Dexter Rogers

Dexter Rogers

Friday, May 8, 2009

Kentucky Derby: How African American dominance was derailed

On May 2nd the 135th Kentucky Derby concluded. This one of the biggest sports spectacles in the world. Race horse Mind That Bird won the race despite being a 50-1 underdog. As many African Americans were watching Kobe Bryant and LeBron James continue their journey towards a showdown in the finals I was thinking about the Kentucky Derby.

I’m one who attempts to look beyond the obvious to secure deeper significance. Like usual I came up with following.

Did you know 20 years after the Emancipation Proclamation African Americans dominated Americas’ first favorite pastime? Back in the day the Kentucky Derby was like the Super Bowl today. It was the marquee sporting event of the day.

In 1875 the inaugural Kentucky Derby was won by 19-year old African American Oliver Lewis while sitting atop Aristides. Also, 13 of the 15 riders were African American. Matter of fact of the first 28 Kentucky Derby’s run 15 races was won by African American riders.

The great Isaac Murphy was the first jockey to win three titles. He won 1884, 1890, and 1891 titles. Murphy was so good he won nearly 50 percent of all races he entered for his career. No other rider before or since can claim such consistency. Also, Murphy was the first rider elected to the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Jimmy Winkfield was the last African American to win the Kentucky Derby when he posted consecutive victories in 1901-02. Winkfield, like most African American riders, endured bitter racism. Winkfield even left America to live in Europe to continue his career. His talents afforded him a lavish life-style in Europe that he was kept from enjoying in America because of race.

Why did African Americans dominate?

During slavery many plantation owners loved riding horses. Even original Founding Father and slave owner George Washington loved horses. Slaves were expected to care for the masters property-horses included. They learned all the intricacies involved in caring for horses which slaves would utilize to forge careers as jockeys once free.

Life reveals that all good things at some point must cease. Frankly speaking, white America grew weary of African American riders dominating horseracing: they couldn’t stomach the fact former slaves could excel despite habitual oppression. True to form white horse racing officials utilized legislation to curtail the dominance of African American riders.

In 1894 jockey officials created the Jockey Club. Just like Plessy vs. Ferguson sanctioned “separate but equal” in society horse racing officials manufactured legislation in sport to systematically deny African American riders opportunities to ride.

How did they do it?

White officials simply gave themselves the authority to grant licenses to whoever they wanted. Also, since it was against the laws for slaves to read and write most of the African American riders were functionally illiterate. Officials set up criteria were the latter was required to be granted a license. Even if a rider could read and write they could still be denied.

Without question white officials actions were fueled by racism: in essence the racism that infiltrated society found its way into sport to thwart African American opportunity.

African American riders essentially disappeared from the scene. No African American rode in the Kentucky Derby since 1921 until Marlon St. Julien entered the event in the year 2000.

Why is all this important?

Newark, New Jersey, schoolteacher Miles Dean stated, "As an urban educator I see every day the disconnect students have with their past. By acknowledging the contributions of African American jockeys, I hope to heighten children's awareness of their history. It's a history of great achievement, not just a history of enslavement.”

Many African Americans are unaware of the history of the Kentucky Derby and the initial dominance of African Americans. Having a better comprehension of the past can breed a better understanding of ones self and their surroundings.

Without question African Americans have done more than dunk basketballs like LeBron James and score touchdowns LaDanian Tomlinson. The lethal combination of not being aware of history and mainstream media’s methodical negligence to disseminate truth solicits fallacy. But if history was studied critically we’d at least know who Issac Murphy was to put in perspective why Kobe and LeBron dominate today.

Don’t limit your aspirations to the naked eye or confine your dreams to the walls of the establishment. Look beyond what you see, study history, and persist.

1 comment:

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