The Jockey and the Jeweler

Lonnie Clayton

 

Both men built splendid Queen Anne style homes in North Little Rock, Clayton’s in 1895 and Colburn’s in 1897. They also built commercial buildings – Colburn’s in 1894 and Clayton’s in 1897 – within two blocks of each other on the west side of Main Street, then named Newton Avenue. The houses have survived and are on the National Register of Historic Places, known today as the Engelberger House at 2105 Maple St. in the North Argenta Addition, where Clayton lived, and the Baker House at 109 W. Fifth St. in the Clendenin Addition, where Colburn lived. While neither Clayton nor Colburn lived in their respective domiciles for more

than a few years before moving away, they inadvertently made enough of an impression in their brief time here to start one of North Little Rock’s great legends, which may have entwined them and their houses forever in popular memory. The gist of the legend can be found on a plaque at the Baker House, now a bed and breakfast. The plaque, erected in 1978 after restoration of the historic property, tells, in part, that: “Mr. Colburn, a negro, became quite well known as a jockey in England. On his return home, he built one of the finest homes in North Little Rock, but was prevented from living in it because of his color.” U.S. Census records, local newspaper accounts from the 1890s and Little Rock-Argenta city directories are among the primary sources that identify Colburn as a white watch repairman, not a black jockey. But articles in the Arkansas Gazette in late 1896 and early 1897 also confirm that Colburn built the Baker House as his residence, located behind his commercial building, which faced Newton Avenue and which the newspapers called “Colburn’s Block” on the northwest corner of what is now Fifth and Main streets. Meanwhile, Clayton’s name, often followed by the description, “famous colored jockey,” appeared numerous times in the Gazette’s North Side Gossip column in the mid- to late 1890s, remarkable in that the press typically wrote of African Americans in a criminal, comic or tragic light rather than in a professional, business or social context. As a teenager Clayton was a national figure, known as a come-from-behind artist who could and did win high stakes races from New York to California and in between. After moving to Arkansas in 1886 with his parents, Robert and Evaline Clayton, and siblings, he ran away from home at age 12 to join older brother Albertus who rode for prominent stable owner E.J. “Lucky” Baldwin in Chicago. “Lonnie” Clayton, as the light-skinned 90-pounder came to be known at racetracks, debuted as a jockey in 1890 at Clifton, N.J. and won his first race later that year on the Clifton track. But on May 11, 1892, little Lonnie Clayton rode into history on Azra, winning the Kentucky Derby by a nose and becoming the youngest at 16 (the Derby’s official record lists his age as 15) to grace the winner’s circle. He would finish in the money in three more Kentucky Derbies over the next few years, placing twice and showing once. By 1898, he had won dozens of big stakes races all over the country and especially in rich venues such as Saratoga, Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and Morris Park in Westchester County, New York. Edward Hotaling, author of The Great Black Jockeys credited Clayton as “one of the great riders of the New York circuit all through the 1890s[.]” Locally, Clayton also won the Little Rock Jockey Club’s Arkansas Derby in 1895 and placed in 1897 at Clinton Park in the vicinity today of Adams Field. A correspondent who interviewed Clayton during one of his visits here described him as educated and “exceptionally bright” in an article published on March 7, 1896 in the Thoroughbred Record. During his off season in the winter Clayton lived in his North Argenta home, which included stables in back, and reportedly loved to read, hunt and raise dogs. But the rigor of his annual itinerary, starting in New Orleans in the winter and ending in California or New York in the fall, took a toll both physically and financially. If Clayton raced in England, as legend has it, the evidence is two reports in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1896 and 1900 that he would go there. So far, nothing else other than legend says he actually went there.

Yet for all his fame, Lonnie Clayton was forgotten, not just in Argenta; he virtually disappeared after his career ended in the early 1900s, before he was 30 years old. Colburn, too, was not heard from again in Argenta after 1901, except in legend. While the city directories here listed him as either A.E. Colburn or Albert E. Colburn, the census gives his name as Artemas E. Colburn. He up and sold his stylish house and other holdings and may have gone to Alaska in search of gold. By 1910, he was living in Seattle, according to that year’s census, and it is not known what happened to him after that. Colburn’s home at 109 W. Fifth St. was historically designated the Baker House and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, named for Cadmus J. Baker, a North Little Rock school superintendent from 1904 to 1906 and then a pawn broker until 1939. His family owned the house until 1977. The register nomination noted: “Although not supported by fact, an interesting story surrounds the construction of the house. It is thought that Colburn was a native of North Little Rock, but had, at some point, become quite well known in England as a jockey . . . According to the story, Colburn was strongly discouraged from being in his newly constructed house because he was black.” Local historians rediscovered Clayton in the mid-1980s, but knew little about him. The 1990 National Register nomination for the Engelberger House got Clayton’s name right as the black jockey of lore, though it expressed skepticism since “the same exact legend was told about the builder of the Baker House, which later proved to be untrue.” In the case of the Engelberger House, however, there is evidence in the attic, where the names of Clayton and eight of his siblings were written in pencil on the east wall. The writer of the nomination erroneously thought that the names were of Clayton’s children. Nothing shows that Clayton ever married or had children. Veteran genealogist Suzanne Jackson of the North Little Rock History Commission has researched the names over the past year and found that they were written in birth order. Below the names of Clayton and his siblings was drawn a feather motif, under which was written, “Mama and Papa Clayton” and “1899” and “goodbye”. Next to that on a base board was drawn what appears to be a jockey and under that was written, “Ragtime Jimmie,” which remains a mystery.  The owners of the house, Ferrell and Linda Johnson (she is an Engelberger descendant), have provided access to the premises for the History Commission and art conservator Wendell Norton. In addition, the Johnsons have donated copies of family genealogical information and a deed abstract, which shows that Clayton purchased the property in late 1893 and sold it, with a Queen Anne home on two lots, in July 1900 for $3,000. Jackson also has tracked down descendants of Clayton, including his nephew, Robert Clayton Westbrook of Los Angeles, a retired police officer. On Tuesday, Westbrook and his wife Jewel and their son and daughter, Darryl and Pamela, will be honored at a reception hosted by the Commission at (ironically) the Baker House.

