Chronicles of The Black Jockeys Conclusion: Unknown "Unknowns", Plessy, Jim Crow, Northern Migration, Big Money, Racetrack Closures, Great White Hopes, and The End of The Rope

Unknown "Unknows”

“There are known 'knowns'.  There are things we know that we know.  There are known 'unknowns'; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know.  But there are also unknown ‘unknowns’; there are things we do not know we don’t know.”  --Donald Rumsfeld2013 derby

As I clicked the channel earlier this week, I stumbled upon former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld saying 'something...' about something on my television screen.  As I do not do politics and have never been able to fully understand the former Secretary, I clicked off and decided to continue to write.  But as I wrote on, the pugnacious and prickly Mr. Rumsfeld reemerged in my thoughts for something that he had said many years ago.   Then, his colorful play on language during those Iraqi war briefings might likely have induced Streptococcal Pharyngitis in former Nixon speechwriter and New York Times columnist William Safire, in addition to enhancing Rumsfeld's own reputation as an excellent comedian.  It was a very convoluted ebb and flow of alliterations from the Secretary, which, though still very convoluted, was now making sense in the context of the subject matter in front of me.  Though you are unlikely to see me quote the colorful former Secretary here anytime soon, some aspects of his then infamous brief lodged itself in my head: There are known “knowns.”  There are known “unknowns.”  And there are unknown “unknowns.” 

Expropriation of the Rumsfeld logic for my own purposes

We are too often complicit in history’s picking and choosing of winners and losers, the result of which is sometimes a collective blissful and bountiful existence of unknown “unknowns.”  So little of what we do not know is known to us, that at some point, many of us become ‘knowledgeable’ without knowledge, and without ever realizing it. 

Ike Murphy and FriendsIn the struggle for civil rights, we rightfully pay tribute to the heroic Rosa Parks and her courageous act, but we wrongly ignore firebrand Ida B. Wells, who set the precedent for others such as Irene Morgan in 1946, Sarah Louise Keys in 1955, Claudette Colvin in 1956 (all African American women who refused to give up their seats to a white person), and Rosa Parks herself.  In the case Wells, there was no demonstration or boycott after she was dragged and thrown off the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad on May 4, 1884 for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger.  But she promptly sued the railway company and initially won, only to have the decision overturned by a crooked state Supreme Court.  Examples of others who are forgotten, are to numerous to delineate.  But one thing is for sure and that is that when the dictator named 'History' enters our lives, the revolutionaries, within most of us tend to willingly submit.

In sports, we regard baseball as America’s original pastime and the first professional sport when it was in fact horseracing, not baseball.  We rightfully celebrate Jackie Robinson’s achievement in integrating a professional sport but we wrongfully ignore the integrated sport of horseracing that had existed for two centuries before Jackie Robinson’s feat.  And we ignore African American Moses Fleetwood Walker’s 1884 signing with Toledo (though that did not work out too well).  And if we look at the performance of others, I am confident we will find numerous unsung heroes who were the 'firsts' at something or another but ignored by teh accepted history.  The Tuskegee Airmen are finally getting some recognition but black America is still unfamiliar with the achievements of the world's first fighter pilot, African American Eugene Bullard, who flew for France in World War I.

History as a Liar

A writer once said that history is sometimes the biggest liar.  At times, it would appear that if Herodotus did not write it, or if it was not captured by art or on film, then from time to time, it will indeed tell a lie to the willing listener.  At other times however, the historical truth is not entirely unavailable but we instead choose to ignore it (known “unknown”).  Henry Miller once said, “A book lying idle on a shelf is wasted ammunition.”  Imagine the potent exercise of 2nd Amendment rights without ever using a firearm, if we simply read and appreciated our history.

Art Narratives

Art History shows us the importance of art as evidence of previous civilizations and human achievements.  Ancient Egyptian artifacts provide evidence of one of the most powerful civilization in the Neolithic period.  The monumental Gothic architectures in Europe provide evidence of the development across Europe between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries.  Whether it’s art from Stone Age civilizations, Medieval India, Ancient Greece, African, Rome, or Mesopotamia, Neolithic, Paleolithic, or Mesolithic art, where written history is not available or preserved, it is the narratives of art that educate us on these early civilizations.

