!
    Name it and shame it! A bit of interpretation is what is required, and your blog is a start.

  5. Pingback: Jim Crow and the ‘Coon songs’… « this fragile tent

  6. it’s part of the past and if you try to forget the past that doesn’t do any good…i know i’m just an outsider but it’s a reminder of where you have been (ancestorily of course) and how far you have come. its important to teach what jim crow means and why we don’t have them today and what better symbol than one that has been there for years?

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  8. Has anyone else noticed of the irony of having to demonstrate that you are a “local” or a “Dunoonite” before your view on the Jim Crow rock is considered valid? Why does anyone commenting on this issue feel the need to preface it with “I know I’m just an outsider”?

  9. Pingback: The battle against racism returns to Dunoon’s foreshore… « this fragile tent

  10. Iam shocked at people naming others ywho live here as incomers.. get a grip, its a free country to live in and its all the small minded locals (that are not the “incomers” as they would say) that are the town ENTIRE problem. open your eyes and try see things from someone elses point of view. who said it looked like a crow I will never know as it looks nothing like one.

  11. …its a tradition …if you look around our wonderful country we call Scotland , there are several “monuments of injustice” …if you have ever been in Glasgow , we have all seen that poor mounted horseman , with the cone on his head ……ITS TRADITION !!!! to satisfy the new, enlightened PC world that we now live in , lets restore the crows “face …..the word “crow” because thats what it looks like …..and for all of us who lived or lives in Dunoon ( I was an “incomer” from `84 til `92 ) …lets bask in the fond memories we have of the symbolic rock that looks like a crow …….

  12. I think we have to accept that people who grew up in Dunoon have a different relationship to the rock to those of us who get off the ferry then raise our eyebrows. For some of my friends, the rock is part of childhood. It has no racist association for them whatsoever.

    My concern was not to start an argument about ‘incomers’ and locals- I do not think that helps the debate at all. It leads to entrenched fixed positions, rather than an honest look at our shared history.

    Kate- tradition has been used as an excuse for oppression and prejudice before, and it will be again. The difference between the traditional statues that you describe and Jim Crow is that the history they tap into is understood. Jim Crow has not been through a process that can allow us to engage with it as a part of our history.

    I think it needs to.

    The debate about whether it has any artistic merit is not one that I have ever engaged in- but if it stays, then we simply ought to acknowledge what it represents.



  13. I could measure that when this rock was first ever painted, people with dark skin were not really in sight nor in Dunoon, it could have had a china man with a china hat and eyes and written on the rock the words ‘chinkie’ which oddly enough most people would now what that means, I imagine not till too recently the majority of people had no idea the words ‘Jim Crow’ stood for anything.
    Does allowing it to get repainted as Jim Crow, really cause offence? Does brandishing it a racist rock take it too far.
    I suggest the best thing to keep everyone at peace is to have a black man filmed and photographed while repainting the rock, with a smile thumbs up – someone with a really open mind. Then turn this into a nice postcard and art piece, where the meaning has been turned round. Make it a laugh rather than a political issue.
    Whatever why it was painted and by who ever, it’s been there, a while lets leave it there.


    • Hi Leona

      Thanks for your thoughts- a sensible and measured response which has a lot of merit I think…

      Although I am not sure that I quite agree that people with dark skin would have been unknown in this area- this for two reasons-

      1. Glasgow was one of the worlds busiest ports, and our prosperity in this area (and the development of the west coast as a steamer commuter belt) was due in no small part to slave money- check this out- http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/glasgow_and_west/6053474.stm
      Black people needed to be seen as ‘less than human’ if this was to be regarded as OK, resulting in all those easy negative stereotypes- like ‘Jim Crow’.

      2. The popularity of the ‘minstrel shows’- which certainly happened in Dunoon, as they did in all the mass holiday resorts. If you check out the collection of photos in the ‘old dunoon’ book, there is a photograph of a stage in Kirn with a description of minstrel shows on the bill. The popularity of these shows is rather difficult to understand, and in some ways seems innocent- unless of course, you are black. Then the whole thing seems much more sinister. There is more about these shows here- https://thisfragiletent.wordpress.com/2010/03/10/jim-crow-and-the-coon-songs/

      I have written about these things on my blog not because I believe people in our area are any more (or less) racist than anywhere else, but rather because I think that this rock is part of a past that contains a normalised oppression of black people. It is an opportunity to honestly examine this and in so doing, reduce the likelihood that generations ahead of ours will make the same terrible mistakes in the name of Empire and profit.