Accounts in the Gazette during the 1890s leave no doubt that the Claytons lived in the Engelberger House, which was named after Joseph Engelberger, a German-Swiss immigrant to Argenta in the early 1880s who owned a saloon and restaurant and bought Clayton’s home in 1912. The writing in the attic lends further proof that the Claytons lived there, contradicting the legend that the jockey never moved in. Oral tradition in the neighborhood also linked a black jockey to the Engelberger House. Two retirees who grew up near the house, Bob Engelberger and Herman Shirley, chairman of the North Little Rock History Commission, recall hearing the story as children. Better yet, the Westbrooks have provided a copy of a family photo of the house, taken sometime between 1895 and 1899. It shows an African American man standing in front of the house between a dog and a one-horse carriage. On the porch appears to be two women, a child and two dogs – or it might be two children and one dog, but it is difficult to tell due to the poor condition of the original picture, which is in a scrapbook that was kept by Clayton’s youngest sister (Westbrook’s mother), Bessie, who died in 1965. None of the people in the photograph have been positively identified. Written in the scrapbook above the photo was “Happy Childhood Memories” and below was written, “My Home” and “Little Rock Arkansas”. Under that was drawn a feather motif like the one drawn in the attic of the Engelberger House, leading to speculation that Bessie Clayton was the one who wrote and drew in the attic.  But did Clayton and his family leave their palatial home as a result of his race? While that part of the legend may not be fact – the house was located in a racially mixed neighborhood – it is not far from the truth when viewed in the historical context nationally. Race historian Edward Hotaling contends that racism drove black jockeys out of the sport they had dominated since the mid-1600s. And after they were ostracized, he says, they were “written out” of history. “It was bigotry,” Hotaling wrote in The Great Black Jockeys, “in the form of big money and physical threats and outright exclusion, which was as widely practiced as if it were writ, that explained the vanishing of the black jockeys.” Clayton’s best year was 1895 when he posted 144 victories and finished in the money in 403 of 688 mounts, according to Goodwin’s Official Turf Guide. His winnings had dwindled to nothing by 1900. That was the year he sold his home, after moving away in late 1899. In 1901, Clayton sold his commercial building at 617-619 Main Street, which stood until about 1980 and for many years housed a dry cleaning company owned by Charles and Robert Kirspel. In 1906, Clayton’s parents, Robert and Evaline Clayton, sold the farm their son had bought them in the 1890s in a section of Brushy Island now in Sherwood and moved to Los Angeles to live with their son-in-law and daughter, Adolphus and Bessie Clayton Westbrook.  Although Clayton attempted a couple of comebacks, the press said he was overweight. On March 24, 1904, the Arkansas Democrat quoted Clayton as saying, “I am going to try to get back in the game with the best of them and if trying counts for anything I’ll succeed.”  He may have raced at the long defunct Essex Park track in Hot Springs in 1904 and possibly at Oaklawn Park the next year, but he was unable to regain his old form. National horse racing historians haven’t known when or where Clayton died. But research by the North Little Rock History Commission this past year ran down Clayton’s death certificate, which states that he died on March 17, 1917, in Los Angeles at age 41 of “chronic pulmonary tuberculosis.” Working as a hotel bellhop for the Union League, a fraternal organization founded by the Republican Party, Clayton had lived in California for three years, according to the certificate. On April 7, 1917, the Chicago Defender published a short obituary that noted: “Several years ago Lonnie Clayton was a famous jockey, and one of the highest salaried jockeys on the turf.” Nothing is known of Clayton from about 1905 to 1914, though he probably was living in near family in California. The Washington Post published a story on Sept. 10, 1911, titled, “Passing of the Negro Jockey: Colored Rider Is As Rare On The Tracks Of Today As Is A Gray Horse.” One passage observed: “The Claytons – Lonny (sic) particularly – lasted perhaps better than any of the other boys riding, for the reason that they took good care of themselves, but the white boys outstripped them, and they had sense enough to retire while they still had some of the money they earned.” Clayton himself had lamented in an interview with the Daily Leader in Lexington, Ky., published on Feb. 12, 1898, under the headline, “Die Poor,” that the life of a jockey was not all glamour. “When I am riding right along I have four men under salary, and it takes a lot to keep them a-going,” he said. But most jockeys end up penniless, he added, especially the gamblers. “There are a few notable exceptions to the general rule that jockeys die poor,” he rued. At least one jockey we know of built a historic house and spawned a local legend.

Cary Bradburn

Historian

North Little Rock History Commission