Sitting on a stool in a small, black-owned Capitol Hill bar and grill with a paper cup full of vodka and water before him, James A. Campbell removes his eyeglasses, positions the end of the right handle in front of his eye and taps his eye three times.
"I have one plastic eye. So I put it in my wife's pocketbook to watch what she's doing. Got to keep an eye on a woman, you know," Campbell says, slapping his knee and chuckling.
An amiable art historian, Campbell was born in Waxsaw, N.C., and is fond of working with his hands, walking, talking, joking and drinking.
Few things bother the easygoing 62-year-old Campbell, who lost his eye as the result of a childhood accident. But, he says, "I can't stand it when people refuse to face the facts." He runs into a lot of that when trying to make people face the facts about the history of a slave boy named Jocko Graves. According to a story heard by Campbell when he was a child, Graves was a hero in the Revolutionary War.
However, Graves' heroism, Campbell says, was honored in the form of a small cast-iron statute commissioned by Gen. George Washington and used as a hitching post. After the Civil War, Campbell says, the Graves statue was demeaned by the knee-high figures of servile black men with grinning faces and extended right hands holding rings. It became common for wealthy whites, in the North and South, to use them as hitching posts, doorstops and frontyard showpieces.
Even today, such statutes are frequently seen on front lawns, often with white rather than black faces, a reflection of changing racial sensitivity.
Abe Sauer, general manager of the Tennessee Fabricating Co., an ornamental metal works distributor in Memphis says that over the years the company has almost completely stopped making the Jocko figures (called "lead or stable boy statuaries")."The stable boy has practically died because of the present public attitude towards them," Sauer says. "Most blacks consider them demeaning. But, the way I view it . . . statutories aren't built to demean people, they're built to honor."
Campbell agrees. During the Bicentennial Celebration, Campbell committed himself to keeping alive the legend of the humble yet gallant slave boy. He founded the Friends of Jocko Club and dedicated his Capitol Hill home to his hero (large black letters now emblazon "Jocko Graves" across the front of his house). In 1976, Campbell met Earl Koger, an author of children's books who had published the "Legend of Jocko" in 1963.
Koger said he discovered the Jocko story while reaching the "Journal of Nicholas Cresswel," a descendant of a British land-owning family who spent the years between 1774 and 1777 in America. Koger said he also found other historical references to Jocko.
According to the legend, during the Revolutionary War, Jocko Graves and his father Tom volunteered to serve in the Continental Army under Gen. Washington. After losing battles at Fort Lee and Fort Washington, the general desperately needed a victory to restore morale and gain military advantage. So Washington planned the Battle of Trenton (N.J.), which included a surprise attack on the British and Hessian troops on Christmas Eve, 1776.
To carry out the mission successfully, Campbell says, Washington had to ferry his army across the Delaware River and pick up new horses on the other side. Graves was among those who volunteered to go ahead of the main force, find horses, and wait for Washington.
When Washington arrived late in the night, he saw the horses tied to what looked like a hitching post. Once he got closer, he saw that the reins were fixed firmly to Graves' hands. But the courageous boy had frozen to death during the bitter cold of the night's vigil.
"Jocko didn't stand out there in the cold and die out of stupidity," says Campbell, edging forward in his favorite living room chair and shaking his head slowly, deliberately. "He was determined." There was a good reason for Graves' dogged determination, says the proud Campbell. He knew Washington would free him after the war for serving in his army.
Before proceeding with the surprise attack, "Washington told his men about Jocko's dedication and they felt so inspired, they captured 1,000 Hessians," Campbell says. "After the war, Washington ordered that a dove of peace be made to symbolize America's victory and an iron statue be made to honor Jocko."
The dove remains atop Washington's home at Mount Vernon, but the research library there says there is no record of Jocko Graves. Campbell is undeterred by Mount Vernon's nonconfirmation. "People in this country have covered up the history of blacks better than Nixon covered up Watergate."
Campbell, who lives on East Capitol Street SE near the Stadium-Armory Starplex, is an Advisory Neighborhood commissioner (anc 6B-SMD 10), an 18-year volunteer with the Boy Scouts, a member of a Ward 6 crime control committee and a Kiwanis Club member. Listed in Who's Who Among Black Americans in 1978, Campbell is best known for his work at the Smithsonian Institution, where he worked diligently to "get out of the unruly weather" that he was subjected to as an outdoor laborer and get promoted to an "inside job" as the museum's first black model maker and exhibit specialist.
Campbell traveled to Ghana in 1968 to study various African art forms, and honed his talent at the old Federal City College where he studied art from 1968 to 1970. He received much praise both from superiors and from the general public during his 20-year tenure at the Smithsonian. He retired lin 1978.
His friends of Jocko club now has 50 members, and Vernon Jones, 17, serves as president. "It's a nice club," Campbell says."Most of our functions are in the summer. We go on picnics or go to amusement parks when we raise enough money helping senior citizens." The nonprofit group cleans yards, paints, visits hospitals and sponsors bake sales. Although the group doesn't charge for its work, it does accept donations.
Jones, a senior at KcKinley High School, said, "We like helping senior citizens, but there aren't many left around here to help." During the past few years, dozens of black, elderly people and entire families have been displaced.
"Young, wealthy whites are coming into this area like bees after honey," says Campbell, who is married, has three children and owns a single-family home that he has lived in for 20 years and has been renovating "inch by inch" for the past 10.
"This will soon be an exclusive section of town, so I look forward to seeing some Jockos popping up in front yards around here. That'll be good if the whites realize that they're paying tribute to blacks and not trying to degrade us. I'm proud of my race. I think that every Jocko statuette should be taken off ground level and put on a 6-foot-high pedestal to give him the dignity and respect he deserves."