BACK ROADS TO EXCELLENCE: “From Black Lawn Jockeys to African-American Kentucky Derby Winners”

“When a jockey retires, he just becomes another little man.”  (Eddie Arcaro, Hall of Fame Jockey, 1st to ride 5 Kentucky Derby winners)

Shucks, you don’t have to be a Kentuckian, or a horse racing enthusiast, to get goose bumps or cold shivers when the University of Louisville Marching Band plays reminiscent melodies, like “My Old Kentucky Home,” with these politically-corrected lyrics dancing in your head, at the Kentucky Derby:

“The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home, ‘Tis summer, the people are gay;

    The corn-top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom,  While the birds make music all the day.

    The young folks roll on the little cabin floor, All merry, all happy and bright;

    By ‘n’ by Hard Times comes a-knocking at the door, Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight…

       …Weep no more my lady.  Oh! weep no more today!  We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home,

    For the Old Kentucky Home far away…”   (From “My Old Kentucky Home,”by Stephen C. Foster)

But, I can tell you that being a Kentuckian helps.  The state’s song, alone, can bring back all sorts of memories- some good and some not so good- for those of us raised near the world’s Horse Capital and bountiful Bluegrass Region- especially, coming up in the stupid throes of the pathetic Jim Crow and dippy years of school desegregation.

For some folk, the Kentucky Derby’s true season started when the last derby ended.  But, everything comes to a halt, when the dapper Church Hill Down’s bugler, in his fancy crimson-red track-trumpeter togs, belts out his soothing “Call to the Post” once again.   

“Riders Up!”  That’s when the jockeys, in their colorful racing silks, mount up on some of history’s most beautiful and well-kept thoroughbreds, for the gripping-fast 10-Furlong (1 ¼ mile) run to the lavishly lush blanket of roses, at the finish. The “chalk” boards close. Handlers tighten the grip on their shanks, as the hot-blooded colts and fillies depart the paddocks for the long parade to the starting gates.

But, the gooseflesh and cold creeps are only just beginning.

Lately, it seems like everyone from every corner of the world, every culture, race and occupation, as well as “old money” families, the nouveau riche and, yes, even the destitute, is somehow represented within the carnival-like madness of the derby crowd. The women, in their sizzling hot derby hats, the men, in seersucker, khaki or jeans, hat and hatless, sipping on Tennessee whiskey or Kentucky bourbon and an occasional “Mint Julep,” and their motley mix of emotions are just as diverse.

Then, there are others which the sight of the jockeys, smells of Alfalfa-blended manure and other Derby Day delights, invokes different memories… different meanings- some good, some not so good.  And, some simply misunderstood- like the once-popular, little back lawn jockey- dubbed  “Jocko” by some- which dotted the lawns and driveway entrances to many white homes in Kentucky, as well as all over the South.

Plus, there’s the still-lingering emotional baggage from the buried exploits of a bygone era- akin to “Gone with the Wind”– of a horse racing world once dominated by African-American- or so-called “colored” or “Negro”– jockeys. 

What?  Black jockeys, you say?

Yep, black jockeys, in America…  When the paddock’s call for “Riders Up” went out, in Colonial times, they nearly monopolized the sport, during the post-Civil War period, in the United States, up to 1902. That’s the last time an African-American, a Kentuckian, named Jimmy Winkfield, rode a Kentucky Derby winner, riding a horse named “Alan-a-Dale,” according to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, in Sarasota Springs, New York. Winkfield also won the Kentucky Derby in the previous year, 1901, on a horse named “His Eminence.”

Then, in 1903, he completed his last Kentucky Derby ride with a 2nd  place finish on a mount called “Early,” before emigrating to Russia, the next year, where he later won the Russian Derby four times. According to racing archives, he also became a hero, helping the racing community and 200 horses escape invading troops, during the Russian Revolution, in 1917.

Interestingly, in the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, 13 out of 15 jockeys were black. In that race, black jockey Oliver Lewis, aboard a chestnut mount named Aristides, crossed the finish line first, as well as into horse racing history.  

