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.

39 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.



      • According to Dunoon’s local newspaper; The Observer and Argyllshire Standard published upon 30th November, 2018, some recent updated research has uncovered that; In the Hafton Estate Chartulary Archives there was way back in the past a Thomas Crow who was a Mason who bought two parcels of land both upon and around where Jim Crow now stands. These two parcels of land consisted of one being from Dhalling to Kirn, while the second parcel of land ran along the SHORE to James Street.
        Another piece of recent research has also uncovered that Jim Crow might have been related to; The Crow Family of a James Crow as listed as dying in Dunoon in 1875 – aged 24.
        This latest evidence poses a number of Questions should you remove completely yourself from trying to affix The Jim Crow Rock, or Stone with relating to be anything what so ever to do with the Blacken Face Ministerial – Thomas Rice which to me looks very much like being a Red Herring.
        Lets therefore consider what we now know by adding in the above latest Facts, and confirm that it could very easily be the correct Case that The Jim Crow near Dunoon in Argyll might have been “Named” originally after – Thomas Crow a Mason whom once owned the land upon where now stands – Jim Crow, and to avoid any doubt, “This Rock / Stone” may firstly have been named as – Tom Crow, and at some stage thereafter during a repainting period someone changed Tom for Jim, since this alteration is only a 2 letters change, and that for reasons back then unknown no one objected at that time of this original name change.
        Alternatively, we must also remember that there would have been MORE THAN one person with his name being Jim Crow is our World when The Jim Crow Rock / Stone first got its name.

      • Hi Chris.
        Well, at least the latest real Onions now along with full detailed evidence is not like the previous fried Onions whereby you said, – “No evidence exists in the Public Record”.

        Cheers, Tom.

      • Hi Tom- OK, a longer answer than my last one!

        I have not seen the evidence you refer to and so cannot comment on it’s accuracy. However, if I understand you correctly, you believe that this evidence means that the stone cannot have racist connotations? I am afraid that I do not agree, for the following reasons;

        “Jim Crow Stane” was marked on maps long before the so-called purchase of nearby land by James Crow that you refer to. Strange co-incidence? What it does mean is that even if the land purchase progressed as you suggest, this can not account for the name of the stone.

        The previous theory that was commonly applied to the origins of the stone related to a garage located on the foreshore run by a Jim Crow. I stand by my assertion that ‘no evidence exists in the public record’ of such a business.

        The rock was painted with a series of images that have been universally and internationally recognised as blackface stereotypes. Strangely, they have been updated as the blackface fashion evolved- the earlier images having teeth, the later ones with big red lips- just like they do in other places. The final image was of a golliwog. As I said- sometimes when you see an onion, it is an onion.

        All this means that even if there was a non- racist origin to the name on the rock (and we have to concede that we may never know this for sure) then without doubt it has been adopted as a racist image since then. This started out in different times to ours, when casual empire-driven racism was mainstream. It is not entirely fair to judge individuals in the past who lived in those different times, and decorated the rock as a bit of holiday fun, but now, we are forced to listen to the voices of people who have a lived experience. People whose lives have been blighted by the stupidity of racism.

        Remember- ‘Jim Crow’ means something. It represents an idea. Look at what is happening in the States at the moment- Confederate flags being waved, a rise of the far right. These ideas have not gone away!


      • Hi again Chris.
        Alright then OK let me play your game, whereby you are contradicting yourself, – since; Firstly you have said, and I Quote that, -“No record exists in the public record of an individual or a business of this name or similar.” Unquote, and now ; Secondly you are also saying that, Quote, – “Jim Crow Stane” was marked on maps long before the so-called purchase of nearby land by James Crow that you refer to”. Unquote.
        Now either you were right to say that in the First place that NO Records exist, or that otherwise, you are right to say that a Jim Crow Stane was marked upon Map’s which themselves also form a part of being classed as being Public Records for Ordnance Survey purposes for you cannot have it both ways.

        And….., even if there is a Jim Crow Stane marked upon an earlier OSM, that in itself does not override the fact that there was a person with that same name living nearby to where The Jim Crow Stone / Rock now stands, for I and would suggest also that you don’t know how long a Family named “Crow” might have lived in the area in Question, since it would not be unusual to find that some Crow Family could have lived in the same place for Centuries, I know this sometimes happens because I can trace my Mother’s Family Surname back to the 15th Century, and while all the while living in the very same area, and for this reason I have come to the view, and conclusion that your opinion is a Red Herring.


  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.

      • It really seems to me that many people have a one track mind idea that should This Jim Crow Stone / Rock be called by the name Jim Crow then it must be for reasons of being overtly racist, or even that it must be referring to Black People in general.
        To make such assumptions disregards that anyone with his REAL Name being called Jim Crow cannot name something, or have a Rock named after himself, or a family member for fear of what others might associate his namesake being as wrongly affixed to Black People thousands of miles away in The United States, since during the period of which The Jim Crow Stone / Rock firstly got its name the people living in Kirn by Dunoon mostly, or if anything knew nothing about what was going on over The Pond in The USA, since there are still today a few people left that have never traveled from Dunoon over The Clyde to Gourock, even though they can see it clear enough from The Shores of Kirn, while also they have no interest in what goes on outside their own area of Kirn.
        Therefore people have got to realise that The Jim Crow Rock / Stone most likely has nothing to do with Black People, since there is, and was more than one person alive somewhere with their real name being Jim Crow.
        Others have got the wrong idea that because The Holy Loch was an American Cold War Navy Base between 1960, to 1992, then again because it contained some Black USA Navy service personnel, then that gives them the Rights to complain about a Rock that had originally got it name well over a hundred years, or so previously, without any such otherwise proof of their different so called Facts.
        Any News in olden days traveled very slowly, and not that far like it does today over The Web.

      • Sigh. You accuse me of making assumptions, but remember, these SAME ASSUMPTIONS are made both nationally (e.g. the governments Racial Equality Unit) and internationally (The Jim Ferris museum). They are based not only on the name- but simply the use of racist images that are familiar to anyone who understands racist iconography.

        I have now read the article you refer to. I note it’s source as John Stirling, who appears to have shifted his position. Even he is now accepting that the images on the rock became racist. He fails to understand that the images from back in 1905 (of which photographs survive) were also blackface images- just from an earlier era.

        Your last post reveals the ‘one track’ nature of your own mind. It also makes some massive assumptions, which are very easily challenged- in fact most already have been in the debate on various posts on this site and in the local paper.

        You make a load of assumptions about what people in the Victorian holiday resort knew of black people. Remember however, this was not a sleepy backwater populated by fishermen and crofters. This was a premium holiday resort, full of all sorts of popular entertainment. It was full of holiday houses built by Glasgow traders whose wealth often depended on tobacco and sugar plantations. The empire, with all its racist assumptions and negative views of black people far away, was in full swing. And the most popular entertainment style in Dunoon’s music halls? Minstrel shows. Unfortunately, even when news was travelling by steam not fibre-optics, racism travelled quickly enough.

        The decorations on the stone were a folk relic of this age. This is not based on assumption, but on historical facts.
        There are a number of things we do not know about the rock- unsurprisingly for a folk relic like this one, but I wonder why you are so sure that your version of history is right?

        And what if you are wrong?

        Thanks for your contribution to the debate- I will bow out for now as I think all of this has already been said…

  22. Pingback: Racism: not just over there… | this fragile tent

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