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Jockeying for Respect

With His New Children's Book, Waymon LeFall Wants to Change the Way People Think About Lawn Jockeys

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 1/21/2004

Waymon LeFall opens the door of his West Baltimore barbershop wearing a purple and black cowboy outfit that owes equally to his Texas roots and his adopted hometown's football team. He sits down in one of the seven old-fashioned barber chairs that line his shop and tells a story about a little black boy who gave his life for his country. It's a story that LeFall hopes will change a racist artifact into a symbol of African-American pride. It's the story of Jocko Graves, who some believe was the inspiration for the first lawn jockey.

The story goes something like this. During the Revolutionary War, a free black man named Tom Graves joined George Washington's army. Graves' 12-year-old son, Jocko, wanted to go to war too, but was deemed too young. Undeterred, Jocko went anyway. As Washington was preparing to cross the Delaware River for the battle of Trenton, he realized he couldn't transport horses by boat, and that his steeds would have to be waiting on the other side. Jocko volunteered to hold the horses and make sure they were ready when Washington's troops arrived. But during the night, Jocko froze to death awaiting the soldiers, never letting go of the reins. His sacrifice spurred the troops onto victory, and Washington was so touched by the boy's sacrifice that he erected a statue in Jocko's honor at Mount Vernon. This statue, the story goes, was the precursor to the lawn jockey.

Jocko's story has been told many times before in many ways, and details vary from teller to teller. His age fluctuates, as does the side of the river he was standing on. Sometimes he's holding a lantern, sometimes not. But the gist of the story remains the same: Lawn jockeys are not racist reminders of the days of slavery but monuments to an American hero. The only problem is that no one can seem to find any record of Jocko Graves, or for that matter, a statue of an African-American boy at Mount Vernon. But LeFall is a believer. He is determined to bring the story of Jocko to the masses through a small children's book he self-published in November, The Legend of Jocko: Hero of the American Revolution.

"One day everybody will be educated," LeFall says. "And people might feel proud to put Jocko back out there on the lawn, because now he's out there for a reason."

It takes an unlikely man to tell an unlikely story. A third-generation barber born in Dallas, LeFall came to Baltimore in 1966 and opened a chain of barbershops. His shop in Midtown-Edmondson, LeFall and Co. Unisex Hair Salon, has become the cornerstone of the small neighborhood on the city's west side, and LeFall himself has become its unofficial mayor, advocating for the struggling area and serving as its spokesman. In 1995, The Sun ran an article about LeFall's decision to back Mary Pat Clarke over Kurt Schmoke in the mayor's race, and his opinion has been asked on everything from his neighborhood's crime and grime problems to the O.J. Simpson trial verdict. LeFall also markets a line of barbecue products and has started RazorsEdge magazine, geared toward barbers and beauty salons. The first issue includes a lengthy article about LeFall himself.

But LeFall's main passion is Jocko. He originally heard the story from another colorful Baltimore character, Earl Koger Sr., insurance broker, publisher of community newspapers, and author in 1963 of a 32-page children's book called Jocko: A Legend of the American Revolution. Koger's little book was published by Prentice Hall and circulated widely; a copy of it is now held in the collection of the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, which also features a wax figure of the frozen child in its exhibit "And the Little Child Shall Lead Them: Black Youth in the Struggle." But the story of Jocko, like Koger's book, never really caught on.

When Koger died in 1995, LeFall, who worked for one of Koger's newspapers and considered him a mentor, vowed to keep the story of Jocko alive. "I was really under his wing," he says. "We were like father and son working together."

In 2000, LeFall found an old lawn jockey at a junkyard. A few months later, a friend sent him another. This one was hollow, so LeFall decided to use it as a mold to create his own Jocko statues. He brought it to a local foundry and had aluminum and bronze figures made. But he wasn't content with the minstrel-like images of the traditional lawn jockeys.

