Home / General / Book Review: Katherine C. Mooney, Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack

Book Review: Katherine C. Mooney, Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack



In Race Horse Men, Katherine Mooney examines the long history of race from the 1820s to the 1910s through the prism of the racetrack. She effectively argues that this is a great place in which to examine race for two primary reasons. First, wealthy white men, largely southern but often northern, saw the hierarchy of the track as a reflection of their idealized American society, where difference was reproduced and social division made clear. Yet these elites, who believed in slavery and then the subjugation of free blacks from the bottom of their hearts, relied upon the labor and expertise of black men to raise, train, and ride the horses. In fact, and this is Mooney’s second reason, this was perhaps the only place in American society where whites and blacks could freely talk to each other and where black opinions had equal footing as those of whites. This meant that within the African-American community, the role of the horsemen or jockey was a privileged and even heroic position. They were a relatively elite class of slaves and then became athletic heroes to the black public after the Civil War. Yet whites had difficulty even recognizing the existence of this black subculture because for slave and horse owners, the black horsemen were in a state of total subjugation, with loyalty they could count on. That meant that the ability of black expertise to develop on this issue was not a threat because their subjugation was so complete as to have no implications for their larger hierarchical world.

Horse racing became a popular sport in the colonial South and by the 1820s was perhaps the most popular sport for the American elite. The white male democratic impulses of the Jacksonian period drew together white men from across America in the sport of horse racing, but the masters of this realm were the class of white men less comfortable with the implications of this democracy. In other words, Southern Whigs dominated it. Henry Clay was of course a major figure in racing, as were many other leaders and the track was a place where political dealings got done. These were men deeply committed to the idea of slavery and domination over life. As so, they tortured slaves to mold their bodies as jockeys. The description of this is the book’s most brutal passage, with boys forced to stand in horse manure to stunt their growth. Slaves would be forced to walk 10-20 miles with heavy layers of clothing on to shed weight while malnutrition was common. For white men dedicated to their horses, mistakes in their training or riding by slaves could mean brutal treatment for the latter. For the masters, that they could mold slaves’ bodies to serve their own recreational purposes was a sign of the total mastery they held over their life and their world. White men might speak kindly of their black horsemen, but certainly did not extend to actual respect, nor did it portend speaking kindly of other slaves. John Randolph of Roanoke, one of the Early Republic’s most famous political figures, called the slave who taught him to ride “Father” rather than the usual “Uncle” but also ordered the murder of his slaves, complaining when an overseer only beat rather than murder one slave.

For slaves though, despite the brutality, the ability to work on the horses created significant pride and eventually, after the war, upward mobility for the successful. Being a horsemen and creating heroes of horsemen became part of black self-definition as emancipation began, creating the sporting heroes that also helped define whiteness. Black jockeys spoke of their work with a great sense of pride over their accomplishments and status. Both before and after the Civil War, black jockeys rode in some of the most epic races of all time and were among the best jockeys in the nation. Profiles of ex-slave jockeys in the late 19th century noted how insistent they were on dressing well, connecting themselves and their lineage to free blacks before the War, working for men like Henry Clay, and demonstrating their deep knowledge of all things horses.

The Civil War revolutionized the horsing world as it did the nation at large. Not only did it free the black jockeys that dominated the sport, but it also shifted a lot of the nation’s racing resources north. This is for instance when the racing at Saratoga, in New York, began. But while Southern whiggery had died before the Civil War, the imperative to control the nation and the racial order while ruling over the track had not, and the racing world became a place for the next generation of southern elite to make connections with northern whites who supported their elite status, hated Reconstruction, and wanted to return the nation to its proper racial order. Meanwhile, for black horsemen, the integrated track and their continued success on it perhaps heralded a more integrated and equal United States. That perhaps the nation’s most prominent jockey, Isaac Murphy, was African-American served to raise those hopes. Alas, it was not to be, even if men like Murphy rose into the black middle class through their winnings. Yet the African-American media paid men like Murphy a great deal of attention, creating the heroes necessary to fight forward for racial justice in postbellum America. And perhaps most importantly, they took the power to tell their own stories and live the lives they wanted to live, an unthinkable move before the Civil War.

Mooney’s story ends with the segregation of racing in the early 20th century. Through 1900, there is plenty of evidence of close relationships between white and black jockeys, bonded over their mutual expertise and mutual suffering in maintaining their low weights. But by the 1910s, the increasingly racialized and segregated nation lost any room for the black jockeys that had long made up a sizable part of the horse labor force. White jockeys began forcing blacks into falls on the track and placing pressure on owners by saying that they would hurt horses if black riders were allowed on them. Of course the owners, by now faraway from the slaveholding era of trusting black knowledge with horses, had no problem with this and like so much of the United States, the track became all-white for decades. This happened alongside the rise in portrayals of black horsemen in the ever-popular minstrel shows and Currier & Ives lithographs, both of which reinforced the idea of how freedom had destroyed black morality and created behavior that needed to be controlled, violently if necessary. Whites justified the disappearance of blacks from the track using the scientific racism of the day, stating that science had proven that blacks could not compete with whites in the horses. Others openly denied that it was racism at the core. Instead, according to one reporter, races simply couldn’t live together so it had to be either all-white or all-black and such exclusion was inevitable.

Apropos of nothing important to race and class, I was also shocked to learn that pre-Civil War horse racing primarily consisted of 4-mile races, run in a series of heats and the horse than won the best 2 of 3 won. That is starkly different than current practices, to say the least.

Overall, this is a very interesting look at race, class, and sporting in the U.S. over a century. This is not the easiest research and tying these big themes around a single sport for a long time has its research challenges. Race Horse Men is a good book and could well be of interest to readers.

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  • Lee Rudolph

    This accomplishes the difficult task of making the American football machine look good.

  • Happy Jack

    Does this go into the details of the origins of the lawn jockey? It looks like a lot of conflicting stories about the history behind them.

  • medrawt

    Re: the actual racing, at a guess I might hazard that although they were already specifically breeding “thoroughbred” race horses, at the time they might have been … less thoroughly bred, and more generally robust? (Nothing to add on the main subject of the post, except that it was totally unfamiliar to me, and rather interesting, so thanks.)

  • joel hanes

    this was perhaps the only place in American society where whites and blacks could freely talk to each other and where black opinions had equal footing as those of whites.

    That ability to mingle and respect for black opinions extended to many aspects of “the sporting life”, particularly hunting and fishing. See the works of Nash Buckingham, an extended elegy for that Southern culture as it was in the earliest 20th century, particularly The Shootinest Gent’man.

    • mch

      This book looks really really interesting, Erik. Thanks for the heads-up.

      To add on to Joel hanes’ comment: another venue in which blacks and whites could freely talk to each other, and least sometimes: music and also dance. Even in the Jim Crow South, musicians would ignore the prohibitions and just play together — sometimes or often, who knows?

  • Bruce Vail

    This sounds like a book I want to read.

    Also, seems like many of the 19th century issues are still with us.

    I’ll blow my own horn here and recommend reading this:


  • No image of a dead horse? I am sorely disappointed.

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