Where Did All the Black Jockeys Go?

It’s Derby Day, and the Belles and Gents from all over are already getting dressed in their finery and mixing their vats of mint juleps to haul along, though I’d guess that the image I might have of tail-gate parties may be a bit too ‘down-class’ for the parking lots at Churchill Downs in Lou’vlle (gotta say it like ya have enlarged tonsils, remember…).

In the afternoon the crowds of dapper men and spectacularly-hatted women will at least pretend to be singing the old song which starts like this; and will bring a tear to many an eye:

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
‘Tis summer, the darkies are gay;
The corn-top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom,
While the birds make music all the day.

Taking a hard turn away from the ‘gay darkies’ trip, a century later some folks are asking what really happened to erase them from the Derby and most big races so completely.  Richard Watkins writing at the Root has some answers based on a newspaper article found by a researcher in Washington DeeCee.

In 1875 the first Derby’s entrants were all ridden by black jockeys except for one; blacks won 15 of 28 big races at Churchill Downs that year.  It was a time when the first black sports heroes came to the fore, begun when plantation owners put up young and light slaves on their horses, sometimes even tying them into the saddle, a viciously dangerous thing to do.

Kenneth Whisenton discovered a piece in the NYT that shed a lot of light on their disappearance by the turn of the century:

“As the Thoroughbred horse-racing industry grew in America, so did the size of the winning purses and the prosperity of black jockeys. Less talented and envious white riders conspired to get in on the take.”

Whisenton has uncovered a New York Times article from 1900 with the headline, “Negro Jockeys Shut Out: Combination of White Riders to Bar Them From the Turf.” The article begins, “The decline of the negro jockey has been so apparent since the season of 1900 opened that even the casual racegoer has had an opportunity to comment upon it.

“The public generally accepted the theory that the old-time favorites of African blood had outgrown their skill, and really were out of date because of their inability to ride up to their form of past years,” the article continues. “Racing men know better. As a matter of fact, the negro jockey is down and out, not because he could no longer ride, but because of a quietly formed combination to shut him out.”

The article explains just how the union took hold and became an effective means of depriving black jockeys of their incomes: ” … white riders have organized to draw the color line. In this they are said to be upheld and advised by certain horse owners and turfmen who have great influence in racing affairs. Rumor even went so far as to state that The Jockey Club approved the plan, tacitly and unofficially.”

Unionized Jim Crow

Whisenton says, “Now, if that isn’t the very definition of institutional racism at its ugliest, I don’t know what is. Remember, this was a time when the Jim Crow era began to take hold.” The Times describes how white riders enforced their ban on black jockeys through sabotage and subterfuge: “The negro riders got mounts at first, but then failed to win races. Somehow or other, they met with all sorts of accidents and interference in their races.” (my bold)

There are some brief bios of the great black jockeys of the era like Willie Simms, and some of their attempts at extending their careers by racing in Europe, in some cases very successfully and lucratively.  It’s not clear if it were the white jockeys who drove the issue, or other players were involved; we may never know.  But it’s interesting to think about on Derby Day.  And if that may have been the time when black jocks were consigned to lawn decorations and horse-hitching.

The piece gives no clue as to the number of black riders nationwide now, and I only spent a minute poking around, and found this page which said that one Derby rider in 2000 would have been the first black jockey in 79 years.  His name was St. Julien.


I love the dickens outta Outkast for turning the tables on that history, and stealing the lawn jockeys to pimp back.   It’s a play on ‘The Beatles on Ed Sullivan’ riff.

(cross-posted at

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