The achievements of African-American athletes such as Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Muhammad Ali and Althea Gibson are well known, but how many Americans know about the history and achievements of Jimmy Winkfield, Isaac Murphy, Abe Hawkins and Willie Simms?
They were African-American horse trainers, breeders and jockeys who were the backbone of horse racing, America’s first professional sport, making them America’s first professional athletes. Artist and historian Michael McBride gave a slide show and discussion of their history in a talk titled “Too Black, Too Fast: America’s Original Athletes” at the Durham County Library Sunday.
McBride, a painter and art instructor at Tennessee State University, began doing research about the history of black jockeys in 1991. An official at Churchill Downs called a friend of his who has a shop in Nashville that sells African-American art. They asked his friend about African-American jockeys. He had nothing to tell them, and called McBride, who went to a library and began reading about the topic.
“I was absolutely blown away,” McBride said when he saw some books on the history of the sport. He started “Too Black, Too Fast” to make more Americans aware of this forgotten history. The project is multimedia and includes McBride’s paintings of scenes inspired by the history of black jockeys, sculptures by George Nock, and a forthcoming fact book that McBride is editing. The project also is working on a feature film, and a documentary for PBS, McBride said.
African-American jockeys, mostly between 13 and 15 years of age, dominated the sport from 1607 until about 1910, McBride said. Landowners and the well-to-do would gamble large sums of money and property on horses, which gave the sport high prestige. As a result, the slaves who were tapped as riders were given freedoms others in slavery could never dream of, including the privilege of crossing state lines without being apprehended, McBride said. African-American jockeys catalogued many achievements during those centuries, until the advent of baseball as a national sport in the early 20th century, and Jim Crow laws led to black jockeys being largely shut out of the sport.
McBride discussed some of the achievements that will be included in his book. Jockey Abe Hawkins, for example, created the modern jockey stance, in which the rider does not sit on the horse but crouches over the horse’s neck to give the horse greater speed. Willie Simms was the first jockey to win the Triple Crown in racing, and all three prizes in the same year. Isaac Murphy is “considered the greatest jockey in America,” winning 44 percent of the races he ran, an unsurpassed record, McBride said.
Jimmy Winkfield, “the black maestro,” was the last black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. He made good money as a rider, but he eventually moved to Paris because of the racism in this country. McBride told the story of Winkfield being snubbed during a banquet in Louisville, Ky., honoring athletes. Despite being an honoree, Winkfield was forced to use the back door.
Other African-Americans were important breeders and trainers. Bob Green was the head trainer at Belle Meade Plantation in Tennessee, a nursery dedicated to raising thoroughbred racing horses. Today, 60 percent of thoroughbreds can be traced to Green’s work at Belle Meade. Partners Willie Jones and Austin Curtis bred and raced horses “and nobody could beat them,” McBride said. Their reputation was so good that they had to cook up schemes to get other jockeys and owners to race them, he said.
As part of the Too Black, Too Fast Project, McBride has created a series of paintings depicting the jockeys and historical scenes. He creates them with two colors, using cotton swabs and his hands, but no brushes. The paintings have to be completed in one sitting because of the speed at which the paint dries, he said.
The documentary begins filming next month, McBride said. The story of the black jockey is part of African-American history,” McBride said. “But it’s also about American history.”
For more information about this project, visit www.tooblacktoofast.com.