Among the first 28 derby winners, 15 were black. African American jockeys excelled in the sport in the late 1800s. But by 1921, they had disappeared from the Kentucky track and would not return until Marlon St. Julien rode in the 2000 race (Source: Smithsonian Magazine, April 24, 2009).

According to recent archives, Julien, a Louisiana native, became the first African-American to ride in the Kentucky Derby in 79 years, riding “Curule” to a 7th-place finish, in 2000.  He was featured within the ABC Sports broadcast, aired on February 5, 2000, called “Raising the Roof: Seven Athletes for the 21st Century.”

But, one of the greatest African-American riders, Isaac B. Murphy, according to the U. S. Racing Hall of Fame, came from my hometown of Frankfort, Kentucky.  Historical archives reveal that he was actually born on a nearby farm, in Franklin County, on April 16, 1861, with the given name of Isaac Burns.  However, following the death of his father, James Burns, a bricklayer and former slave who died serving in the Union Army, his family moved to Lexington, Kentucky to live with his grandfather, Green Murphy.  There, he later changed his name to Isaac B. Murphy, in honor of his grandfather, an auction crier and bell ringer, in Lexington.

Murphy jumpstarted his racing career when he was 14 years old, after a black trainer, Eli Jordan, at Lexington’s  Richard and Owings Racing Stable, where his mother worked, noticed his small size- significant in horse track parlance- and felt he might have jockey potential.  Records show that in his first winning race (at Lexington Crab Orchard, September 15, 1875), he “…rode upright and urged his mount on with words and a spur rather than the whip.”

By year’s end, 1876, he won 11 races.  In 1877, he won 19 races and rode to 4th place in his first Kentucky Derby. But, it wasn’t until May 27, 1884 that Murphy won his first Kentucky Derby, at Churchill Downs, according to archives. He repeated with two more Kentucky Derby wins in 1890 and 1891, ultimately riding an overall career total of 628 winners, often with racial overtones, on 1,412 mounts, including the three Kentucky Derby winners.

He was reputed to be the “highest paid jockey in the United States,” as well as the first African-American to own racehorses. According to Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro, “There’s no chance that his (Murphy’s) record of winning will ever be surpassed…” And, the Racing Hall of Fame documents Murphy as the first jockey to win three Kentucky Derbys and the first jockey elected to the Hall of Fame, in 1955.

In 1896, Isaac Murphy died of pneumonia, in Lexington Kentucky. His gravesite remained unmarked until 1967 when he was reinterred and now lies buried next to one of history’s greatest thoroughbreds, “Man O’War,”  at the entrance to Lexington, Kentucky’s Horse Park entrance. Since 1995, the National Turf Writers Association has given the “Isaac Murphy Award” to the jockey with the highest winning percentage, with a 500-mount minimum, in Murphy’s honor.

As an elementary school student, we visited the horse farms in Lexington and Versailles (where my family first lived before I was born in Frankfort), on various school-related field trips, before the Horse Park was opened to the public.  We often talked about Man O’ War in classroom and street corner conversations. The name and fame was always synonymous with horse racing excellence.

For many of us, growing up in the Bluegrass Region, the concept of black jockeys was synonymous with excellence in sports, too, although derby winners were little discussed and never mentioned in classrooms that I recall. Other than “little Black Jocko,” whom we detested, we often heard the other side of the legacy of black jockeys from parents and grandparents, as well as older street corner ‘philosophers’ we all eagerly listened to. They all suggested that blacks disappeared from horseracing because Old Jim Crow didn’t want them to have the big paychecks that the sport was starting to see. From what we were already observing within the racist shenanigans we saw, that certainly made sense to me.

For most kids I grew up with, “little Black Jocko” was as loathsome and offensive as the stings of racist innuendo we felt from the British children’s book, “Little Black Sambo” (by Helen Bannerman, Grant Richards Publishing, London, 1899). 

