• John McGary, Woodford Sun News Editor

Race and race horses

KATHERINE MOONEY read from her book “Race Horse Men” at Rabbit House Books and Notions on Thursday, March 15. The book traces the path of African-American jockeys, trainers and others in America – and how a backlash to civil rights developments in the early part of last century kept them off the tracks for decades. (Photo by John McGary)

Author Katherine Mooney spent part of last week reading from her book about race horses and the issues of race in the heart of horse country.

The first was a March 13 visit to the Lyric Theatre in Lexington sponsored by the Phoenix Rising, a non-profit group dedicated to exploring and promoting the history of African-American horsemen. The second was a March 15 book reading at Rabbit House Books & Notions, a new bookstore at 190 North Main street.

(The bookstore is owned by Erin Chandler, a cousin of Sun publisher Whitney Chandler.)

Mooney called “Race Horse Men,” which was first published in 2014, “the history of horse racing through the lens of the experience of African-Americans who worked in the industry.”

From the beginning of horse racing in America through early part of last century, everyone assumed that African-Americans were integral to the business, she said. Black jockeys, trainers and others were not only employees, but valued members of stables.

“It’s a story about how that evolved from slavery and the position that particularly skilled horsemen had in slavery, which was kind of unique, and how they took those skills and they used them to be very successful after Emancipation. And then, how, with the coming of Jim Crow, black horsemen really lost a lot of opportunities they previously had,” said McKinney.

Photos from the late 19th and early 20th century are replete with black jockeys, grooms and trainers – but that changed, in large part due to a backlash to the civil right efforts of that era, which Mooney said happened “astoundingly abruptly.”

She said many blacks working in the industry before and after the Civil War were quite well-regarded by white higher-ups, becoming homeowners and sending their children to college.

“Particularly in the Bluegrass … in Versailles and in the east end of Lexington, they are building these middle-class communities, many of which are overlapping with activist groups that are trying to, for instance, secure voting rights for African-Americans,” McKinney said.

It took whites opposed to such ideas awhile to connect them with the blacks in the horse business, she said.

“Once it becomes about civil rights, it takes maybe 30 years for people … to be like, ‘Wait. Wait – maybe, stop the car,’” McKinney said.

About a decade after the 1896 “Plessy vs. Ferguson” decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that established “separate but equal” as the law of the land, there were virtually no black trainers or jockeys working with elite horses, McKinney said.

The return of blacks to places other than grandstands at race tracks was slow but today is evident, with black jockeys and trainers thriving in McKinney’s home state of Louisiana and elsewhere.

When she’s not writing, McKinney’s a professor at Florida State University, where she “drums American history into the heads of children” and is otherwise “usually to be found in a barn someplace.”

When she’s not in a classroom or barn, McKinney is writing her second book, which will compare the role of mares in the Thoroughbred industry to that of women in politics and other occupations.

You can purchase “Race Horse & Men” at Chandler’s bookstore, Amazon.com and other sellers of books.

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