America's forgotten black horsemen: Finding new audiences

Prominent black jockeys Jimmy Winkfield (left) and Isaac Murphy. Images provided by the Keeneland Library.

The first Kentucky Derby, in 1875, was won by Aristides. On his back was a black jockey, Oliver Lewis; the man who trained him, Ansel Williamson, was also black. Five years earlier, Kingfisher had won the Belmont Stakes, ridden by Edward Brown, trained by Raleigh Colston, both men who had been born into slavery.

That first Kentucky Derby featured a dozen black riders, young men who had learned about horses from the slaves of a prior generation. Black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 runnings of America’s best-known race.  

But since jockey Jimmy Winkfield won his second consecutive Kentucky Derby in 1902, no black rider has won the Run for the Roses, and only a small handful of African-American jockeys have even competed in it, most recently Kevin Krigger on Goldencents in 2013.

The dominance of black riders can be traced directly to the antebellum South, to a system of slavery that saw the white elite entrusting the horses they owned to the humans they owned. Through their horsemanship, generations of slaves earned positions of privilege and an unusual, if restricted, freedom denied field and house slaves. 

And while the disappearance of black horsemen from U.S. racing in the early 1900s is well documented, less well known is how the very success of those horsemen served to convince wealthy white people—both north and south—that slavery could be a viable, enduring economic and social model.

“They created,” writes historian Katherine Mooney in Race Horse Men, “a form of slavery all the more powerful and resilient because it allowed for and fed on the extraordinary accomplishments of black horsemen rather than seeking to suppress them.”

Mooney examines the elevated status of black horsemen—jockeys, trainers, grooms—in slave states, arguing that that status was used by advocates for slavery and for an economic system that favored an entrenched white upper class nationwide as evidence that slavery somehow offered black people the opportunity to attain wealth and status in a way that freedom never could. 

“Racing was unique,” said Mooney by phone recently from Tallahassee, where she is an assistant professor of history at Florida State University, “in that black people were allowed to attain that much fame and recognition and money and upward mobility, because there was the safety valve of slavery. Ideologically, white people could say, ‘This works for us.’”

It worked for them, of course, because, paradoxically, they could boast that slavery didn’t restrictin fact that it enabledopportunities for black people, while simultaneously enjoying the unthreatened ability to own and control those very same people.

And while black horsemen thrived in the aftermath of the Civil War, it was ultimately the threat that their freedom posed to Northern whites that led to their virtual elimination from the sport.

Mooney recounts the stories of Abe Hawkins, of Charles Stewart, of the trainer known only as Hark, noting their status as the envied athletes of their era, likening them to today’s professional sports superstars. She also painfully details the individual, political, and systemic biases that arose as those well-known men became, in their freedom, threats to a white status quo.

During and after the Civil War, Thoroughbred racing’s center of gravity shifted northeast from its traditional place in the south, aided significantly by the birth of racing at Saratoga in 1863, weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg. 

“People from the south came to race at Saratoga, people who, in the absence of Saratoga, would probably have focused on trying to rebuild racing closer to home,” Mooney explained. “But because Saratoga was operating, those people cooperated with people like Leonard Jerome to work on the New York racing scene, which wouldn’t have existed without Saratoga.” 

Jerome’s namesake track opened in what is now the Bronx in 1866, three years after Saratoga, followed by a handful of other New York City area tracks, including Morris Park (1889), Aqueduct Racetrack (1894), and Belmont Park (1905). New York racing was led by Jerome, August Belmont, and William Travers, wealthy New York businessmen who had no trouble joining forces with their southern brethren to limit the rights of freed slaves and their descendants.

“Belmont had always been a Southern-sympathizing Democrat,” Mooney pointed out. “He didn’t have much of a problem with slavery.”

The rise of Jim Crow laws in the late 19th century faced little opposition from racing’s Northern powers, who saw their own power base threatened by the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of black people, and as they worked behind the scenes to limit the opportunities of African Americans, similarly threatened white jockeys in the north made life both miserable and dangerous for black riders on the track. 

