Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Is the legend of Jocko Graves a true story?


If you're from the North East, or any old part of the country, it isn't anything to see one of these lawn jockey statues in the front of old houses. My grandmother had one. I used to climb on him and think about how heavy he felt. In recent years, these statues are becoming more and more rare and at a glance, it isn't hard to see why. They look like racist relics of the past, a reminder of closed minded people. Sometimes these lawn jockeys will be vandalized or destroyed because they are believed to be the statues of racist homeowners.

The black paint, big red painted lips, and big white eyes of these caricature lawn jockeys appear to be nothing more than racist lawn ornaments. But is there more than meets the eye? The offensive stereotypical African American statues aren't the only kinds of lawn jockey. There is a far less racist version, and it often depicts the jockey as a white person. These versions were first made in 1872. They are common today and no one thinks they are racist statues.

There are some people out there that believe these little statues are tributes to the past, specifically to one historical individual that was a hero. Lawn Jockeys, as racist and stereotypical as they appear, may have started out as statues to honor what could be the first black war hero. Others are quick to dismiss this theory. I will discuss why both sides of the argument feel the way they do.

You first need to understand why anybody would think these statues could be anything but racist reminders of different times. It supposedly all started with a boy named Jocko.

The Legend of Jocko Graves

The legend of Jocko Graves, as it is often called, starts back in the American Revolution. As General George Washington was about to fight the British in the battle of Trenton, he first had to cross the Delaware river. We are all very familiar with the epic depiction of that particular historical moment. Right before they crossed, they gathered on the Pennsylvania side of the river. Washington had a young slave boy with him supposedly named Jocko. He told Jocko to watch the horses until they came back, and to hold a lantern showing them where to return. Jocko took his job very seriously because when the army returned they found little Jocko had died. He froze to death during the night. Instead of getting warm or deserting the horses, young Jocko died in the middle of his service to General Washington. Sometimes the legend says he still had the horse reigns in his hands and others say he was still holding a lantern. As the story goes, Washington was so moved by Jocko's devotion to his orders, that he erected a statue of him when he returned to his home, Mount Vernon. In some versions of the legend the boy was buried underneath this statue. As years went by, people that visited Mount Vernon were touched by the slave boy statue and began to copy it. After all, George Washington was a hero and trendsetter of the period, who didn't want to be like him? The statue could also be used as a hitching post, and that was very useful in times of horse and carriages. That's why the statue often has a ring in his outreached hand. If this story is true, then Jocko Graves could be thought of as one of the first African American heroes.

Why People Think the Legend is Not True

There are many scholars and historians that feel there is no truth behind this story. They actually have a lot of reasons, but I found every one of their reasons why the story isn't true also has a counter reason that would make it true. First, their reasons why it isn't true.

  • There is no record of a Jocko Graves as a person.
  • There was no account of a slave boy being with the army that night.
  • Slaves didn't have last names. 
  • Washington wouldn't have cared if a slave boy died.
  • There is no statue at Mount Vernon.
  • There is no record of a slave boy statue ever being at Mount Vernon. 
  • Like the cherry tree story, it was a made up story to make a point. 

All good reasons and after hearing them, it's easy to see why so many people dismiss the story as a made up legend. However, I think there are many counter arguments to each one of these.

There is no record of Jocko Graves as a person. No record of a slave boy shouldn't be all that strange though. Sure slaves were property and well documented to who owned them, but a 12 year old boy wouldn't have been worth nearly as much as a full grown man. Therefore, keeping solid records of children might not have been as important. But one thing that stands out would be that "Jocko" might not have been the boy's name. It might be a nickname, or might be the name Washington used. If that was the case, there would be no record of anyone by the name of Jocko.

There has been no historical account of a slave boy being with Washington the night of the Battle of Trenton. Why would there have been? A slave or servant of Washington wouldn't have been in military records. Washington might have brought him along from home. Blacks were still slaves in 1776, nobody gave them the same treatment as white people. Listing a slave with all the other white soldiers isn't something they would have considered. This would make sense why Jocko Graves was never mentioned in any historical accounts of the Battle, not to mention that standing with a bunch of horses while everybody else fought, wasn't all that important of a thing for anybody to jot down at the time.

