Culture  /  Retrieval

They Were Born into Slavery. Then They Won the First Kentucky Derby.

As the 150th Kentucky Derby kicks off, the achievements of jockey Oliver Lewis and trainer Ansel Williamson at the first Derby have been largely forgotten.

The track was fast and the weather clear on that spring day in Louisville, nearly 150 years ago. As the inaugural Kentucky Derby was about to start on May 17, 1875, Oliver Lewis and Ansel Williamson stood on the cusp of history, though they didn’t know it at the time.

Lewis, a jockey, and Williamson, a trainer — both born into slavery — would celebrate victory at the end of that very first race, then continue to leave a mark in the annals of horse racing. But 25 years later, their accomplishments — as well as those of other African American turfmen — would be all but erased as the injustice of Jim Crow descended upon racetracks across the South.

“Racing’s Black workforce experienced the same mounting systemic discrimination that targeted all African Americans,” Roda Ferraro, director of the Keeneland Library, the world’s largest repository of the thoroughbred industry, said in an email. “Within two decades, opportunities for African Americans working in the industry’s most visible and potentially high-earning roles as owners, breeders, trainers and jockeys regressed significantly.”

As the 150th Kentucky Derby kicks off Saturday, that legacy continues to linger. The Kentucky state song “My Old Kentucky Home” — which included racist lyrics until they were changed in 1986 — has been sung before each Derby since 1921. No Black jockey has won the Derby in more than 120 years.

But at the very first Kentucky Derby, America’s longest continually running sporting event, African American horsemen were still free to race — and would quickly come to dominate. In that first race, 13 of the 15 horses were ridden by Black jockeys, who also won 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derbies.

Lewis, only 18 at the time, was already a veteran of what was then the nation’s most popular sport, attracting countless spectators and bettors each year. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, 1870 census records show that Lewis worked on a farm about 60 miles from Louisville. He was 14 then and could not read or write. As a jockey in 1875, Lewis weighed 100 pounds.

The much older Williamson, believed to have been born in 1806, may have served as a mentor to Lewis. He was a renowned trainer who worked with several famous horses while enslaved in the 1850s and ‘60s. During the Civil War, “Old Ansel,” as he was known, trained Asteroid, one of the most successful thoroughbreds of the era. According to legend, when Confederate raiders tried to steal the horse, he swapped it with another to deceive them.