“It took the North a while to realize what the black horsemen were going to do when they were no longer enslaved,” said Mooney, referring to African Americans’ increasing dominance, confidence, and autonomy. “You also had people like Isaac Murphy, who had no memory of being a slave. Because of people like him, anxiety began to kick in for the north.”

By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, prominent black horsemen had largely disappeared. At one time responsible for some of this nation’s best known horses and for the rise of the popularity of Thoroughbred racing, African Americans are a rare sight in the saddle and on the backstretch in the U.S., their legacy only recently beginning to re-emerge.

In 2005, ESPN produced “Images in Black and White,” a Black History Month documentary that featured a segment on Jimmy Winkfield. Biographies have been written on Winkfield and on Isaac Murphy, and the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame has gone back to racing’s roots to honor the men who rose to early prominence, inducting Jimmy Winkfield, Shelby “Pike” Barnes, and Anthony Hamilton.

That ESPN documentary was narrated by actor Roscoe Orman, perhaps best known as Gordon on “Sesame Street”; the project sparked his interest in the men who were America’s first celebrity athletes, and he joined forces with filmmaker Ken Browne to establish The Black Turf Project.

Browne and Orman traveled to Tennessee for an exhibit curated by Tennessee State University’s Michael McBride. Too Black Too Fast celebrates three centuries of black contributions to the development of horse racing, drawing on visual art, film, literature, and music.

Inspired by the project, Browne, whose background is in both documentaries and commercial productions for Major League Baseball and the New York Yankees, and Orman envision an ambitious multimedia education project to bring the story of black horsemen to the public through schools, museums, and broadcast outlets such as EPIX, ESPN, and PBS. They’ve completed a 15-minute trailer, largely self-funded, in the hope of raising enough money to complete a feature-length documentary. 

“We’ve gotten a lot of support from the Thoroughbred racing community,” said Browne, adding that that support has meant access to and permission to use materials, not necessarily funding. “We have letters of support from the Kentucky Derby Museum, and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame screened our trailer in August 2013.” 

The project also has the support of The Jockey Club and the Keeneland Association, said Browne. 

The artistic vision in place, the task is now to raise the money to realize it. On the high end, Browne estimated that it will take about a quarter of a million dollars to make that happen.

“We believe,” Browne said, “that the general public, schools, teachers, should have this information as a resource to use in the classroom and at community events, in order to change the conversation about African American history and the history of race relations.” 

He has fielded interest, he says, from the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which is seeking artifacts for an exhibit on the history of black people in American sports.

“It’s evidence of the interest and growing awareness of black people’s importance to the story,” Browne said. 

The Black Turf Project trailer was shown at the Equus Film Festival in Harlem last fall, at which Browne and Orman spoke on a director’s panel. Browne and Mooney, committed to telling the same story, have been in contact.

“She just wrote me, telling me how much readers have loved the individual stories in her book,” said Brown. “The great thing about a film is that you can really get into those stories and use the narrative to touch people and get them interested.” 

Those stories go beyond the personal narratives of men elevated, then destroyed by a social and economic system that they helped build. The white racing establishment, whose own social status was often tied to the success of their horses, was happy to encourage—and benefit from--black horsemen’s success before emancipation, but that same establishment was less tolerant of that same success when coupled with independence, which provided not a buttress to white wealth and prestige, but competition for it.

“They had spent their whole lives in this industry, and they realized that their lives were over,” said Mooney of the last generation of black horsemen. “Their life was the track, and they didn’t even have any identity anymore.

“These guys deserved so much better than what they got.”  

They deserve better than what they got from the system that created them and from the men who benefitted from their expertise, and they deserve better than what they got from succeeding generations of historians, who have ignored their stories for more than a century.

As author and historian Edward Hotaling wrote in his introduction to his 1999 book The Great Black Jockeys, "This is not black history. It is not white history. It is American history, never told before."  

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