Black Horsemen: From the Library Collection

Hello everyone and welcome to my first blog post as the Clarice & Robert H. Smith Educator here at NSLM. I started in late June and it has been a (pleasant) whirlwind. I have many goals as the educator, one of them being to build a strong relationship between the education department (i.e. me) and the library department (Erica Libhart, Mars Technical Services Librarian and Michelle Guzman, George L. Ohstrom, Jr. Head Librarian). Both departments have much to offer, so using our collective brain power to cultivate engaging programming, displays, tours, and pop-up exhibitions will reap great rewards here at NSLM.

The first of these ventures is the upcoming traveling exhibition, A Brief History of Black Horsemen in Racing, on loan from James Madison’s Montpelier and accompanying program, Roundtable Discussion: African American Horsemen, on October 8, 2019. In conjunction with the traveling exhibition and the roundtable discussion, the Library staff and I wanted to locate related items from the library collection for display in the lobby cases. We found several items in the F. Ambrose Rare Book Room as well as the Main Reading Room, that serve to chronicle the evolving representation of African American horsemen from the period of enslavement, through the Jim Crow era, and up to present day.

The earliest item that we found is a series of three lithographs dated 1840, depicting a race at the Washington Race Course in Charleston, South Carolina. The images of three nameless, enslaved jockeys are accompanied by rhyming verse that refers to the riders as less than humans, and includes caricature of one of the jockey’s speech. These were authored by British conservative political Charles Newdigate Newdegate and seem intended to mock the American horse racing community. This item also exemplifies that some of America’s earliest and prolific jockeys were enslaved men.

Sketches from the Washington Races in October 1840 by An Eye Witnefs, c. 1841, Charles Newdegate Newdiagte (British 1816-1887). Plate 1.
Sketches from the Washington Races in October 1840 by An Eye Witness, c. 1841, Charles Newdigate Newdegate (British 1816-1887). Plate 1

Thoroughbred racing was popular in America, especially the South, beginning in the 1700s, and since its impetus has been defined by black horsemen. Prior to 1865 these skilled men were enslaved. After 1865, jockeys and horsemen gained popularity, but in the 1880s-1890s measures to marginalize and ban African Americans from competing in races or holding employment as horsemen systematically erased the large-scale presence of African American horsemen from the racing world.

Sketches from the Washington Races in October 1840 by An Eye Witness, c. 1841, Charles Newdigate Newdegate (British 1816-1887). Plate 2

Sketches from the Washington Races in October 1840 by An Eye Witness, c. 1841, Charles Newdigate Newdegate (British 1816-1887). Plate 3

The second item is from a souvenir program for Keeneland Racecourse dated 1936, nearly 100 years after the lithographs.  An article titled “America’s Colored Archer: the Story of Isaac Murphy” describes the achievements of the African American jockey Isaac Murphy in glowing terms.  He is repeatedly described as one of the “greatest race riders” and was considered by the author as a model for all future riders.  Despite this, the overall tone of the article is that of an owner praising an especially good horse, hunting dog, or pet.  The author uses terms like, “little ebony boy,” “little Kentucky Negro,” “little Negro boy,” and “little jockey” with what appears to be no malice; making the prejudice all the more insidious.  He infantilizes and demeans Murphy in the same sentence in which he sings his praises.  The article, in 1936, would have been considered high praise for Murphy, but today we can see that the article has a white-centric viewpoint that frames the accomplishments achieved by Murphy in racial terms. 

For example, the title of the article “America’s Colored Archer: The Story of Isaac Murphy”, is a derogatory name given to Murphy in reference to his white, British, contemporary Fred Archer. For people of that time, the British had Fred Archer and America had the “Colored Archer”, Isaac Murphy. 

“America’s “Colored Archer”: The Story of Isaac Murphy”, in Keeneland Lexington, Kentucky Opening 1936, National Sporting Library & Museum OVR B 402. L333 1936; Gift of Alexander Mackay-Smith

Isaac B. Murphy
Isaac Murphy, head-and-shoulders portrait, 
in jockey uniform, facing left., ca. 1895. Photograph.
 https://www.loc.gov/item/2005690025/
Frederick Archer
Unknown artist, 1881
chalk, NPG 3961




This stands in stark contrast to the today’s representation of Isaac Murphy, including his 1955 induction into the Racing Hall of Fame and his depiction in The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy by Dr. Pellom McDaniels III.

Fast forward to today and the contributions of African Americans to the horse racing industry whether as jockeys, trainers, groomers, or hot walkers, are being explored and celebrated in books such as The Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend by Joe Drape, Race Horsemen: How Slavery and Freedom were made at the racetrack, by Katherine C. Mooney, The Great Black Jockeys: The Lives and Times of the Men Who Dominated America’s First National Sport, by Edward Hotaling, The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy by Pellom McDaniels III, and Wink: The Incredible Life and Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield, by Ed Hotaling.

The history of black horsemen, from stable hands, groomsmen, hot walkers, jockeys, and owners has been largely overlooked in mainstream racing history, due in large part to the efforts of white owners, jockeys, and other figures within racing to discredit black horsemen of achievements, knowledge, and skill. As an organization dedicated to preserving, promoting, and sharing the literature, art, and culture of equestrian, angling, and field sports we are acutely aware that a large portion of America’s Thoroughbred racing history has been marginalized. Through hosting the traveling exhibition A Brief History of Black Horsemen in Racing, and the Roundtable Discussion: African American Horsemen  NSLM hopes to illuminate this fascinating sporting history for everyone.

To see  sketches from the Washington Races in October 1840 by An Eye Witness, the 1936 article on Isaac Murphy, and several contemporary books on African American Horsemen, please come by the Library starting October 8, 2019. 

Join us October 8, 2019  for a Roundtable Discussion as scholars and museum professionals examine the content of Brief History of Black Horsemen in Racing. Speakers include Dr. Pellom McDaniels III, Curator of African American Collections in the Stuart A Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University, Leon Nichols, Founder of Project to Preserve African American Turf History (PPAATH), and Elizabeth Chew VP of Museum Programs at James Madison’s Montpelier. For more information please visit us here

Valerie joined NSLM in June 2019 as the Clarice & Robert H. Smith Educator. She is responsible for developing K-12 programs, public programs, tours, and cultivating engaging in-gallery and Library experiences.  Valerie completed a MA in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester in England and earned her BA in History with a Minor in Professional Education from the University of West Florida. She previously worked as the Programs Assistant at the Gaston County Museum of Art and History where she helped facilitate onsite and outreach programs to over 8,000 participants and as the Curator of Education at the Pensacola Museum of Art where she successfully attained Autism Friendly Business Accreditation. When not working, Valerie enjoys spending her free time reading, hiking, or exploring new places and museums.

1 Comment

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  1. After reading your helpful preview, I can’t wait to learn more at the roundtable discussion October 8! Congratulations on your inaugural missive! I look forward to reading more of your work as you settle in and the calendar unfolds. Well done!

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