In the racing world, horses and jockeys are the heroes of the track. Amid trainers, grooms, and thousands of spectators, no individual is easier to identify than the brightly-clad jockey. They are a symbol of power, skill, and grace, a psychological link between man and horse. African-American jockeys are no exception.
Early American racing history was directly shaped by black hands. Slaves and freed men alike raced and trained Thoroughbreds throughout the country. After the Civil War, former slaves became paid jockeys and stable staff at the farms and plantations where they grew up taking care of the horses. Their knowledge of and connection with race horses were an underpinning of American racing, and many races featuring African-American jockeys, often in equal number to white competitors. In fact, in the first 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby (1875-1903), 15 of the winners were African-American.
Men like Isaac Murphy, Oliver Lewis, Shelby “Pike” Barnes, and many others used the stereotype of black athleticism to garner respect and greater social and economic freedom. Some were able to negotiate salaries of up to $400,000 in today’s money, an income almost unheard of for black Americans at the time. They raced with a passion familiar to all sport lovers. After an 1890 win at Sheepshead Bay, Isaac Murphy told a reporter simply, “I ride to win.”
However, the heyday of black American jockeys came to an end. Jim Crow laws and 1896’s “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson made it harder and harder for black jockeys to find employment. While African-Americans were welcome trainers, grooms, and stable hands throughout the 20th century, they were often shut out from the more visible and lucrative position of jockey. Although tracks are now desegregated and several black jockeys have been elected into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame, there are significantly fewer African-American wearing silks today. According to a 2013 Jockey’s Guild study, there are only about 30 African-Americans in a membership of nearly 1,000 individuals.
Racing contributions and successes by black jockeys demonstrate the value of representation- both on the track and on canvas. African-American jockeys in the closing years of the 19th century dominated the sport in many ways. Yes, they won countless races and took home impressive purses. But they also showed – and still show – great tenacity and passion. They are smart, skilled, and talented competitors whose achievements continue to inspire us.
Want to know more about African-American jockeys and Gilded Age imagery? Join us on June 13th for a Heroes & Underdogs talk with Dr. John Ott of James Madison University. Dr. Ott will be presenting “Race Forms: African-American Jockeys in Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion and Gilded Age Philadelphia”.
Anne Marie Barnes is the Clarice & Robert H. Smith Educator at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM). Her passion for museum work began shortly after graduation with a Bachelor’s degree in History from James Madison University. Between her expeience working at the Fredericksburg Area Museum & Cultural Center and the Washington Heritage Museums, she has done everything from designing summer camps to formulating major fundraisers. Have a question? Contact Anne Marie by e-mail