      As for a solution- I think on the whole I have come to agree with you- let’s keep the rock, but let us turn it into something we can be proud of. I think we can do this by a small board talking about the slave trade, and the history of racist oppression that made this possible. Let us invite someone over from the Jim Crow Museum in the USA- http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/ and take the opportunity to reconnect with our own ethnic minorities.

      As for your suggestion of getting a black person to re-paint it- perhaps none of us can really understand how difficult a thing that would be to do. It may even be akin to getting a black performer to perform in one of the old minstrel shows?

      Thanks again for your thoughts, and my hope is that some of this information is useful to you.

      Best wishes


  14. Pingback: A bit more on Jim Crow Rock… « this fragile tent

  15. I agree, get rid of it and restore this rock back to its beautiful glory as a piece of the earth that it is, and not a ridiculed racist bill board for the visitors that come off the ferry and is one of the first things that they see of beautiful Cowal.

  16. As someone with connections to Dunoon I believe this painted rock is the wrong symbol for Dunoon to be giving. Visitors and our children. Dunoon has much more to choose from for a symbol of the Town which it could be Proud of. – Dunoon does not need or should not want this nasty reminder of the cruel and unjust symbol of peoples prejudices. Remove it

    • Yes they have. No record exists in the public record of an individual or a business of this name or similar. I confirmed this in person with a student researching the history of the rock as part of a Scottish culture degree.

      I have tried to keep my comments on Jim Crow measured and respectful, given the strong feelings locally- what part of what I have said could be construed as a ‘rant’? Or do you just think that there should be no public debate allowed as to the history and symbolism involved?

      The fact is that whatever the history, the images used are ones that are elsewhere universally regarded as racist. I do not think that such things should remain unexamined.

      Once again, I would welcome the addition of an information board near the rock talking about the part this area played in the slave triangle- as some kind of balance.



  17. If objecting to racism is ranting, let us rant some more. The design is racist irrespective of the existence of a joiner called Jim Crow.

  18. Well said. Jim Crow also has its roots in John canoe (junkanoo) dating as far back as 1730 so to say that it was painted in this way before Jim crow laws had been passed, as I have heard it argued, is invalid.

    But let’s pretend for arguments sake that is purely coincidental. Why would we allow this to carry on now, knowing the potential misconception that it is racist? People used to paint big rocks like this at the edge of towns to show people of colour were not welcome! It’s not just a link with the name, or the horrendous black face but the entirety of Jim Crow that is potentially offensive.

    Surely no-one would go to Berlin in their favourite Christian (and Hindu) symbol tshirt emblazoned with a swastika? Why not? Because it is culturally insensitive, whatever the original intention.

    I hate Jim Crow. The very thought of it makes me angry and I have yet to see a single argument that justifies it.

  19. I have never seen a crow with red lips…….how peculiar!! It has to go!!! People who are mouthing off to have this kept should hang their heads in shame. They are a disgrace to the Dunoon community. X

  20. Pingback: Jim Crow rock hits the news again… | this fragile tent

  21. Having grown up in Kirn and the rock Jim Crow was simply the name someone gave it ,if you look at it there is a crows head and beak painted not a black person ,it has a lot of meaning to those of us no longer living there and is a part of where we came from and dear to most of us,this black and white tripe ha s nothing to do with it and is getting out of control ,this is in Scotland not the USA

    • Hi Janet. You are not alone in stating these views and of course you are entitled to them. I am afraid though that the history is likely to be much more complicated than you suggest. Whatever the origins of the name of the rock, the words ‘Jim Crow’ were certainly not neutral. People always knew what they meant. Back in the Victorian age, people used the words in the same way as they did ‘Nigger’.

      Of course, people doing so were creatures of their age, when such casual racism was not seen as at all reprehensible. The fact is though, no matter what the meaning the rock carries now, some people (particularly black people) find it extremely offensive. This means that sadly, what you describe as ‘black and white tripe’ will not go away, not until we have acknowledged the pains and hurts of the past, whether intended or not.

      You have gone to the trouble of posting a comment on this blog entry, which suggests that you have strong feelings, perhaps because of your childhood association. But people visiting Kirn now are shocked by the painting on this rock. They look at Dunoon and think that we are an unthinking backwater who is happy to allow space to which many official bodies regard as overtly racist (including the UK’s Racial Equality Unit and the Jim Crow Museum in the USA.)

      One more thing- your views cost you nothing, because the racism that may or may not be celebrated in this rock is not aimed at you (I am making the assumption that you are not black- apologies if I am wrong.) However, the scourge of racism has a very real cost to some people and as such their views are vital in relation to the rock. Dr Lawrence lost his son to racism. He has made his views of the rock plain and I for one think that we need to listen.

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