In the earliest days of the Kentucky Derby, African-American jockeys dominated the race. Then, as victims of Jim Crow, they vanished. But a Louisville college is updating the history lesson.
By Steve Kaufman
Photos courtesy of Kentucky Black Repertory Theatre
At the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, Aristides galloped to victory with Oliver Lewis in the saddle.
Aristides was chestnut. Lewis was black, as was Aristides’ trainer, Ansel Williamson. Like Lewis, Williamson was a former slave, sold in 1864 to the Woodburn Stud Farm. After the war and emancipation, Williamson continued working at the Woodford County horse farm for owner Robert Alexander, widely considered as “the birthplace of Kentucky’s Thoroughbred industry.” Williamson’s horses won the Derby, the Belmont Stakes, the Travers Stakes, the Jerome Handicap and the Withers Stakes.
Two years after Aristides, a former jockey named Ed Brown – also of Woodburn Farm – trained the 1877 Derby winner Baden-Baden. Brown was black, as was Baden-Baden’s rider, Billy Walker.
Isaac Murphy, the son of a former slave, won back-to-back Derbys in 1890 and 1891, and became the first rider to win three Derbys overall. In 1901 and 1902, Jimmy Winkfield also rode two straight Derby winners. Murphy was black. Winkfield was black. In that very first Derby, 13 of the 15 riders were black.
In the first quarter-century of the Kentucky Derby, 15 of the winning jockeys were black.
Simmons Commemorates History
It’s a history that’s largely forgotten today – a fact Simmons College is aiming to address during this year’s Kentucky Derby Festival with an event called “Race to Greatness: A Celebration of the Black Jockeys of the Kentucky Derby.”
The event will focus on this long-ignored aspect in the horseracing industry as a whole and the Kentucky Derby in particular while re-addressing a few old truths.
Groomed to Race
There was nothing unusual in the years immediately following the Civil War about black men in the racing world.
“All these plantation owners had horses, and slaves took care of those horses as grooms, trainers and riders,” said Louisville writer and playwright Larry Muhammad. “They were considered extremely valuable and treated well – for slaves.”
For example, Muhammad told the story of Jocko Graves, a slave who tended and rode the horses on George Washington’s plantation at Mt. Vernon and was much appreciated by Washington. “During the Revolutionary War, Graves froze to death on the banks of the Delaware River, and Washington erected a statue on the lawn at Mt. Vernon in Graves’ honor. In a nod to Washington, that statue was replicated all over the country, becoming the model for all the black lawn jockeys we saw for a century in the fronts of homes and stores.
“Now, they’ve all been painted white,” the writer said, “because people thought the black statues were denigrating to African-Americans. They didn’t understand the history of them.”
After the Civil War, those ex-slaves who had ridden and worked with the plantations’ horses became the first racing professionals – jockeys and trainers. They had the experience. They knew all about horses. They dominated the sport.
Gone and Forgotten
Then, they vanished from American racetracks altogether. Jim Crow laws were sweeping the land. White jockeys were demanding that black people be prohibited from racing in the same races. When they did ride, they were boxed in and whipped by the white jockeys and often ridden into the rails.
As a result, said Muhammad, the owners became reluctant to hire black jockeys for fear of damaging their horses.
Churchill Downs was no exception. After Winkfield rode Alan-a-Dale to a photo finish in the 1902 Derby, not another black rider won the race. No black jockey had even ridden in the Derby between 1921 and 2000, when Marlon St. Julien rode Curule to a seventh-place finish for the Godolphin Stable in Dubai.
Rejected by American owners, some of the black jockeys of the early 20th century, like Winkfield, took their skills overseas, thriving on the tracks and living like princes in pre-World War I Europe.
“Winkfield became royalty in Russia and France,” said Muhammad, whose play, “Jockey Jim,” is about Winkfield’s life.
He rode in Poland, Austria and Russia, won countless Derby and Grand Prix races, accumulated six-figure earnings and married a Russian baroness. He fled to Paris during the 1917 Russian Revolution and carved out a new career in France as a rider and trainer. He and his wife bought a chateau in Maison-Laffitte and successfully trained horses there.
But, as Muhammad recounts in his play, when Winkfield returned to the U.S. in 1953, he was largely forgotten. “I wrote about his coming back to Louisville for a turf writers’ dinner at the Brown Hotel, and he and his wife were at first denied entrance.”
Race to Greatness
In fact, the entire generation of pioneering black jockeys was too often forgotten in America – even in the home of the Kentucky Derby. Therefore, Simmons College feels a duty to resurrect that history.
“Our objective is to recreate the sense of history and sense of pride in this community,” said Von Purdy, Simmons’ director of development. “The entire community here should celebrate black jockeys as a part of the history of Louisville’s greatest event. If we’re going to tell the story, why not get involved with the Derby?”
The Pioneer, Shirley Mae
It’s not as if this decision was a no-brainer. Purdy is a North Carolina native who didn’t know this aspect of black history either; that was until she and a friend went to lunch in February at Shirley Mae’s Café, the Smoketown institution located at Clay and Lampton streets.
“There were all these old pictures of black jockeys on the wall,” Purdy recalled. “I found out Shirley Mae Beard used to put on a Salute to Black Jockeys event every year during Derby.”
It attracted a who’s-who of well-known African-Americans, starting with Whoopi Goldberg at the inaugural 1989 event. Morgan Freeman, Tramaine Hawkins, Dawnn Lewis and Ed Hamilton were among those who attended over the years, while Oprah Winfrey, Arsenio Hall, Marla Gibbs and Al Green lent their names, though they didn’t attend.
However, this salute never became a mainstream Derby event because Beard refused to move it out of her Smoketown neighborhood. According to the restaurant’s website, “Shirley Mae depleted her retirement funds to fund this event annually to ensure that the event remained free to the public and that it remained in the projects – easily accessible to the children there.”
Educating the Communities
It is Purdy’s hope that this new event will have a similar impact on Louisville’s black community, but that it will also resonate across all of the city’s communities and population groups, including her own constituency. Simmons is the only private historically black college and university in Kentucky but, Purdy said, “I believe many of Simmons’ current students don’t know this part of Derby history.”
“Race to Greatness” will take place 1 to 3:30 p.m. April 22 at the Kentucky Derby Museum. John Asher, vice president of racing communications at Churchill Downs Race Track, will don his Derby historian cloak to provide the historical piece of the story.
The Kentucky Black Repertory Theatre company will perform an excerpt from Larry Muhammad’s play (which has been produced in full and performed at Actors Theatre of Louisville and The Henry Clay Theatre). The Simmons College marching band will also perform.
There will be a silent auction of Derby memorabilia such as posters and bonnets. VisionWorks Doctors of Optometry is serving as the main sponsor. The Kentucky Derby Festival and the Omni Hotel are among the other sponsors, and 93.1 FM radio is the media sponsor.
Lest anyone think that Shirley Mae Beard’s efforts are forgotten, Asher will present her with a commemorative award, and Mayor Greg Fischer and Rep. John Yarmuth will also honor her.
The event is nearly sold out. “We have about 15 tickets left,” said Purdy. If it proves to be successful, Purdy expects it to become an annual part of the Kentucky Derby Festival. VT
Race to Greatness: A Celebration of the Black Jockeys of the Kentucky Derby
1 to 3:30 p.m. April 22
The Kentucky Derby Museum
Visit simmonscollegeky.edu or eventbrite.com
Call 502.776.1443, ext. 123