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.

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Edward Muybridge, The Horse in motion. “Sallie Gardner,” owned by Leland Stanford; running at a 1:40 gait over the Palo Alto track, 19th June 1878 , albumen, 1878, Library of Congress. 
Muybridge’s early photographic records of black jockeys and boxers show conflicting messages in 19th century race relations. They perpetuate imagery of African-American strength and obedience, while also representing the social mobility of successful black individuals within those sports.

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.”

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Louis Maurer (American, 1832-1932) Proctor Knott (The First Futurity, 1888, Jerome Park, Sheepshead Bay, a Close Finish), 1888, oil on canvas, 13 1/4 x 19 inches
Gift of the Margaret Kendrick Blodgett Foundation, at the request of Mrs. Blodgett’s granddaughter, Margaret Hall Whitfield, in honor of Peter Winants, Director Emeritus of the National Sporting Library, 2001
      Favored to win, Proctor Knott with Shelby “Pike” Barnes up takes 1st place at the 1888 First Futurity and a record $40,000 purse. Barnes was the leading U.S. jockey in both 1888 and 1889. He was also the first jockey to win over 200 races in a year and was among several successful African-American jockeys that dominated the sport in the late 19th century. Barnes was inducted into the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame in 2011.

 

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.

Andre Pater (Polish, American, b. 1953) Going to the Post, 2011, oil on canvas, 24 x 28 inches, Collection of Nils and Samantha Brous © Andre Pater.
Contemporary sporting artist Andre Pater began incorporating African Americans into his work in acknowledgment of the previously marginalized black jockeys of the 19th century.

 

Andre Pater (Polish, American, b. 1953) Jockey Up, Turquoise and Gold Silks, pastel on board, 34 x 24 inches, 2008. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Jose Laudo De Camargo © Andre Pater

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”.

 


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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

 

While leafing through a copy of the June 3, 1905 edition of The Thoroughbred Record, I happened across a piece under the heading “Local Turf News,” that detailed the visit of John Porter to their editorial offices in Lexington, Kentucky.

Surely this didn’t mean the famous trainer of racehorses, John Porter (1838-1922), who trained horses for the likes of the Duke of Westminster and King George V? The first sentence describes the man who visited:

John Porter, jockey; 4 feet 1 inch in height; weight 98 1/2 pounds, was a caller at The Thoroughbred Record office on Thursday afternoon. There is nothing unusual about Porter’s being a jockey. His height and weight would indicate as much, but when one becomes aware that he is just about seventy-five years old — Porter says he is not quite sure as to his correct age, but “that’s how old white folks tells me I am” is the way he puts it — it dawns upon one that he must indeed be the oldest of all American jockeys now living.

It’s obvious this isn’t the British John Porter, but a man with no less remarkable experience with horses. Upon reading the small piece, I found myself drawn to the mysterious story of the unheralded African American jockey who was still riding at age 75.

The first thing to note is that it’s extremely difficult to find anything about John Porter. He is confirmed as an African American jockey residing in Lexington in the Directory of African Americans in Lexington, KY, 1893 by D. Y. Wilkinson. If he was indeed 75 in 1905, he would have been born in 1830. The article in The Thoroughbred Record says that

Porter was born at the Col. Innis place on the Maysville pike and has been a resident of Lexington all his life, and was exceedingly proud of his owners and trainers badge which gained him admittance to the recent spring meeting, which was by no means his first, and, it is hoped, will not be the last…

It’s likely that Porter was born a slave as were many jockeys of the period. The antebellum racing scene was run largely on the labors of talented African American trainers and jockeys. Porter worked with horses from an early age, exercising horses for John Cameron at the Kentucky Association Course.

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Kentucky Association Racetrack, 1920, by Kraemer Art Company Postcard Proofs – Kentucky Historical Association. Via Wikipedia.

His first mount for a race was on a half-sister of Lexington named Maid of Orleans. It did not go well, at least not immediately. From The Thoroughbred Record:

[S]he jumped the fence, spilling Porter, who claims she ran away clean to the Dicks River cliffs before she was caught. She was eventually found and brought back, and gave Porter his first winning ride on the next day of the meeting.

Success brought opportunity and Porter landed at the stables of Dr. Elisha Warfield, who bred Lexington, then known as Darley. The complexities of the ownership and running of Lexington are their own story, but when ownership shifted and Darley was re-named Lexington, the jockey who rode the newly-christened horse to victory at the 1853 Phoenix Hotel Stakes was John Porter.

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Lexington, c. 1870, Edward Troye (American, 1808-1874) charcoal on paper, 26 x 18 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of Ms. Elizabeth J. D. Jeffords, 2008.

In fact, it appears that Porter was the preferred jockey for Lexington again for his most famous match against Le Compte, but Porter, according to The Thoroughbred Record, was “with” a Mr. Viley who refused to allow Porter to travel to Louisiana to ride.

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Lexington in Stable, James Mullen – Robert N. Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views of Kentucky, 1875. Via Wikipedia.

A facial infection caused Lexington to go blind, forcing his retirement in 1855, but was a leading sire 16 times before his death in 1875. Porter, however, went on to success as a jockey, and trainer.

I found another article in The Thoroughbred Record about John Porter, this time from September 7, 1918:

An unique figure at the Kentucky Association track is an exercising boy named Porter, grandson of the famous jockey, John Porter, who rode at Lexington in many races, including the Phoenix Hotel Stakes, and who had the mount on Ten Broek in the St. Ledger at Louisville when the noted record-holder finished second to King Alfonso in that classic.

Another John Porter, a grandson carrying forward the family tradition of working with horses. When giving tours at our Library, I often point out that the threads of history are extremely delicate. Although John Porter was considered famous in Kentucky horse circles in 1918, he is today very difficult to find in the pages of history.

The contributions of African American jockeys were so often unacknowledged in historical accounts, but they made huge contributions to their sport. Although the record-keeping is imperfect, we’re fortunate to have at least some resources that let us trace the events. Without them, I never would have heard about our John Porter, the man who once rode to victory aboard one of the greatest race horses in American history.


Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail