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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.
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.
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