Treatment by History

But what happens in the absence of art as evidence of the times when the actors themselves doCato and Wagner not write the history?  The brilliance of wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill then becomes the benchmark of a civilization vested in its own preservation.  On being ask how would history recall him, Winston Churchill said, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it myself.”  The irony here is that the horse loving Churchill was the grandson of none other than one of the pioneers of early American horseracing, Jerome Stakes owner Leonard Jerome, who once lifted his then twelve year old daughter Jennie, (mother-to-be of Churchill) on to the shoulder of legendary black jockey Abe Hawkins, in celebration of a newly purchased horse. 

Queen Nzingha a Mbande was the 17th century monarch of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms of the Mbundu people in southwestern Africa (today’s Angola).  She fought the encroaching Portuguese tooth and nail to prevent the expansion of the slave trade in her kingdom, during a period when Portuguese dominance was threatened by both France and England.  She was a defiant Queen who would marshal her armies against the Portuguese even as a senior citizen way into her mid 60s.  But at some point, her position was weakened and she was cornered.  She was then forcibly baptized and given the Portuguese name of Anna de Sousa.  The history of her reign, written by Europeans, would then record a 'willing conversion to Catholicism' and a baptism to a new name in honor of her ‘godmother,’ the wife of Portuguese governor João Correia de Sousa

As Queen Nzingha reigned in a time when written correspondence and historical documentation existed, there was enough evidence to cast doubt that this tour de force would have ever ‘willingly’ convert to Christianity.  Again, Winston Churchill’s brilliance and prudence become the benchmark.  To ensure that history treats one favorably, one must write it.  This extends to cultures, to races, and entire civilizations.

Abe Hawkins and the other black jockeys could not write their own history and were therefore largely written out of it.  We must write our own history, lest we be written out of it, or be written according to will of others who are obscured in the politics and cultural mores of the times.

History of the Lawn Jockeys (Contexts)

More than a century after the end of the era of the black jockeys, many people who are unaware of
Jockey Boy-Oliver Lewis the sport’s history and of the contributions of the black jockeys, are often offended by the sight of the black lawn jockey statues.  The first ones were hitching posts on the lawn, which were actually used to indicate that the residents of the homes had money, a kind of status symbol.  Sometime later, black versions would come to be interpreted as racist relics of a slave/plantation past that had no place in modern society.  Once that idea took hold, it was then indeed used to convey such offense by some racist whites.

Very few people in America, black or white, know of the history of the black statues or that several contexts of their origins were in fact born out of a period of extraordinary courage and accomplishments by early African Americans from the days of slavery to the dawn of the twentieth century.  Imagine that in another century, the sport of basketball would become a sport played by whites-only, and that an image of an African American player holding a ball would evoke such derision and misunderstanding at such time. 

Beyond the achievements of African Americans in horseracing for more than two centuries, two other historical contexts of the lawn jockeys should also convey pride in black courage and achievements in lieu of the shame or offense often attributed.

One other courageous context of the lawn jockey was the story of Tom ‘Jocko’ Graves, “The Faithful Groomsman”.   It is said that George Washington commissioned the statue to honor the 12-year-old black youth who served him heroically.  Tom Graves was with General Washington at the time when Washington crossed the Delaware River to carry out his surprise attack on British forces at Trenton, NJ.  No Paul Revere here! George Washington thought the boy was too young to lead into the attack, so he left him on the Pennsylvania side of the riverbank with orders to tend the horses and to keep a light on the riverbank to guide his troop’s return.  According to Florida Atlantic University history professor Kenneth W. Goings, in his book “Mammy and Uncle Mose”, so faithful was Jocko Graves, that he followed orders and actually froze to death holding that lantern while waiting for Washington's retuning soldiers. 

Finally, Professor Charles Blockson, curator of Afro-American Collection at Temple University, gives the third heroic context of the statue.  The iconic image of the jockey boy, he states, was of the figures used in the days of the Underground Railroad to guide escaping slaves to freedom.  Green ribbons tied to the arms of the lawn jockey’s hitching post indicated a place of safety while red ribbons was an indication to keep going.   Curator Blockson installed an example of the statue at the entrance to the University's Sullivan Hall to further this point. 

