CRAWFORD | Is the Kentucky Derby racist? - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Is the Kentucky Derby racist?

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It seemed simple enough. A Dartmouth College sorority held an invitation-only party every year that usually happened to fall on Kentucky Derby weekend, so they made it a Derby-themed party.

What's the harm? But a year ago, Black Lives Matter staged a protest, claiming that the party was racist and economically elitist. And this year, the sorority rebranded, its vice president telling news outlets that the rebranding, "related to pre-war Southern culture. Derby was a party that had the power to upset a lot of our classmates."

I've been thinking about this for a while.

When Black Lives Matter protested the Derby party in 2015, they shouted, "What is Derby? It’s the face of genocide,” and, “What is Derby? It’s the face of police brutality."

Police brutality and the Derby? (It turns out a call to boycott the Derby was issued because of a law enforcement issue not connected to the Derby.) I've got to tell you, some of the most patient police officers I've ever seen are Louisville Metro Police Department officers dealing with drunken crowds on Derby Day.

The easy thing is to dismiss all this as a play for attention from an activist group, and to brush it off as another symptom of the youth of today being far too easily offended.

But that's not the end of the story. In my mind, there are still a few points to be made.

First, the Derby isn't a pre-war institution -- it didn't begin until a decade after the Civil War ended. But to pretend that racism in this state or antebellum-type culture and messages didn't exist after that is to ignore reality. The bourbon ad pictured to the left appeared in Collier's Magazine in 1937. (Image via James Nicholson's book, The Kentucky Derby. See reference below.)

Matt Winn, the well-known president of Churchill Downs and the man widely credited with saving the Derby after some early struggles, cultivated an antebellum image for the race, complete with being attended by African-American valets both in Louisville and during his travels. Now, these valets were paid, but his references to them in his autobiography are less than respectful, and in fact he referred to them as "a long line of colored boys."

The early years of the Kentucky Derby were dominated by black jockeys. There were 15 horses entered in the first Derby; 14 of the jockeys were black. Aristides, winner of the first Kentucky Derby, was trained by Ansel Williamson, who was born a slave in Virginia and bought by Robert Alexander of Woodburn Stud near Midway, Ky. After earning his emancipation, Williamson remained in Alexander's employ and trained many great horses. Aristides was ridden by 19-year-old Oliver Lewis, also an African-American.

Black jockeys won eight of the first 16 Kentucky Derbies and 15 of the first 28. Black trainers conditioned six of the first 17 winners.

Isaac Murphy, who won the Derby three times and was the first man to win it in successive years in 1890 and '91, was, in the words of one of his biographers, Joe Drape, "The first black millionaire athlete." He might've been the first millionaire athlete in this country, period.

But the more fame, and money, these jockeys acquired, the more they were resented by powers in the sport, and in society.

Arthur Ashe, in his three-volume, A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African- American Athlete, called the decline of black jockeys after their early domination of the sport "the saddest case" of discrimination in American sport.

"Black domination of horse racing then was analogous to the domination of the National Basketball Association today," Ashe wrote. "Subsequently, the Jockey Club was formed in the early 1890s to regulate and license all jockeys. Then one by one the blacks were denied their license renewals. By 1911 they had all but disappeared."

I hear Black Lives Matter say "genocide" in connection with the Derby and I recoil. Nobody is being killed. And it demeans those real instances in which they are. But then I think about what happened to blacks in this sport. A single policy of exclusion, executed over little more than a decade, largely wiped an entire race from the riding and training professions for a century.

Between 1921 and 2000, there wasn't a single black jockey in the race.

Think about that. African-Americans dominated the race. Then they left the sport and didn't come back. Their numbers now are miniscule. The sport is open to their return. African-American jockeys today are welcome. It would love to encourage more black owners and trainers. But it's difficult to reverse a course of history, once embarked upon.

Consider for a moment how it might have been had African-American jockeys continued to be employed in large numbers, and experienced the kind of success they had in the early years, how they would have served as inspiration to others. The sport today, without a doubt, would look much different. As would the Kentucky Derby.

Does that mean if you go to the Derby, or have a Derby party, or celebrate the Derby, you're a racist?

Absolutely not. I think it's important that we understand the history of the race, and important that we remember the injustices done to many of those who had a significant role in the foundation of the race. It's important that we acknowledge that there were racist undertones in the sport that needed to be stamped out, and we need to watch for any vestiges that might rear up.

But today's Derby, from a fan standpoint, has a place for everyone. Where more places are needed-- in ownership, in trainers, in jockeys -- the sport still is lacking. But it isn't the only American sport underrepresented by African-Americans in ownership roles.

The Kentucky Derby ought to get credit for giving black jockeys and trainers a platform for success and fame long before Major League Baseball and other American sports. It also deserves the blame for jerking that platform from under them.

But the Kentucky Derby today, as an entertainment entity and, well, to put it bluntly, a big-time party, is enjoyed by as diverse an audience as any event in American sport. From the ultra-expensive suites in The Mansion, to the Turf Club, to Millionaires Row, to the clubhouse, and grandstand, across all the terraces, to the backside tailgates to the infield madhouse, you will find African-American fans reveling in this race alongside everyone else, not just from around the nation but around the world, from royalty to poverty.

In fact, I daresay Churchill Downs on Derby Day could teach anyone from Dartmouth a few things about diversity.

Background reading:

The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America's Premier Sporting Event, by James C. Nicholson, 2012, The University Press of Kentucky.

Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend, by Joe Drape, 2007, HarperCollins.

A Hard Road to Glory, Vol. 1: A History of the African-American Athlete, 1619-1918, by Arthur Ashe, 1988, Warner/Amistad Books.

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