For years, I felt “little Black Jocko” was just another racist slap in the face, aimed at diminishing the proud legacy of black jockeys, until I began to hear of other versions about the lawn jockeys we saw. It was long after I had graduated from high school, even after my military duties, that I first heard of the “Legend of Black Jocko” being connected to the Underground Railroad, in the United States.

Some versions point to escaping slaves using the lawn jockey to help guide them to freedom, like the way a few coded spirituals assisted in guiding slaves to “safe houses” and secretly pointing the way north, on the Underground Railroad throughout the South and Canada. According to some historical archives, green ribbons or green cloth were tied to the lawn jockey’s arms, or a flag was placed in his hands, indicating a “safe house.” On the other hand, red ribbons or colors meant it was not safe and to keep going.

Then, there’s the version which claims that General George Washington had a hand in creating “Jocko” by coming up with the first groomsman hitching post.  As the story goes, according to the book, “Mammy and Uncle Mose:  Black Collectibles and American Stereotyping (Blacks in the Diaspora)” (by Kenneth W. Goings, Indiana Univ. Press, Oct. 1994), this occurredduring the Revolutionary War within Washington’s plans for a surprise attack on the British, using black slaves and free men.  Goings, a history professor at Florida Atlantic University, wrote of Washington declining to use one black volunteer, Tom Graves, because of his youth, but allowed him to hold a lantern for the soldiers when they crossed the Delaware River.

Another version, according to Goings, says it was Grave’s son, with the nickname of “Jocko,” that held the lantern.  But, when the troops rowed back after the battle, instead of finding their horses hitched to post, they found the reins in the hands of young “Jocko” who had frozen to death. As a result, according to Goings, General Washington was moved by the youngster’s supreme sacrifice and ordered a statue made in “Jocko’s” honor. According to the narrative, the Colonials charged the garrison’s “Red Coats” and Hessians, killing or capturing over 1,000 encamped at Trenton.  However, only four patriots died.  Two died in battle and two froze to death, including young “Jocko,” as the tide turned in the war. Ultimately, Washington’s statue of “Jocko,” stepping bravely forward to hold the horses, as if saying “I will,” was set on the lawn of Mount Vernon, his estate, in front of the mansion.

While the shadows of my upbringing taught me that the lawn jockey representations of “little Black Jocko” were all a back-hand racist slap in the face, it is somewhat comforting to uncover these versions of history’s missing pages. Surely, when it comes to racial slurs and the interpretations of American history, ignorance abounds in white AND black communities across the nation.  As a result, many lawn jockeys were destroyed, due to the belief that they were simply racial slurs.

According to the River Road African American Museum in Louisiana, lawn jockeys reveal a proud moment in American history. Yet, in an old television episode of “All in the Family,” Archie Bunker was given a black lawn jockey, as a gift from a friend, for his paying off his mortgage.  However, Archie refused to put it outside, because he didn’t want folk to pester him about the statue. In the movie, “Home Alone,” visitors to the McCallister home often knocked over the lawn jockey in their driveway. And, in the song, “Uncle Remus” (by George Duke and Frank Zappa), the lyrics speak of knocking the jockeys off the lawns of rich people in Beverly Hills, something a few of us “chilluns” can identify with, but may never admit, concerning certain pranks on Halloween.

But, in spite of the commotion, historical confusion and contemporary clamor, on this Kentucky Derby Day, 2012, I simply choose to listen to the positive excitement, the sounds and the sights, of carnival-like derby crowds, dazzling hats and all, as the hushed tribute it has become to some of the greatest riders in history, from darn-near my own backyard where, in the first Kentucky Derby, 13 of the 15 jockeys were black- in an era also “Gone with the wind.”  

Today, I’m toasting my Mint Julep to that, while quoting the British poet, Lord Byron, who says: 

Be thou the rainbow to the storms of life!
The evening beam that smiles the clouds away,
And tints tomorrow with prophetic ray!

Shucks, who knows what tomorrow’s derby headlines and history will bring…

“Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s.

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