American Horseracing

American horseracing commenced with black jockeys, evolved with black jockeys, matured with Austin Curtisblack jockeys, and became the first organized professional sporting event in American, with the participation and domination of black jockeys.  Black Jockeys such as Abe Hawkins rode alongside white jockeys such as the legendary Irish Jockey Gilbert Watson Patrick (‘Gilpatrick’) in a sporting tradition that lasted over two hundred years.  The sport that was imported from England was perfected in America by slaves, some of whom, according to author of The Great Black Jockeys, Edward Hotaling, originated from the Gambia River valley region in West Africa where horsemen tended large herds of cattle, thereby already having great skills in horsemanship.

Early horseracing began in the hinterlands of Halifax County, Roanoke, Petersburg, Virginia, North Carolina, as early as the mid 1600s.   In Hotaling’s book, he traced the origins and evolution of America’s first professional sport to colonial days before the American Revolution, wherein the Virginia-North Carolina border areas were referred to as the 'Race Horse Region.'  Jockeys and groomsmen were mostly slaves.  So were the trainers who, supervised the conditioning of the horses, directed the jockeys, devised racing strategies, and were involved in the purchasing of horses.  Black trainers were essentially co-managing in the business with the stable and plantation owners.

Early races were wagered for bales of tobacco whose values were negotiated based on expected sale prices to England.  Women wagered their treasured and valuable gloves.  Prizes were issued in ‘tobacco notes', payable on sale of the crop in England.  In the audience were people from all walks of life, including whites, blacks, and Indians who came to see the ‘Quarter races,’ which were intense tactical quarter mile sprints of sheer skills by the jockeys and prowess of horses.  The races were described as “not taking even thirty seconds to fly the quarter-mile.” 

Kentucky would get its first quarter-mile strip in 1780, over a century after white rider Thomas Cocke rode for Richard Ligon against “a boy of Chamberlaine” (black jockey) in Richmond Virginia for three hundred pounds of tobacco in 1677.  Racing happened on strips and would evolve into ‘racecourses’ of the day, which were the forerunners of today's ‘racetracks.’  Rarely were the jockeys identified by name in the first century of racing and rarely were they referred to by a surname in the second century of racing, since the ‘boys’ were the property of, and were referred to by name of their owners.  Champion black jockeys of that era included, Cato, One-Eyed Sewell, “Monkey” Simon, Albert, Dick, Charles, Monk, Chisholm, etc.  Both black and white jockeys were then referred to as boys (as they were in fact youths), hence the term the Jockey Boy.

Civil War

grey eagleBy the end of the Civil War, much of the black jockeys’ southern stronghold was decimated.  The great stable owners were also plantation owners whose principal commerce for over two centuries, thrived on slave labor.  Many owners and early pioneers (plantation and stable) like Duncan Kenner of New Orleans, had been high ranking members of the Confederate Congress who had taken up arms against the Union, only to see their properties, occupied, ceased, or expropriated for government purposes.  Jockeys, who were previously enslaved, were now freedmen.  But life in freedom did not seem much different for most of them since many had earned enough money during slavery to buy their own freedom and that of their families, while for others, the burdens of slavery was not fully imposed, since they moved freely (in the performance of their sport) across the country even when it was illegal for slaves to cross state lines, and they contented with lives which were above that of their fellow slaves.  As Edward Hotaling said, “They had moved up in slavery but not out of slavery.”  Racing then moved to the West from the South and the jockeys developed accordingly.  Where early black jockeys might have been from the Carolinas or Virginia, a new crop started to emerge from Kentucky and Tennessee in the 1860s.  Later southern revivals would occur in places such as New Orleans.

Nearing The End of the Rope

The 1860s, 1870s, 1880s, and early 1890s, saw the continued the explosion of the heroic blackIsaac Murphy jockeys in the ‘West’ and elsewhere in the North.  But by mid-1890s, fear of migrating African Americans had taken hold of the North, which had little previous interactions or experience with African Americans.   There was a fear that black jockeys were about to take over the sport, and racial pride in the North followed the racial terror of the South, with the North becoming more rigid in its white pride, to the point where a South which was accustomed to free slave labor and which accepted and got used to black jockeys, gave way to a North which was not accustomed to African Americans, which was afraid of African Americans, and which insisted that their celebrated and beloved sport of horseracing and its jockeys be all white. 

