How African-Americans Disappeared From The Kentucky Derby
When the horses enter the gate for the 145th Kentucky Derby, their jockeys will hail from Venezuela, Florida, Panama and France. None will be African-American. That’s been the norm for quite a while. When Marlon St. Julien rode the Derby in 2000, he became the first black man to get a mount since 1921. It wasn’t always this way. The Kentucky Derby, in fact, is closely intertwined with black Americans’ struggles for equality, a history I explore in my book on race and thoroughbred racing. In the 19th century – when horse racing was America’s most popular sport – former slaves populated the ranks of jockeys and trainers, and black men won more than half of the first 25 runnings of the Kentucky Derby. But in the 1890s – as Jim Crow laws destroyed gains black people had made since emancipation – they ended up losing their jobs.Prominent thoroughbred owner H. Price McGrath entered two horses: Aristides and Chesapeake. Aristides’ rider that afternoon was Oliver Lewis, who, like most of his Kentucky Derby foes, was African-American. The horse’s trainer was an elderly former slave named Ansel Williamson. Lewis was supposed to take Aristides to the lead, tire the field, and then let Chesapeake go on to win. But Aristides simply refused to let his stablemate pass him. He ended up scoring a thrilling victory, starting the Kentucky Derby on its path to international fame. Meanwhile, men like Lewis and Williamson had shown that free blacks could be accomplished, celebrated members of society.Born a slave in Kentucky, Murphy, along with black peers like Pike Barnes, Soup Perkins and Willie Simms, rode regularly in integrated competition and earned big paychecks. Black jockeys were even the subjects of celebrity gossip; when Murphy bought a new house, it made the front page of The New York Times. One white memoirist, looking back on his childhood, remembered that “every little boy who took any interest in racing…had an admiration for Isaac Murphy.” After the Civil War, the Constitution guaranteed black male suffrage and equal protection under the law, but Isaac Murphy embodied citizenship in a different way. He was both a black man and a popular hero. When Murphy rode one of his most famous races, piloting Salvator to victory over Tenny at Sheepshead Bay in 1890, the crusading black journalist T. Thomas Fortune interviewed him after the race. Murphy was friendly, but blunt: “I ride to win.” Fortune, who was waging a legal battle to desegregate New York hotels, loved that response. It was that kind of determination that would change the world, he told his readers: men like Isaac Murphy, leading by example in the fight to end racism after slavery.In 1918, even as the revolutionary army was moving into Odessa and burning down the racetrack, Wink and his fellow riders, trainers and owners drove 200 thoroughbreds across the Transylvanian Alps to Poland – a thousand-mile odyssey – eating horseflesh to survive. Amazingly, Wink made it to Poland and beyond, to Paris, where he shared the limelight with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Josephine Baker, and royalty from around the world. World War Two:By 1940 he was training horses on the grounds of his villa outside Paris. Unfortunately, history was to again intervene in Wink’s life and livelihood. The Nazis were poised to occupy France. When German soldiers commandeered his property and confronted him at his own stables, Wink defended himself with a pitchfork. Once again, Wink was forced to flee in the face of historic catastrophe. Finally Home Again: After decades of exile, Wink returned to the United States in 1961 one last time, when he was invited, as a two-time winner, to a Kentucky Derby banquet. But when he and his daughter arrived at Louisville’s historic Brown Hotel, they were told they couldn’t use the front door; after a long delay they were let in, but everybody at the banquet ignored them. Except for an old competitor. A great white jockey named Roscoe Goose recognized Jimmy even though he hadn’t seen him since their derby days sixty years earlier, came over, introduced himself, and sat down next to him. One of the last public photos of Jimmy, included in the book, was taken at the Kentucky Derby the following day. He was sitting next to his old rival Roscoe, both in suits and hats, smoking cigars, smiling and telling stories to incredulous reporters. Wink had outrun racism once again. roduced himself, and sat down next to him. One of the last public photos of Jimmy, included in the book, was taken at the Kentucky Derby the following day. He was sitting next to his old rival Roscoe, both in suits and hats, smoking cigars, smiling and telling stories to incredulous reporters. Wink had outrun racism once again.This is the wonderful, true, and nearly unbelievable story of a great athlete and a great man who proved, in at least ten countries, that he was one of the greatest jockeys ever. He died at his lovely home and training ground outside in Paris, at age 94, still homesick for the Kentucky bluegrass of his boyhood. (source: “Jimmy Winkfield” McGraw-Hill Press Release) Read more about the “African American Jockeys in the Kentucky Derby” here. The history of the Kentucky Derby, then, is also the history of men who were at the forefront of black life in the decades after emancipation – only to pay a terrible price for it.