However, there is one eye-witness account that tells about 3 deaths that happened that night. Two of those men are accounted for, but the third is unnamed. Could this have been the boy Jocko? 

Slaves didn't have last names. They didn't but they often had the last name of their owner so either way the name "Graves" doesn't make sense. I, and many others, think that the last name Graves was made up for the story, because the boy does die and he didn't have a last name. If the part of the story was true and Jocko was actually buried under his statue, then it could be possible that it was known as "Jocko's Grave." If people began to copy the statue for their own homes, they may have been known as "Jocko Graves." In time, referring to the boy and the statue may have become the same thing.

Washington wouldn't have cared if a slave boy died. I don't think that is necessarily true. If he had a boy with him and gave him a direct order, the odds were that he was close with this slave boy. Jocko could have come with Washington and been his personal servant. He may have even been his son, as it wasn't uncommon for the Masters to have children with slaves, of course those children were only looked at as slaves. Did Washington feel a stronger connection to this slave boy though? It would explain for his actions after Jocko's death. The statue at Mount Vernon would then make sense.

There is no statue at Mt. Vernon. It's fair to say the place has changed since 1776. Again, let's say the story was true. Washington may have been proud of Jocko but very few would have had the same opinion. A statue of any slave would have been unheard of, especially a slave boy. Many people at Mount Vernon may have found the statue to be unsightly, and if Jocko was in fact buried there, a tribute grave site on the grounds for a slave boy may have been something they just didn't want around. Keep in mind how white people viewed slaves in the 1700's. I could see this statue coming down the day after George Washington died. Forgotten and out of memory for 200 years. It has been so long and since there is no statue there today, most people would say it was never there. This would account for no record of a slave statue being at Mount Vernon. It may have been very small, or it may have been in a slave grave site, making it very easy for someone to dispose of it soon after Washington was gone.

It was a made up story just to prove a point, much like Washington chopping down the cherry tree story. Possibly, after all it would be one of the first heroes for African Americans. I see a major problem in this because of how old the story is. The lawn jockey goes so far back, that nobody was trying to make up stories to make black people feel better in those years. No one really cared to do that when the first lawn jockey was becoming popular. If this story came out today, I'd say yes, sounds like a feel good story we can all get behind but it is over 200 years old. I highly doubt someone went out of their way to create a lawn ornament that had a compelling, touching story that was intended to make black people feel good. Why would anyone do that in the 1700's? Was the story just to sell lawn jockeys? Again, it is possible, but why a story like that? Depicting a slave boy as a hero wouldn't have helped to sell lawn jockeys to rich white people. 

 Over the years the statue itself changed. The earliest version looks very much like what an original statue of Jocko Graves may have been at Mount Vernon. Another reason why the legend might be a true story. The earliest version would have been closest to the original. It wasn't offensive or racist looking when it was first created, possibly meaning it wasn't mean to be funny or a joke. The caricature version that came out in the 1880's on the other hand.....

I don't know if the legend of Jocko Graves is true but I do know there is often truth behind legends. Maybe it didn't happen in the exact way the story says, but there could have been a child named Jocko that aided Washington during the Revolution. The lawn jockey had to be based on SOMETHING.

Eventually the lawn jockey started to become more and more rare due to the automobile. No one needed a hitching post for a horse any more. The ring was then replaced by a lantern and the lawn jockey continued to be a very popular decoration. The one at my grandmother's house had a lantern in his hand that was used to light up the driveway.

Lawn jockeys are still being made and can still be bought. I really like the horse jockey style. They can come in any color combination and sometimes they are made to represent real people.

The next time you see a lawn jockey don't be so quick to deem it racist. The idea behind it might be honoring a brave boy that George Washington called a hero, but that's just my two cents.




1 comment:

Jill Ramsey said...

The name Graves is a very common one in Virginia. It's very possible it was a real surname and not symbolic of Jocko's death.
Most slaves took the family name of their owner when needed.
Also I've read that Jocko's father, Tom Graves was a freeman, neither he nor his son were slaves.