'Plessy', Segregation, Jim Crow Laws, Northern Migration, Great White Hopes

Plessy v Ferguson (May, 1896) decimated the existence in the South for most blacks, who responded by fleeing north.   With the migration north and a change from village to urban life, access to stables and opportunity for young African American boys to develop around horses, essentially dissipated.  The mentality of the Plessy ruling would also come to dominate the North, which saw white dominance in all areas of sports as the natural order.  The quest for the 'Great White Hope' started in northern horseracing in the 1890s and would be carried over to the 20th century, taking hold as well, in the sport of boxing.  Northern clubs, northern owners, and northern white jockeys wanted no part of the black jockeys.  In fact, the black horsemen who thrived in the South under slavery and in the West after Emancipation would meet a certain death in the “White Hope” North. 

The Kentucky Derby which is the gold standard of racing today, was for a long time a second tier event in American racing, in deference to the North East, primarily New York and New Jersey.  Northern newspapers obsessively featured stories of the 'Great White Hopes' (another term with its origin in horseracing).  Where white southerners had once seen moneymaking machines in the black jockeys, white northerners saw racial pride at stake.  With an interest in preserving their "great white hope," the northerners had to ensure that no chance existed for the black hopes.  Therefore, racing in the North was to be distinctly “unsouthern”, and not at all a sport dominated by black jockeys.  The fame and fortune (big money) to be realized, was to ultimately be the preserve of white jockeys.

1900 - 1910

Tony HamiltonFrom 1889 through 1892, Goodwin’s Official Turf Guide, which was the 'Bible' of racing records for prominent riders, listed at least fifteen black jockeys out of about fifty-six jockeys a year.  Since Goodwin did not list the race of the riders, it is almost certain that many more were black since the official counts were only of those who were well known black riders at the time.  By the mid decade between 1893 and 1898, the number of known African American riders continued to range at about a fourth or a fifth of the total.

But after 1900, the names of the recognizable black jockeys on Goodwin’s Official Turf Guide had dropped to less than five, on a list that had grown significantly in total jockeys listed since the 1890s.  In other words, the number of white jockeys listed had grown tremendously while number of blacks had decreased by about 75% in that time period.  That list included black riders Wallace Hicks and Dale Austin, who was number seven in the country.  By 1905, Dale Austin would be the only prominent black jockey listed in the Goodwin’s Guide. 

With the glory days of Isaac Murphy, Oliver Lewis, Billy Walker, Shelby Pike Barnes, Alonzo Lonnie Clayton, George Spider Anderson, James Soup Perkins, Willie Simms, Tony Hamilton, Jimmy Winkfield, and others at its end, a shining star appeared in the form Jimmy Lee in 1907.  He was from Louisiana and in his first year riding at age 20, he won the Kentucky and Latonia Oaks races.  On June 5th, 1907, he took on Monk Overton (black) and Fred Archer’s (white) record by winning six out of six on the card in one day.  This was not to be duplicated until 1916 by white jockey Herman Phillips.  Lee would wind up as the country’s number two rider that year.  By 1908, he would capture several major races, including the Travers at Saratoga, making him the 7th black jockey to win the Travers.  He ranked number 11th in the country in 1908 and by this time, he was the only prominent black rider to figure in Goodwin’s Official Turf Guide.  In a space of roughly fifteen years, horseracing had gone from about fifteen prominently listed black jockeys or a quarter of the total to only one, less than 1%.

Boxing's “Great White Hopes” Defeated

Who would think that one of America’s first professional sports would later be affected by anothergroup jockeys emerging, yet popular one?  When Jack Johnson clobbered white Tommy Burns for the world boxing championship in Sydney Australia in 1908, it dealt a blow not only to Tommy Burns, but also to the black jockeys as well, from white rage in the country.  Johnson’s repeat performance against white former champion Jim Jeffries two years later would now deal a double blow to the black jockeys' ambitions.  By this time, they were already becoming less acceptable to a country angered by its white loss in boxing.  Edward Hotaling cites some of the headlines in the immediate aftermath of this fight: “Black Proclaimed Champion, Race Riot Breaks Out After Fight,” “Omaha Negro Killed,” “Houston Man Kills Negro,” “Outbreaks in New Orleans,” “Police Club Rioting Negroes,” “Mob Beats Negroes in Macon,” “70 Arrested in Baltimore.”  Four years after that fight, Johnson was still on a roll, defeating yet another white contender, Frank MoranThe Chicago Herald’s headline read: “Johnson is Victor over White Hope.”