"When I found Jocko, he had red lips, white eyes, and a black face," he says. "And I don't know of anyone that has red lips, white eyes, and a black face. So we took Jocko and gave him some life, gave him some meaning, gave him an identity as a 12-year-old boy during that time." LeFall convinced longtime friend and painter Matthew "Bay Bay" Williams to hand-paint the sculptures.

But the sculptures didn't sell well. "I just think that Jocko was given a disservice," LeFall says. "We as black people always thought Jocko was a negative. That's why a lot of Jockos were stolen off lawns. They were destroyed. People had to be educated about Jocko because there was such an uproar over the past, the negatives of Jocko."

So in the spring of 2003, with the help of editor Carolyn Gaither-Ellis (whose company Productions Supreme printed the book) and illustrator Gary Phillips, LeFall began putting together a children's book of his own. "I still felt that I wasn't educating the people enough," he says. "I had to go another step."

Geared toward children ages 5 to 12, the 22-page book contains LeFall's version of the Jocko tale, borrowing heavily from Koger. "But when [Washington] landed and approached the precious steeds," LeFall writes toward the conclusion of the book, "he discovered that they were not secured to a stump but held by the little Negro boy, Jocko, who was covered with ice and snow. Jocko had stood all night long, holding the horses for General Washington and had frozen to death."

It ends with a picture of a smiling Jocko statue at Mount Vernon and the words "and a statue of Jocko stepping bravely forward to hold the horses as if saying 'I will', was set upon the lawn."

Still, there are those who dispute the merit of the Jocko story, the lawn jockey, and LeFall's efforts to rescue them from history. To Kenneth Goings, chair of African-American and African Studies at Ohio State University and author of a book about African-American memorabilia called Mammy and Uncle Mose, the lawn jockey cannot and should not be reclaimed.

"There's been other attempts to reclaim other things, like the Mammy cookie jars," Goings says. "I don't think that they're going to be successful. I don't think that they can be reclaimed. They are meant to evoke that old South, grand plantation, Gone With the Wind mythology, and I'm not sure they can evoke anything else."

Goings also doesn't see any historical basis for the tale. "Something like that would have popped up in some primary sources," he says.

The historians at Washington's home, Mount Vernon, agree. In a 1987 letter to the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Mount Vernon librarian Ellen McCallister Clark wrote that "the story is apocryphal, conveying a message about heroism among blacks during the Revolutionary War and General Washington's humanitarian concerns, but it is not based on an actual incident. Neither a person by the name of Jocko Graves, nor the account of any person freezing to death while holding Washington's horses has been found in any of the extensive records of the period. Likewise, the Mount Vernon estate was inventoried and described by a multitude of visitors over the years and there has never been any indication of anything resembling a 'jockey' statue on the grounds. I have put the story in the category with the cherry tree and silver dollar, fictional tales that were designed to illustrate a particular point."

"It's a true story," insists LeFall, back in his barbershop. "It has been erased. It's not there anymore, but that doesn't mean that Jocko wasn't there, because Jocko is here and he's all over the world."

Joann Martin, co-founder of the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, likewise feels that the lack of documentation doesn't necessarily disprove the Jocko legend, pointing out that much of the documentation of black history has been lost. But regardless of the factual basis, Martin feels that the story serves a purpose. "Whatever the reality may be--and there's always truth in any story--the important thing for me is that, just as the John Henry legend or the legend of Paul Bunyan or any of those legends, that there's always some kind of moral lesson," Martin says. She also points to the use of lawn jockeys in the Underground Railroad to warn escaped slaves of danger, or to signal a safe house by tying brightly colored fabric to the statue's arm or lighting a lantern in its hands, as other reasons the jockeys should be remembered.

Regardless of the evidence--or lack of it--LeFall has faith in his little American hero. "Jocko is for real," he says. "If you don't believe in Jocko, then ask yourself, where did he come from? And if you can't answer that, believe in something. Believe in Jocko."

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