In just a few hours on this first Saturday in May, one of the world’s most popular sporting event will take place: the 2018 edition of the Kentucky Derby, also known as the Run for the Roses. This will be the 144th Kentucky Derby, with the inaugural race dating back to May 17, 1875.
Due in part to a shameful period in America’s history, most Americans don’t know that following the Civil War, horse racing became the most popular sport and that the “greatest two minutes in sports” was once dominated by black jockeys. During the late 19th century and the start of the 20th century, black jockeys were quite common. To highlight that point, in the first Kentucky Derby in May 1875, 13 of the 15 jockeys were black Americans, and black jockey Oliver Lewis took the victory at Churchill Downs, becoming part of the group known as the “premier horsemen in the world,” while ushering in “the golden era of black jockeys.”
Building on that legacy, black American jockeys won 15 of the first 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, paving the way for generations of black American sports stars. Perhaps one of the greatest of America’s first black sports stars and considered by some to be the greatest American jockey in history was Isaac Murphy, who became the first person to win the Kentucky Derby three times, crossing the finish line first in 1884, 1890 and 1891. Thus, he became the first rider to win the Kentucky Derby twice in a row. Later, to his credit, Isaac Murphy became the first rider inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in 1955.
However, by the early 1900s, black jockeys were no longer allowed to ride a horse in the Kentucky Derby as Jim Crow, a policy of exclusion and threats of violence kept black jockeys off the tracks. In fact, between 1921 and 2000, no black American jockey rode the race. Due to the toxic effect of racism and Jim Crow, the Kentucky Derby, which will be televised later today, remains a sad commentary on American life in the area of horse racing. According to Arthur Ashe in “Days of Grace,” in the world of horse racing, “racism destroyed a tradition so effectively that most people, black or white, probably assume that blacks had never been a part of the Run for the Roses.”
Commenting further on this shameful chapter in our nation’s history, Ashe stated, “The sport of horse racing is the only instance where the participation of blacks stopped almost completely while the sport itself continued—a sad commentary on American life. Isaac Murphy, so highly admired during his time for his skills and character, would have been ashamed of his sport.”
Today, as we continue to grapple with the challenges emanating from our shameful history of slavery, racism and Jim Crow, the impact of these evil deeds may never be fully known or determined.
Larry Sutton is a retired teacher from Clinton High School.