Fervent sentiments of racial pride had become so entrenched in white America that any occasioned demonstration of equality, dominance, or superiority of talents by African Americans in any forum, was to be met with the violence of an intolerable society, whose response was the desired imposition of its own “Great White Hope.”  The search for the “great white hopes” had always been the objective of the northern press in early racing, but by the early 20th century, the North, which had become the new 'Racing Region' (capital) of America, was as fully vested in seeing whites-only racing, as the South was in seeing whites-only toilets.

Big Money in Racing

jimmy-winkfield-story-topLike others, Jimmy Winkfield too attributed the emergence of big money in horseracing to the disappearance of the black jockeys from the sport.  He believes that once the sport became a big profit profession, the black jockeys were driven out of the profit sharing.  Hotaling cites Nate Cantrell’s affirmation to this.  Cantrell was seventeen the year Isaac Murphy died and Willie Simms won his first Derby, and had grown up around horseracing, first as an exercise boy, then as an assistant trainer.  During an interview conducted when he was in his nineties, Cantrell said that big money not only meant money, but it meant image, agents, negotiations, and matching riders to horses.  “In the old days, where if you ran twelve horses, from six to eight of the jockeys were always black.  And it remained that way until more money got into the game.  Now then when a lot of money got in the game, the white men then, like they do now and like they’ve always been, wanted his people to have, not only the money, but the reputation…” 

Black trainer Albert Cooper had echoed the same thing near the end of the century.  He even made his own one-liner to describe the situation, after he found himself dumped as a trainer in favor of a white trainer.  The question was, “what happens when money hits several figures, with lots of zeros?”  “A naught’s a naught, and a figger, a figger.  All for the white man, and none for the nigger.” 

Racist Violence on The Racetrack

A transformation of willie-simmshorseracing in America into a ‘whites-only’ sport was therefore due to a variety of factors including changing demographics with migrations from South to North, legal segregation (Plessy ruling) and Jim Crow in the South, and white hostilities and racial pride in the North, which had started to manifest into violence against some jockeys.  The great black riders had grown up on farms, or at least near them, in the South, and by 1910 or 1911 when the jockeys disappeared, most African Americans were living outside of the South and away from of the racial terror that had taken hold and widely imposed by groups like the Ku Klux Klan.  Gone were the farms and stables in the South, but walled off from them were the stables and tracks in Sheepshead Bay or Coney Island in Brooklyn, Harlem Track in Chicago, Pimlico in Maryland, or Saratoga in New York.

Edward Hotaling cites historian Charles Parmer, who had known those days and who wrote about Jimmy Lee.  He said it was rough riding by white jockeys that drove off the black riders.  Of Lee, Parmer said, “Lee’s success did not spoil him.  He remained a quiet and courteous fellow.  But some of his compatriots of color became a trifle cocky in the jockey rooms, especially in the East.  The white boys retaliated by ganging up against the black riders on the rails.  A black boy would be pocketed, thrust back in a race, or his mount would be bumped out of contention; or a white boy would run alongside, slip a foot under a black boys’ stirrup, and toss him out of the saddle.  Again, while ostensibly whipping their own horses, those white fellows would slash out and cut the nearest Negro rider…  They literally ran the black boys off the tracks.”

In other words, racetracks in America at the turn of the century had become modern day Coliseums, and the black jockeys needed to be almost Spartacus-like with enough courage (or maybe stupidity) to continue to race.  Horseracing had become a gladiator sport wherein the white jockeys did on the tracks, what the Ku Klux Klan did in the villages of the South and in the West.  They instituted a form of absolute psychological terror through enforced violence, wherein the exercise of his profession could have meant death for the black jockey enough brave and enough silly to participate.

White jockey and 1913 Kentucky Derby winner Roscoe Goose concurred.  He said that violence in the saddle drove black jockey out of horseracing.  But he also pointed out the barriers to employment for them that emerged as a result of this white jockey terror.  Stable and horse owners did not want to hire jockeys who would be targeted and be at a disadvantage.  “People got to thinking that if they had a colored boy up, he’d have the worst of it.”  The victims of the crime were therefore doubly punished in becoming unemployable.

Racetrack Closures

Black JockeysA final nail in the coffin was the emergence of potent antigambling forces that successfully lobbied against horseracing and corruption, the result of which was a reduction in racetracks across the country from 314 to only 25 by 1908.  Legislatures erected bans on many practices in the sport, and this saw the closure of such huge venues like Monmouth Park in New Jersey after only three years in existence.  The remaining venues for horseracing by 1908 were Maryland, Kentucky, and 'The Big Apple', as Hotaling states, racing people were starting to call New York, (yet another example of the vernacular with origins in horseracing).  New laws would prove devastating for some of the big New York racetracks, which would completely terminate their operations in 1911 and 1912. 

Gone forever was the historic Coney Island Jockey Club’s course at Sheepshead Bay, where Poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox had lionized Isaac Murphy and ‘Salvator’s’ historic defeat of Snapper Garrison and ‘Tenny,’ with her poem,  “One more mighty plunge, and with knee, limb and hand; I lift my horse first by a nose past the stand; We are under the string now – the great race is done; And Salvator, Salvator, Salvator, won.”  It was in this race that Murphy had given birth to the concept of the ‘photo finish,’ as captured by the lens of photographer John Hemment.  The Brooklyn Jockey Club’s course at Gravesend where Willie Simms had made history by winning the Preakness (then moved to Brooklyn from Pimlico) was also closed forever. 

At Brighton Beach, where a horse name “Little Nigger” took the tracks in 1896, The New York Times might have finally chuckled at the idea that victory was never again to be realized by the likes of Tony Hamilton, who had won the three major handicaps in the city venues, and who was often ridiculed by the Times, for his dark skin.  After Hamilton’s accident at Brighton Beach in 1896, The Times, which had seemingly never liked him and which had previously attributed his success under trainer Billy Lakeland to Lakelands ability to 'speak the language of monkeys,' then derisively dismissed Hamilton’s exculpation by the Turf Authority by stating, “dishonest bookies are far more culpable than this ignorant, muckle-headed negro, who has been punished by having his means of livelihood taken from him.  Revoking the licenses of thick-headed negroes will not suffice to do the business at all.”  Brighton Beach was closed forever.

With the New York closures and other closures across the country, the big moneymen and stable owners soon fled the racing business, with many selling their horses to countries in Western Europe.  The dwindling pool of black riders after Jimmy Lee in 1908 essentially dried up, as there remained little chance for employment.  The few mounts available would be given to the preferred white jockeys.  Jess Conley would be the last black jockey to ‘place’ at the Kentucky Derby, finishing third in the 1911. 

A 1913 revival of American racing, driven mostly by August Belmont, Joseph Widener, and W.C. Whitney, would not see a return of the black jockey glory.  Few black jockeys, such as Roscoe Simpson, Clarence Dishman, and tenth place finisher in the 1921 Kentucky Derby, Henry King would remain but to no glory.  Some found work in the emerging steeplechase riding or as trainers and assistant trainers, but never upfront on a horse.  When Marlon St. Julien mounted for the 2000 Derby, he was the first black jockey to ride in the Derby since Clarence Dishman in 1921.

The Last of the Winners Circle

The black jockeys were a group of individuals whose very existence represented all that was to beCombined celebrated but it was happening at a time when the larger society was busy erecting barriers to separate itself from the black race.  Black jockeys had evolved in a kind of bubble from the rest of American life, but by the early 1900, they would be forced out of this bubble and into the realms of mainstream black American life, which was separate, unequal, and uncelebrated (by white Americans).

Jimmy Lee was the last of the victorious black jockeys in America, ending a legacy that had commenced somewhere in 1677, when “a boy of Chamberlaine” went up against white rider Thomas Cocke in Richmond Virginia for three hundred pounds of tobacco.  Jimmy Winkfield was the last African American Kentucky Derby Winner.  Tiny Williams was the last African American winner of the American Derby.  Isaac Murphy was the only African American triple Kentucky Derby winner.  Willie Simms was the last African American to win Belmont.  Lonnie Clayton was the last African American to win in the Suburban.  Pete Clay was the last African American to win in the Metropolitan.  Tony Hamilton was the last African American to win the Futurity, and African American jockey Jess Conley was the last to place in the Kentucky Derby in 1911, finishing third.  In the second decade of the 20th century, the black jockeys essentially disappeared from racing. 

The birth of black racing in the slave South had met its brutal death in the ‘free’ North, and today, most Americans of all races, remain ignorant of the black jockey’s very existence.

The end of the black jockeys came down to the obvious:  They became unemployable in mainstream horseracing at a time when their race deemed relegated them to exclusion.  While the sport became free of African Americans, it did not remain whites-only forever.  Latin Americans became a force in the 20th century and have continued to be glorious to present day. 

