decolonize the derby
May 4, 2019
One of the most powerful words.
You can either conform or rebel. It’s your choice, but it’s clear that you could not, should not or might face consequences if you choose to “just do it”.
Black people in America and throughout the diaspora have been chronically conditioned to the notion of “NO!”. Sometimes we know and sometimes we predict the “NO”. It’s like a game, “Oh no, I’m not gonna be the one thinking we get this or get to do that, “No! History already told me the answer will be no. Preemptive “NO!”. No satisfaction in hope, so being right about everything that is wrong will suffice. And unfortunately, that person has every right.
Unfortunately, We Get to Be Right Too Often
In America, our Constitution and institutions, herald “NO!” embedded in both the large and fine print. Yet, we always found a way to affirm, assert and succeed in spaces intent on denying US. NO was written into our nation’s founding documents; slave codes and Jim Crow signs. Yet we roared past the lynching in the 20’s to create our own renaissance in Harlem, a revolution in the 60s and even a Black president. But, most Black people still assume that the Kentucky Derby always did and probably always will tell us “NO!” And I’m writing this blog to say NO, the Kentucky Derby was a cull de sac of blexcellence.
In the 19th century, horse racing was America’s favorite sport and the first winner of the Kentucky Derby was a former slave. In fact, the first Kentucky Derby in 1875 was integrated, having 13 Black jockeys out of 15! In the purgatory between slavery and Jim Crow, called “Reconstruction”, white Aristocratic men gave up owning Black people, but not their beloved equine status symbols and hence being a jockey or horse trainer was a highly prized and paid skill. Indeed, the first Black millionaire athlete, Issac Murphy also, the first to win consecutive Kentucky Derbys in 1890 and 1891 (and a third in 1884), was the highest paid jockey of his time! Issac was so popular, there were gossip columns about him and his image was featured in the New York Times! In fact, long before we wanted to be “Like Mike”, Issac was idolized by every boy who wanted to be a jockey. Even more surprising, George Washington was so grateful for his slave Jocko Graves’s dedication to his horses, that when he froze to death, Washington erected a statue in Jocko’s honor. Miniature lawn figurines of Jocko are still sold to this day, depicting a Black jockey.
SAY THEIR NAMES
Black jockeys, trainers and groomers often had to endure being buried in manure, in the hot sun with little time for breaks. These jockeys often ran marathons, starved themselves and wore twenty pound weights to maintain the ideal weight of 118 pounds or less.
Despite these arduous conditions there were many blequestrians in the pantheon of blexcellence including
James “Soup” Perkins* youngest Kentucky Derby winner aged 15
Ed Brown *owned a stable
Unfortunately, Black jockey blexcellence was met with an equal amount of Black tragedy. Black tennis pioneer Arthur Ashe stated in his book A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete,” that Black jockeys missing in action is “the saddest case” of racial apartheid in American sports history. He continued, “Black domination of horse racing then was analogous to the domination of the National Basketball Association today,” But why such a drastic fall from grace? The white equestrian establishment green with envy, collectively said “NO!”
A sports writer from Chicago observed that seeing Black fans cheer Black jockeys to victory reminded him of the 15th Amendment’s insurance of Black male suffrage. White rage, fear and jealousy fueled the whitelash, literally whipping sometimes formerly enslaved Kentucky Derby champions. Black jockeys were intimidated, brutalized and shamed, often having to beg to participate, including Willie Simms the only blequestrian to win the Triple Crown. Often boxed into their stables and chased off into the rails, horse owners choose their horse’s safety over a winning Black jockey.
By 1894, the Jockey Club was incorporated and formalized telling Black jockeys “NO!” No longer an individual vigilante gesture, the Jockey Club institutionalized equestrian racism. The Jockey Club, the KKK and 1896’s Plessey vs. Ferguson formally redlined Black jockeys. Winkfield was the last blequestrian to win the Derby in 1902. By 1921, no blequestrain ran in the Derby until 2000. Many riders who were stripped of riding ‘privileges’ fled and won championships oversees, while others committed and still others died from a broken heart with dreams deferred.
Yet the whitewashing of the Derby is as epic as the race itself. Ironically the Kentucky Derby honored Aristides, the first horse to win the historic race with a huge statue, but not its Black jockey Oliver Lewis.
The Reckoning and Reparations
In 2015, Kentucky Horse Park unveiled a headstone as tribute to Issac Murphy, whose body languished in an unmarked grave until discovered in 1967. New sections of the park including “African-Americans in Racing,” and “Kentucky’s African-American Horsemen,” are dedicated to reshaping the Kentucky Derby narrative – from all white to the unvarnished truth.
Blequestrians Murphy, Perkins and Lewis, no longer jettisoned, are finally receiving respect and recognition. Leon Nichols is eerily familiar with these legends because he ran over their graves as a child, ignorant to the racist disposability of Black icons. What he thought was a grassy place to play was actually the Colored Peoples Union Benevolent Society No. 2, a segregated cemetery which entombed over 5000 people, many Black professionals and soldiers. This haunted and catalyzed Murphy to create the Isaac Murphy Image Awards and also hosts tours of the burial ground to ground our notion of the Kentucky Derby in blexcellence.
While institutions and individuals are reckoning and trying to placate those making just call for reparations by erecting monuments and galleries dedicated to Black jockeys, what can we do?
Let’s reject “NO!” and affirm our right to occupy any space.
AFFIRM that Black jockeys are the backbone of the Kentucky Derby brand.
From Issac Murphy to Muhammad Ali to Serena Williams to Colin Kaepernick, AFFIRM Black athletes continue to innovate and dominate.
AFFIRM that our burial grounds and campus grounds will not become dog parks or a developer’s dream.
Assume that while we may never know the extent of blexcellence of our ancestors, we can commit to staying open to infinite possibilities. #AfroPast #AfroFuture #WeSeeUS
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