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Museum director wants to identify, celebrate black horsemen who toiled anonymously for decades

Eddie Sweat in April 1993, on the backside at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Sweat was the groom of 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat.
Eddie Sweat in April 1993, on the backside at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Sweat was the groom of 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat. rgarrison@herald-leader.com

Over the past few years, historians have gradually unveiled the rich history of black jockeys in the 19th-century United States.

At the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park, director Bill Cooke has been working on a permanent exhibit of this important — but long ignored — part of equine history. “Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf” is scheduled to open in 2018.

“But it just kept turning into a much bigger story than I thought it was,” Cooke said in a recent interview. “There were so many major points that needed to be addressed to even understand what happened around Lexington, not to mention the rest of the country.”

And those points went beyond the Kentucky Derby-winning jockeys Isaac Murphy and Jimmy Winkfield, who dominated 19th-century racing.

After Reconstruction and Jim Crow segregation laws, when black jockeys were effectively kicked out of the sport, black horsemen continued to be a crucial piece of the story. There are the already-famous horsemen, including Will Harbut and Eddie Sweat, the grooms of Man o’ War and Secretariat. Then there are the numerous people who, like the black jockeys, have spent decades in anonymity.

So Cooke conceived of a new project that will reach beyond the Horse Park’s fences, what he’s calling the National Chronicle of African-American Horsemen, a national digital platform to find and document the many and often ignored people who spent their lives in the horse industry.

“There are a lot of people who need to be recognized,” he said.

A series of platforms at other equine museums would allow people to submit the names and histories of people they think are worthy of consideration. In the end, Cooke hopes to have a database for researchers, historians and anyone who’s interested in this important history.

As he wrote in the prospectus: “A need remains to examine the experiences of black horsemen on a broader spectrum, and to gather the names and rich stories of those forgotten men who toiled, and still toil, in the stables and on the tracks of America. With each passing year, access to these stories is disappearing, and this is why we decided to act.”

Many important details need to be worked out, including fundraising for such a project. Cooke is starting to contact other museums, including the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.; the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis; the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville; and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga, N.Y., to gauge interest in hosting digital platforms where visitors could learn and nominate possible entries.

Cooke has already consulted with historians, including Katherine Mooney, a history professor at Florida State University and the author of “Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack.”

“I’m a professional historian, so I think it’s awesome — the whole notion of crowdsourcing people’s historical knowledge is great,” Mooney said.

But she also likes the project because of her own experience with numerous people who called her with information about their relatives or ancestors.

“So I was talking to people who were descendants of slaves who were horsemen, people from all over the country, Atlanta and Boston and California. The more I started looking, the more I found,” she said. “I really do believe this is a history that is basically waiting to be told and that it should be told in places everywhere because outside of Kentucky, you don’t have the same awareness of it.”

For more information on the National Chronicle of African-American Horsemen, contact Bill Cooke at bill.cooke@ky.gov.

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford

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