Not too long ago, a man entered the shop where I was working here in Maitland and asked me how he could find the one I knew as Jocko Graves. This middle-aged man told me he had brought his entire family up from Sydney to experience the sites of Morpeth and decided it was also the perfect opportunity to come to Maitland and try to find Jocko, “to see him with my own two eyes” as he put it. The man said he was brought up with Jocko stories told to him by his father, and had always wanted to track him down for himself. For the next twenty-five minutes we talked about our mutual acquaintance.
Jocko Graves, an immigrant from the United States, had been in Maitland for a very long time. He has lived to witness the career of Les Darcy, the 1955 flood and even the arrival of Princess Diana and Prince Charles in 1982. Since the construction of the Heritage Mall back in 1988, he has since left the public eye and seemingly gone into hiding, thus leaving a lot of us wondering whether he even exists anymore. It is believed that his history and troubled past, the colour of his skin and, most importantly, what he came to represent, all contributed to his fall from grace and his absence from the public eye, yet it hasn’t stopped people thinking about him.
The Central Business District Management and The Tourist Centre, once Jocko’s greatest allies for his tireless work in the community are now embarrassed and choose not to acknowledge his contribution to tourism and his part in making Maitland the town it is today. They refer to him now as “it”, “him” and the belittlingly term of “Maitland’s Little Icon” due to his famously short stature; it seems through his many years, Jocko has been known by many names, but nothing so disrespectful.
It seems that his past is becoming more mythical as time moves on. When pushed, people do have memories of his greatness and how he affected their lives and the countless generations before them, yet the question remains,
What happened to Maitland’s Jocko Graves…?.
It’s December 25th 1776, On this, a cold Christmas night, General George Washington and his small army are about to cross the Delaware River at McConkey’s Ferry, in Bucks County Pennsylvania. His goal is to attack a Hessian garrison, 1500 men strong, in the New Jersey town of Trenton. At that point, however, General Washington was already battling desparation and fatigue. Although promised a larger and more permanent military force by the Continental Congress the previous October, at that moment the commitment wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. At the present, it was only Washington and his 2400 men, who had already endured so much and were practically at the end of their collective tether, physically and mentally. Washington realised that if he didn’t act quickly and attack with the force that he had, it would only be a matter of time before his army would fade away to nothing. A sudden strike to the garrison at Trenton would give him and his men the upper hand but would also serve as an equally important morale boost, for him and his men. This was one of the lowest points for the Rebels during the American Revolution. By the end of 1776 the fight for independence from the British was slowly beginning to appear un-winnable. As the British forces racked up more and more victories they seemed indomitable. It would seem that the success of the whole revolution would rest on the shoulders of Washington’s men at Trenton. If they managed to secure a victory there, surely it would lift the spirits of the rest of the rebel force.
Legend has it, that a man by the name of Tom Graves joined George Washington’s army and was taking part in this attack. Graves had a 12-year-old son, who also wanted to join the battle, and fight alongside his father, but of course he was too young. At any rate, the younger Graves was determined not to miss out, and was acutely aware of the importance of the revolution to the American people. He decided to go anyway.
As Washington was preparing to cross the Delaware River for the battle of Trenton he realized that he could not ferry all of the horses across the river at the same time. Some of his steeds would have to wait on the other side. The 12-year-old Graves volunteered to hold the horses and make sure that they were ready when Washington’s troops arrived.
…. Jocko’s history is a little messed up, and it is hard to decipher fact from myth but from the sketchy history found on Jocko it seems that no sooner had he arrived into Maitland, as a part of the company FRIEND & Co, a U.S based foundry, he fell in love with Maitland and began working full time on high street and stayed there for more than 80 years.
Jocko worked tirelessly within the community, dividing his time up working for Macdonald’s Tobacconist as one of the country’s first spruikers and he soon became a popular face for tourism in the town.
Jocko worked on fundraising, RSL related work, and he helped with council issues and promotions. Even with the arrival of the “Heritage” Mall in 1988, although very outspoken in his views against it, he still found the time to be the face of all the promotions and because of his love for the town, did everything he could to “Show the world what Maitland is all about”.
Jocko became so popular that his popularity began to work against him. He was basically taken for granted, and soon became a cause for embarrassment; he was the symbol for Maitland, and consequently brought unwanted attention and publicity.
A key point in the downfall of Jocko Graves occurred on one dark and stormy night when, after a big day of working, when on his beloved High Street he was brutally attacked and kidnapped. People searched for him for days, fearing the worst, but he finally turned up, a bit battered and bruised, but still in reasonably good shape, especially for his age. The council and CBD management were scared and worried, citing Jocko’s age as a significant consideration, the Maitland Council decided it would be time to forcefully retire Jocko and find a “replacement” to fill his job within the community. Nothing official was ever released to the public, but a lot of people feel this was the last nail in the coffin for Jocko. A man who loved his adopted town, was forced to stop what he loved.
