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Dunoon rocked by Jim Crow racism row
Martyn McLaughlin - Scotland on Sunday - 24th July 2011

It is a slice of folklore which has been a talking point for generations of daytrippers to a seaside town.

But now an extraordinary battle has broken out over a famous Dunoon landmark amid accusations of racism and secretive night-time acts of sabotage.

For more than a century, the Jim Crow rock has been an iconic feature near the Argyllshire town.

Reputedly painted to resemble a jackdaw, it has been an ever-present on the shoreline, attracting tourists down to the water for a closer look.

However, the black face depicted on the boulder has stirred up feeling in the community to the extent that it has been defaced by aggrieved and unknown assailants who believe it to be an offensive symbol that promotes old US segregation legislation - called the Jim Crow laws - and mocks people of African heritage.

The phrase 'Jim Crow' is thought to derive from Jump Jim Crow, a song and dance caricature of African-Americans performed by a white actor who painted himself black. It became a pejorative expression in the early 19th century and when the unpopular racial segregation laws were enacted they were dubbed Jim Crow laws.

Now it is thought that linking the Dunoon rock with a racial slur is behind an incident in which the distinctive geological feature was daubed with grey paint overnight on 15 July, the third time in as many years it has been targeted anonymously.

The Jim Crow Rock at
                        Dunoon in Scotland which is causing offence to
                        African-AmericansQ: Recently I heard something about a very strange "Jim Crow Rock" off the shores of Scotland. Are you familiar with this legend and does it really represent a racist caricature?

--Melissa DiVietri, Jackson, Michigan


A: It's not Loch Ness, but it's still a monstrosity.


The Jim Crow Museum is familiar and disturbed by this painted rock that dates back to the early 20th century. It rests off the shores just north of the small Scottish seaside town of Dunoon. The local population is somewhat divided over the idea that it is a monument to racism. From the looks of this thing, it is obvious to us that this object is consistent with the blackface caricatures that populate our museum.

The Jim Crow Rock is painted black, with the words "Jim Crow" in boldface white, and a red mouth. It's blackface in an obsidian form. For us at the Jim Crow Museum, the question remains -- why does this rock hold a special place among the local population? Or, are we as educators over-sensitive to the symbolism that Jim Crow artifacts represent?

The Jim Crow Rock has existed for over 100 years. At times it has been painted over and "vandalized," only to be regenerated by "well-meaning" preservationists. Pro-rock defenders cite the historical footnote that the U.S. Navy had a base in Dunoon for many years without any complaints (on record) from black sailors. Local historians also claim the rock refers to a local builders' yard once owned by a fellow named Jim Crow. However, the Jim Crow Museum has learned that controversy has enveloped this object for decades and that newspaper accounts debating the fate of the rock have routinely stirred passions among the local population.

The Jim Crow Museum has received reports via email of ongoing racial tensions in Dunoon. Originally, the painted rock may have served as a warning to minorities that they were not welcome and to "stay in their place." Recently, individuals who find the rock's symbolism offensive have been publicly discredited and ridiculed. In a newspaper poll taken earlier this year, voters in Dunoon favored keeping the rock intact instead of painting it over by a 5-to-1 margin. Today, we're left with the popular notion that the only people who have issues with the rock are "incomers" with no connection to Dunoon and that it's a harmless landmark of local tradition.

Jim Crow Rock
The Jim Crow Museum believes that in order to promote racial tolerance, people must understand the historical and contemporary expressions of intolerance. In Scotland, all myths aside, there are indeed monsters in the water and lessons to be learned.

Ted Halm, Webmaster, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia

Community leaders said the majority of residents in Dunoon are angry at the act of vandalism, and lay the blame at the door of incomers to the Cowal Peninsula. Police were called in to investigate following a complaint.

"Nobody in Dunoon has thought about Jim Crow being racist as it's been that way for years and this is Great Britain, not America," explained Agnes Skelton, who lives near the rock.

"We've all been brought up with Jim Crow, children are told it was their daddy that put it there. But things have gone too far now, and something's got to be done."

Skelton, a member of Dunoon Community Council, said that feelings have been running high since the rock was overpainted. While it has been restored, she believes those responsible for the action should be apprehended.

"This is the third year the rock has been painted over, and we think it's someone who's come to Dunoon who thought the rock was racist that's responsible. People are very angry as the majority have never ever thought of it as offensive. We've all had our photos taken with it when we were little."

Quite why the rock was painted in such a way, and when it was first decorated, remains open to debate.

According to one local legend, the rock, located near Kirn and Hunters Quay, was painted to resemble a bird by Jim Crow, a tradesman who ran a yard opposite the geological feature.

That, in Skelton's view, is accurate. "Across from Jim Crow there was a wooden mill and the man's name was Crow," she added. "He put it there as an advert for his business."

What is not in doubt is the fact the rock has been painted and touched up by generations - postcards dating as far back as 1904 show the boulder with its blackened face.

However, even if the rock's origins are innocent, experts in racist imagery warn that it could have "harmful," albeit "unintended" consequences. Dr David Pilgrim, curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in the US, said that while he had never encountered the Scottish rock before, it could be perceived as being offensive towards black people.

He said: "I am not an expert on the Dunoon Jim Crow rock. It does, however, seem clear to me that the black face rock is reminiscent of the millions of everyday objects that racially mocked Africans and African Americans in the US and other nations. One could certainly argue that the rock - at different times - was not an intentional symbol of racial insensitivity, but sometimes there are unintended consequences that are harmful. This may be such a case."

Pilgrim, who is based at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, added: "While it is true that the rock, like all objects, has no inherent meanings, it is also true that blackface-caricatured imagery was, and is, a way of belittling black people and a way of creating 'white spaces' - physical spaces where blacks feel unwelcome."

In the wake of the most recent incident, a complaint was received by Strathclyde Police, but ambiguity surrounding the rock's ownership means that any investigation is on hold. "A crime of vandalism cannot be established as it is not possible to trace the ownership of the rock," said a spokeswoman.

See also:
Aberdeen - the worst city for racism
Police pledge swifter response to racism and homophobia
Jim Crow in Scotland:
Gollywog - the 'racist' toy that won't go away
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