Quickly approaching is another running of one of America’s longest sporting traditions, The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. It’s the first of 3 Triple Crown races that highlight horse racing season. One thing that is noticeably absent from the advertising, marketing, of horse racing is people of color. Despite their being a long history of Black and brown people being involved in this spot.
In this article I’ll point out some of the contributions of black jockeys, trainers and horsemen, as well as the racism they faced, and the white washing of racing history where the names of these men and women have nearly been erased from the public’s consciousness of minority participation in this sport.
Fifteen of the first twenty-eight Kentucky Derby winners were ridden by African American jockeys. Isaac Murphy, a son of a former slave, is one of the greatest jockeys in American horse racing history. Murphy was the first to jockey to win three Kentucky Derby races. After segregation was put into place no African American jockeys rode a horse in the Derby from 1921 to 2000. That’s eighty years of exclusion after 30 years of being a dominant in the sport.
History and films taught or portrayed being an equestrian as a white man’s trade. For a long time, even still it is not shared that Black cowboys comprised at one time about one quarter of the people that worked in the cattle range business. Most folks do not know about the Cowboys of Compton that saw Black men ride through the streets of Compton on horseback.
Names like Ansel Williams who was a tremendous trainer, and rider Oliver Lewis who rode Williams’s horse Aristides to victory in the first Kentucky Derby. Why does no one know that the first Kentucky Derby winner was ridden and trained by Black men?
Segregation and Jim Crow created a wedge where Black men not only could not participate in racing, but they were not even allowed at tracks due to the laws in place. This is why we did not see any black jockeys in the Derby for eighty years. At the turn of the 20th century there was a concerted effort to block access to the Black jockey.
A combination of conspirators comprised of white jockeys and white horse owners got to together to shut out Black jockeys. There was also a narrative that Black jockeys were not smart enough to win races, and that in order to win races one needed the smarts and ingenuity of a white man.
Lonnie Clayton who in 1892 became the youngest jockey to win a Kentucky Derby at 15 years old, was praised by media because he was a lighter toned Black man and associated his riding ability with his lighter tone and being white passing or adjacent.
Clayton would get arrested later in his career for defending himself from an attack from a German Man who attacked him and verbally assaulted him. This was pre-Jackie Robinson who was picked by Branch Rickey of the Dodgers because he knew Robinson would be able to take the verbal insults and racism without retaliating or resorting to violence.
There was no such playbook to integrating Black sports stars into the general favor of the public back at the turn of the century.
So let us remember the names and the legacies of those who laid the foundation of this great sport. Never forget Isaac Murphy, Oliver Lewis, Ansel Williams, and Lonnie Clayton who were the OG’s of horse racing. Maybe just maybe African American interest could be sparked if we could show the younger generation that people that looked like them once dominated this sport. The Narrative Matters and so does history.