“The guy loved Maitland, he would die for Maitland, and here’s the council stopping him doing what he loves”
“I remember taking my daughter to see him, because my mother did the same to me, Every year at Christmas time we would go to the Galton’s building to see Santa and then we’ll find him on some street, sometimes with a broom sweeping, and we’ll wish him a merry Christmas, it really makes me sad that they don’t recognise how much he has done for the community, hell they should even make a statue…”
“I remember hearing stories about them painting on him, urinating on him, and sometimes throwing stuff at him while he swept, no respect, I always pictured him as a nice sort of fellow”
“He loved this town, He would always dress up in the local teams colours on grand final days, I never even met a man so passionate about a town as he was, and the thing was, he was a Yank”
“I was told that the council was using this kidnap fiasco as an excuse to finally get rid of him”
This may have well been the case, when the mall finally took over, so did the rise of political correctness. We began to see people suing over the slightest thing, and the threat of any possible offensive behaviour mixed with Graves’ famous outgoing nature and strong beliefs were constantly under the microscope. Soon The Maitland C.B.D. management and local council decided to take a step back and distance themselves from Jocko. The risks of being associated with the aging icon were becoming too high. The organizations that had once used him and his likenesses on everything, from letterheads to balloons and bumper stickers, became unreasonable and abandoned Jocko when he needed them most. Soon the council and the C.B.D. management stopped talking about him, and the “Maitland’s Little Icon” tag was born, out of necessity, when outsiders would enquire about him. Jocko Graves was now broken, unwanted and seemingly unappreciated. The town that he gave so much for, didn’t seem want to know about him anymore…
…All night long, the young boy stood, near frozen from the ice and snow, holding onto Washington’s horses. The surprise attack on the garrison at Trenton was underway. During the night the 12-year-old boy eventually froze to death whilst awaiting the soldiers’ return, never letting go of the reins. The boy was known as Jocko and his father, Tom Graves, was amongst the 60 volunteer Negro troops in Washington’s immediate command. It is said that the boy’s sacrifice spurred the troops on to victory over the Trenton garrison. Furthermore, Washington was said to be so impressed by Jocko’s heroism, that he passed his story on to his officers, who in turn passed the story on to their men. In this fashion Jocko’s story was passed down through the ranks and served to inspire the Rebel troops, restoring their hope and valour as if by magic. The Colonials charged the Red Coats and Hessians at Trenton, routing the garrison, killing and capturing over 1,000 royalists. Only four Rebels died; two in battle and two frozen to death. The young Negro boy, Jocko, was counted among the latter.
After the War, and upon becoming the first President of the United States, George Washington returned to his estate at Mount Vernon. It was here that he ordered two sculptures to be erected commemorating America’s great political and military crisis; one was a “A Dove of Peace”, the other was a statue featuring a young Negro boy named “Jocko”, stepping bravely forward to hold the horses. It is this statue that became the origin for the now controversial “Lawn Jockey” statues and similar horse hitching posts. This is where our story begins…
Maitland’s Jocko Graves, is indeed a statue, and although Maitland Council and C.B.D management will refer to him as “Maitland’s Little Icon”, you and I would know him as “The Little Black Boy”.
He has been part of Maitland since 1866, when the company FRIEND & Co brought him here as a gift to the MacDonald’s Tobacconist outside whose late Victorian shop front on High Street Maitland he has stood at since 1956. The Little Black Boy has since graced many tourism magazine covers & pamphlets, bumper stickers, council letterheads and numerous company advertisements. At one stage, anything to do with Maitland would not have been complete without an image of the Little Black Boy. Yet he has been slowly replaced with brightly coloured images of vineyards, coffee shops and politically friendly imagery. Maitland is also not regarded as an “historic” town anymore, but that’s another story. The fact that the Little Black Boy is no longer being used only reinforces the notion that political correctness may have rendered him obsolete. The fact that “The Little Black Boy” tag is avoided when possible illustrates that the council is obviously afraid to use his image during these P.C times. Evidently they are motivated by the fear that they might promote black slavery, or any other form of negativity towards a black person. Yet, whether the legend of Jocko Graves is true or not, the statue still represents something positive. I personally that feel if this story got out, then perhaps it might help to create a better understanding of the statue.
People will finally know that:
He wasn’t aboriginal (a common misconception);
The statue was designed to represent an African-American EMANCIPATED SLAVE joining the fight with George Washington for Independence and as such,
Jocko is a symbol used to inspire others about dedication and fighting in what you believe in.
He isn’t an original piece, he had been mass-produced, but since the advent of Political Correctness a lot of them have either been destroyed or painted white. He is what is known as a lawn jockey, of which there are at least two versions, ones that were dressed in rags and the others, more minstrel like, were dressed as jockey’s, hence the Lawn Jockey tag. Both incarnations have become collectors items, and quite a lot have been painted White.
A university in the United States had similar problems with their own Jocko, which was prominently featured out the front of the establishment. Many visitors would be instantly offended by the “brazen offensive statue” but once they read the plague that outlined Jocko’s history, most would walk away with a new appreciation, something Maitland’s CBD could consider.
There is a legend that these lawn jockeys were used with the famous Underground Railroad throughout the American South back in the 1800s. Escaping slaves understood then that the jockey statue would guide them to the Underground Railroad and onto freedom. When needed, they would also point to safe houses along the railroad.
“These statues were used as markers on the Underground Railroad throughout the South into Canada,” said historian/author Charles Blockson, curator of the Afro-American Collection at Temple University in Philadelphia. “Green ribbons were tied to the arms of the statue to indicate safety; red ribbons meant to keep going. People who don’t know the history of the jockey have feelings of humiliation and anger when they see the statue,” he added. “But this figure which was sometimes used in a clandestine nature, and sometimes without the knowledge of the person who owned the statue, was a positive and supportive image to American-Americans on the road to freedom.”
This could explain the variations of Jocko statues over the years from his traditional hitching post pose, to that of him holding a lantern. Jocko, or should I say, The Little Black Boy is appreciated in some parts of the United States as we are with THE DOG ON THE TUCKER Box at Gundagai. Both represent loyalty even when faced with death.
All I can say is, Let’s Bring back the Boy….
A film was made in 2008 based on this article and can be seen here: