#ShelfieSunday: Race Horse Men

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Katherine C. Mooney
Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014
Hardcover: $35.00
ISBN 9780674281424
Subject matter: Horse Racing, Nineteenth-Century United States History, Slavery, Race and Race Relations.

Review by Charlotte Carrington-Farmer (Roger Williams University)

     Race Horse Men examines how the racetrack was an important political and cultural arena, where slavery was “made” alongside freedom in the United States. The book’s seven chapters, which are structured chronologically, weave together a picture of the lives of the so-called “race horse men” from the early 1800s through to the 1920s. Thoroughbred racing was arguably America’s first spectator sport, and black jockeys were amongst the best jockeys in the country, who rode in (and won) many famous race. Enslaved grooms, jockeys, and trainers were granted significant autonomy from their white masters, and their opinions were valued. They were often well-paid for their work, and were permitted to travel as part of their job. However, Mooney complicates our understanding of slavery and systems of power. Her most persuasive argument demonstrates the shades of oppression within a larger system of total subjection. Mooney convincingly argues that whilst race horse men were some of the “freest” unfree people in the United States, their freedom served to reinforce their master’s dominance. Race Horse Men is not an overly simplified story of how black men crafted nooks of freedom at the racetrack; it is a more complicated story of how white men used the racetrack to advance their power bases and to create a microcosm of their version of the United States, in which they ruled supreme. Masters used race days to “demonstrate their power was rightful” (37), and through the track they “saw in miniature the hierarchical world they wanted, its boundaries policed by violence” (173.)

     Mooney is an Assistant Professor of History at Florida State University, who works on the cultural history of inequality in the United States. Her work adds to the burgeoning scholarship on black race horse men, most notably Joe Drape’s Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend (2007) and Edward Hotaling’s The Great Black Jockeys (1999) and Wink: The Incredible Life and Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield (2005.) However, Mooney’s work goes beyond previous scholarship, which offers an overly sanguine depiction of the lives of black race horse men. One of the strengths of Mooney’s book is that it presents a complicated picture of enslaved lives, which never lets the reader forget the brutality of a slave society. She powerfully describes the horrors of how white owners tortured slaves, which included forcing young jockeys to stand in horse manure to stunt their growth and walk for up to twenty miles with heavy layers of clothing on to shed weight. Mooney’s work shows how enslaved horse men took pride in their work and enjoyed agency, but she goes beyond previous scholarship by demonstrating how masters ultimately controlled their lives and bodies: “Jockeys…were positive proof that slaves could be physically shaped according to white desire…proof that torture could make a perfect slave” (49.) Mooney fleetingly mentions that the largest sale of enslaved people in the U.S. took place at the Ten Broeck Race Course in Georgia, when approximately 436 men, women, children, and infants were sold in 1859. Mooney describes how the slaves were kept in the stables and potential buyers examined their teeth and “prodded them in the ribs,” just like they did with the horses (115). Whilst Mooney acknowledges that this shows slaveholders “ownership of animal and human bodies,” she could push this argument further. Readers interested in learning more about the slave sale at Ten Broeck Race Course should consider Anne C. Bailey’s new book, The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History (2017).

     Mooney traces the lives of black race horse men through the Civil War and into Reconstruction. In the immediate aftermath of emancipation, black horsemen became sports celebrities and were a source of pride, hope, and inspiration. As racing moved north, formerly enslaved jockeys used their freedom to push for change. The fact that the most prominent jockey in the nation, Isaac Murphy, was African-American, served to raise these hopes. Mooney argues that the real change at the track did not come in the immediate aftermath of emancipation, but in the early twentieth century when segregation laws were enforced in the wake of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which legalised the doctrine of “separate but equal.” By the early twentieth century, black race horse men were only employed in the lowest rungs of the racing industry, as “Black horsemen’s success could not be safely channelled into the support of white supremacy” (225.) Whites explained the absence of blacks at the track using a range of techniques, including the scientific racism that gained currency at the turn of the twentieth century.

     Successfully weaving a story together about race and sport spanning over century is no mean feat. Mooney has clearly dug deep in the archives, and the book’s convincing arguments are supported by a plethora of sources, including photographs, newspapers, and personal letters. The images in the book are not only an interesting addition, but they also further Mooney’s arguments. For example, Mooney uses a Currier & Ives lithograph (231) to show white people’s uneasiness with black horsemen’s success under Jim Crow. Mooney’s work builds upon the growing animal turn in history, and it uses thoroughbred racing as a lens to explore the struggle against slavery and oppression. This work will appeal to equine historians, in addition to scholars of the long nineteenth century and race and relations. Mooney’s vivid writing makes this book accessible to a wider public audience beyond the academy, especially those with an interest in racing history. Race Horse Men offers an uplifting epilogue about the reburial of Isaac Murphy next to Man o’ War in Lexington Park in 1967, amidst struggle for black civil rights. Race Horse Men ends by bringing the story up-to-date with the recent Project to Preserve African-American Turf History and social justice initiatives such as the Isaac Murphy Bicycle Club and Everybody Reads Project. As America continues to grapple with its complicated history of enslavement, segregation, and oppression, Mooney concludes that “the ride” for equality “is nowhere near over” (248.)

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