Jim Crow repainted- again…

So- another twist in the local debate about a painted rock on the Dunoon shoreline.

Photo c.1900

The rock has now been defaced twice by someone who decided that direct action was required to highlight the murky history that may be behind this local land mark. Local politicians have expressed their outrage-

Councillor Bruce Marshall, chair of the Bute and Cowal Area Committee, told the Standard on Tuesday: “I was unaware that Jim Crow had again been defaced and find it hard to believe that anyone can be so petty.
“Jim Crow has been a landmark on the foreshore at Hunter’s Quay all of my life and I would not like to see it permanently lost.”

From Dunoon Observer.

Two people were seen yesterday redecorating the rock with its golliwog face.

The local paper has dealt with the issue in a rather lazy and partisan fashion. It reads like the reporter was looking for a way to dismiss any concerns about the rock, and seeking to interpret history in this light. A quote from the article

In an age where international news was not widely spread, it is unlikely that Dunoon people knew about these laws when the rock was originally painted, possibly around 1900.

It seems more likely that the rock was originally named after a Thomas Ingoldsby rhyming story The Jackdaw of Rheims. which was popular in Victorian times, The poem, about a particularly pious jackdaw made ito a saint, ends with the stanza:

And on newly-made Saints and Popes, as you know,

It’s the custom, at Rome, new names to bestow,

So they canonized him by the name of Jim Crow!

The research the local reporter has done seems to ignore the pervasive influence of ‘coon songs‘ and ‘black face songs’ in the Victorian and Edwardian music halls (right through to the dreadful black and white minstrel shows that were on TV in the 1970’s.)

People in Dunoon, and holiday makers from the big city who flocked here around the turn of the 20th Century, probably did not know much about the Jim Crow laws, but they would have known that ‘Jim Crow’ was a derogatory caricature of a black man.

As for the Jackdaw of Rheims– written by Rev Richard H Barham (under the pen name Thomas Ingoldsby,) it makes one reference to Jim Crow- as part of a long poem about a Jackdaw. Here is the question- why did Barham use this name? The song ‘Jump Jim Crow‘ was a huge international hit, with sheet music sold over all the world- carrying the caricature everywhere it went. The song was written about 5-10 years before the Jackdaw of Rheims was published.

The Observer reporter appears to assume that before the internet, before radio and TV, communication of ideas like this between continents was unlikely- that there could be no real exchange of ideas between sleepy Dunoon and America. This is to totally misunderstand our history-

Looking back from a totally different culture and time, there is no blame that can be attached to whoever first crudely decorated this rock and wrote ‘Jim Crow’ on its side. It was probably a bit of holiday fun. Using terms and prejudices that were so pervasive that they were hardly noticed.

The issue remains how we come to understand the symbolism contained within this image now– how we engage honestly with our past.

And this rock gives us an opportunity to do just that.

I notice that the local paper did not quote this-

“… there can be no doubt that the painting of the ‘face’, with its exaggerated red mouth, is a typically caricatured image of a black person, as popularised by the American entertainer T.D. Rice in the nineteenth century. […] I feel certain that black visitorsfrom outside would see this as somewhat insulting […] as a derogatory reference to their skin colour and origins.”

Institute of Race Relations.

So –  are we sure that this is just a little bit of harmless local colour? And even if it is just that- are we really comfortable with the associations that are being made, and the offence that this might carry to the descendants of slaves who had to fight on for generations against the oppression of the Jim Crow laws?

If the rock is to stay, then we need to tell these stories.

If we are to keep the face on the rock- then let us also put a big sign on the foreshore dealing with the darker side of our past…

10 thoughts on “Jim Crow repainted- again…

  1. maybe if proper research was done it would be seen that the ROCK…was actual called JIM CROW STANE as far back as 1726…. and was used as a navigational landmark.

  2. Hey Charlie

    Thanks very much for pointing this out- certainly something that I will look into- this is not something that is recorded anywhere else to my knowledge.

    However- even if this is true, the issue of the meaning that has been ascribed to the stone since.

    A golliwog face?

    Come on- are you sure that there are no racist connotations?

    Interesting too that the slave trade was just getting going in these parts in 1726…


  3. Hi Chris, sorry reaserch on this is slow, another lead i have is that it was also used as a Drovers landmark. there is also a picture floating about (wished i saved all these last year) dating back to approx 1880 which was still called the jim crow but had jagged teeth.

    Your quotation from the Institute of Race Relations was quoted in this weeks paper….the sad thing is for the whole time the american base was here, i would loose count of the number of blacks/coloured persons who would be there taken pictures. So her statement is wrong…

    If it was that offensive something would have been said the 30 yrs they were here.

    As for the name going back to my new lead (drovers), Crow is taken from Gaelic – Croadh….meaning Cattle. there is reference to this throughout the drovers routes and landing / off loading points, ie Crow Rd in Glasgow.

    it is known that drovers came to dunoon and cattle shipped across to greenock or glasgow….a theory could be this was a meeting point for jim!!

    Sadly i do not think we will ever know when or why it was painted. It is a landmark of the local area and that should be the only thing that people see.


    • Hi CHarlie

      The link to drovers is another line well worth pursuing- although I understood that the drovers route was via Ardentinny, with a swim over to Roseneath. Not sure that the Jim Crow Rock would be a good place to try to cross cattle? Our house was built in 1840, just above the rock, and it was certainly not a place that Drovers would have been welcome then.

      The issue of the reaction of African American servicemen to the rock is an interesting one. I am told that they were under strict instructions NOT to be critical of any local traditions whilst based here. There is also the fact that racism was undeniably institutional within the American establishment in the 60’s, 70’s ad 80’s (some would say it still is today,) and so judging reactions to a local oddity by the degree to which people expressed offence when stationed here is problematic and highly subjective.

      The most powerful voices would be the reactions of black people NOW. I sent an e-mail to the Jim Crow museum at an American university, although have not had a reply yet.

      If the ‘teeth’ were there in the 1880’s, then why not now? at what point did Jim Crow become a golliwog? This is an important question I think…

      Thanks Jim for your thoughtful contribution to a debate that easily becomes a bit of a slanging match!

      Cheers (from my holidays!)


  4. Chris,

    so i gather then you are in Hunters Quay? personally the reaction now is irrelavent. why should something change for the minority of narrow minded people…

    you have my email…

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  8. I used to play on top o f JIM CROW when I was a little girl aged 4 during the war , I adored him , I still do !! Am now 80 , so have lovely memories of my great friend and playmate , LONG MAY HE REIN !! Dorothy White

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