By 1975, of some one thousand jockeys in the country, there were only ten African Americans.  So free of African Americans had the sport become that a new generation of racing had forgotten the entire legacy of the black jockeys.  The great Jimmy Winkfield, who had won two Derbies, was denied entry to the function in his very honor, by those in charge of Louisville’s Brown hotel.  The narrative that African Americans could not be jockeys because they were too big, began to take hold.  Hotaling quotes a Turf Official who when asked about it said, “Yes, the proof of the pudding is that they turn out to be basketball players and baseball players and football players.”  That same year, jockey Bill Harmatz was asked if he thought discrimination existed in racing.  “Yes,” he said, “I hate to sound that way, but really I’d have to say it does.  Most of the owners would rather have white riders riding for ‘em, I guess.”


KriggerFinally, I decided to blog this series of articles after having met so many people over the years who have never heard of black jockeys.  A majority, African Americans, often complain to me of the 'objectified' image of the lawn jockey statue.  They choose to accept what has been presented to them while failing to define or to attach their own meanings and association, based on historical facts, rifed with remarkable courage and achievements.  Many people willingly accept as fact, the mythicized fiction of 'Mandigo fights' and other stories during the days of slavery.  They remain mired in unknown “unknowns”

That this history remains primarily unknown is no surprise.  The magnificent stature at Churchill Downs is of that of Artistides but none of Oliver Lewis.  Why would any society write about or educate us about great horsemen of its past who belonged to its minority sect that was enslaved, marginalized, and minimized?  Why would any society write or educate us on such an historical paradox, which on its own merits become almost unbelievable anyway?  Slave horsemen who were champion jockeys? 

Horses have come to represent the aristocracy and the upper classes since medieval times.  Horseracing was the sport of Kings and Queens in Europe before being imported to America.  Today, the game of Polo remains the favorite sport of European royalty and the American moneyed class seeking status.  The French term for horse is ‘cheval’ (plural chevaux).  Hence the ‘chevalier,’ was the horseman.  Since horsemen of the past were generally of ranking military orders or men of nobility (same difference), the word chevalier then became associated with nobility or the militarily distinguished.  The Napoleonic “Chevalier de la légion d'honneur,” (horseman from the national order of the legion of honor) is one such example.  It is the highest honor to be received in the French Republic.  But way before Napoleon and since the medieval times, chevalier and other derivatives of its Latin etymology came to symbolized knights of valor, courage, and virtue.  Chivalry was essentially a code of ideals built around knightly virtues of honor, courage, courtly, love, peerage, class, and courtesy.  In today’s spoken language, a young woman will often decry the disappearance of ‘chivalry,’ that perfect ‘gentlemanly quality’ of the past which bought her roses, opened doors for her, was in tuned to her emotions and sensitivities, serenaded her in open spaces, all in the name of love. 

These are all noble associations and connections to the horse that would not seem to befit the narrative of a minority group who had migrated from an enslaved South to a walled-off North.  Such nobility and honor of being great horsemen could not have been a slave trait, could not have been a characteristic of blacks is America, and were not to be a legacy for generations of African Americans to come.

Invariably on explaining the history of the black jockeys, I am often asked if I believe that Americagroup jockeys II will ever see black jockey glory again.  My answer is always a simple one.  It is entirely possible, especially with jockeys such as Kevin Krigger moving ahead and against the odds.  Horseracing is not skiing nor is it the game of golf.  Unlike the those two sports, however, horseracing is neither new territory nor is it alien to African Americans.  It is a legacy. It is simply picking up where they left off, with one small caveat:  Until African Americans become stable owners, trainers, and horse owners who are willing to give access to, to train, to develop, and to employ African American riders, the legacy of the black jockeys will remain one of the 17th, 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries.

--Paul Sinclair 

For more on the black jockeys and jockey boy paintings for sale, see 



Welcome to Ealy Mays Artworks

Celebration of over 150 years of Black Literary and Artistic development in Paris

Here you will find the works of one of the most prolific African American artists. Based in Paris, France, this selection includes current masterpieces as well retrospectives from a body of over 30 years as an ethnic artist painting in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe. Your choice of paintings, prints, posters, postcards, puzzles, memorabilia, T-shirts, collectibles, accessories,and more, is only a click away. Read more

It is the spectator and not life, that really mirrors art”  The Picture of Dorian Gray …Oscar Wilde

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