Unhorsed: Dismounting Anti-Black Racism in Horse Racing
By Ian Kennedy
Down gravel roads in Chatham-Kent, Ontario, you can judge the changing of the seasons and the progression of time by the corn. Every July, throngs of teenagers head into the fields to detassel corn. It’s a rite of passage in Chatham-Kent — hats and gloves, thermoses full of water, corn rash, and heat stroke — all for summer wages.
By August 1, Emancipation Day, the seed corn has been detasseled, and stands of sweet corn are speckled along roads and laneways to farms. A bell rings to signify the day, celebrating freedom. The rest of the corn in the area, mostly grown for silage, has reached toward the sun, and soon the harvest will come and the green of these fields will brown, marking the passage of time.
Emancipation was proclaimed in Canada on August 1, 1834 when the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 officially came into effect, ending slavery across the British Empire, including in Canada. However, slavery remained in practice in America until 1865. Near Dresden, Ontario, at the site of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a settlement known as Dawn was formed in 1843 and became a key terminal on the Underground Railroad for Black refugees escaping slavery south of the border. They often arrived on horseback or hidden in horse-pulled carts or carriages. The location, a Historic Site recognized by the Ontario Heritage Trust, was named for Reverend Josiah Henson, who would become known as “Uncle Tom” in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Here, nearly 700 freed and escaped slaves lived in peace during the 1840s. Canada, however, did not nationally recognize Emancipation Day until August 1, 2021.
Above/Below: Josiah Henson and his second wife, Nancy. A former slave, Henson escaped to Canada in October 1830, returning to the United States several times to facilitate the escape of other slaves to Canada. Dresden, Ontario, the site of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin settlement, was a key terminal on the Underground Railroad for Black refugees escaping slavery south of the border. Despite this history, racism was entrenched in Dresden and in the 1950s the town became the setting for a landmark racial discrimination case.
Josiah Henson commemorative postage stamp. Photo: Canstock/Rook
On this Emancipation Day in 2021, the sun was burning off the rain that had fallen in the night. Dresden Raceway was set to host their first annual Black Heritage Day at the track, an event organized to honour Black harness racing drivers, trainers, and horse owners.
Looking out my rearview mirror as I drove to Dresden, a plume of dust followed me, folding itself into an almost opaque cloud. Turning again, I could see a rusted barn ahead with a pasture fenced around it. Closer to the road sat a small farmhouse with painted blue batten board siding. There was a man, standing on a ladder, working at the barn. Above him, the sun was striking a flag — triangles of red, intersected by a blue x, and 13 white stars. He’d climbed up his ladder and hung a Confederate flag above the door of his barn. This man had woken on Emancipation Day and worked to display the symbol of slavery in the United States, a symbol since co-opted by white supremacists across the globe.
Arriving at Dresden Raceway, fans lined the fence with lawn chairs. The smell of hot dogs had diffused through the space. It was cool beneath the grandstand. Black families had laid claim to the track-level picnic tables. Above in the bleachers of the grandstand, a family sat wearing matching Uncle Tom’s Cabin T-shirts. All around me, the hum of stories and shared memories were coalescing.
Dresden Raceway sits on the original plot of land purchased by Josiah Henson for the Dawn Settlement. Josiah Henson himself had a love for horses. Henson raised, trained, and bred a Hambletonian stallion, a line from which most of today’s Standardbred horses, the breed which dominates harness racing, descended.
On Emancipation Day, August 1, 2021, the first Black Heritage Day at Dresden Raceway honoured and celebrated the generations of Black families whose lives are a huge part of the history of horse racing in Canada. Photos: Ian Kennedy
Horseback riding was not part of traditional African culture but was introduced to slaves at plantations. First, this came through caregiving roles and field labour involving horses. Soon, as Jon Griffith wrote in his research paper Sports in Shackles: The Athletic and Recreational Habits of Slaves on Southern Plantations: “Horse races and horse riding became a prominent form of recreational relief for the American slave away from the grotesque hardships of slave life.”
During the day, recreational riding became a regular activity interrupting labour, but at night, out of the watching eyes of overseers, enslaved Black people began racing.
“Slaves were willing to risk their lives and freedom to enjoy late night horse races. Within the sport of horse riding and horse racing in slavery, slaves felt power and freedom as they controlled the animal.”
During slavery, plantation owners soon saw another path to exploit slaves. While larger slaves were typically forced to participate in boxing or wrestling for the entertainment of White populations, the physical attributes of smaller slaves were often valued as jockeys. Others found their inclusion in horse racing and riding through caretaking roles such as feeding and grooming.
When the American Civil War ended slavery across North America in 1865, Black people were soon allowed to express their love for horses in new ways, including horse racing. Harness racing, as is the practiced form of racing at Dresden Raceway, was preceded by impromptu “scrub” horse racing competitions in the Dresden area. These races were often held on roads and frozen rivers.
Soon facilities for formal racing were built, although Black residents were banned from participation. In 1845, on the east side of nearby Chatham, the area’s first horseracing track, the Chatham Turf Club, was formed. One of the organizers of this first riding and racing club was Edwin Larwill. Larwill was fervently opposed to Black settlement in the area, calling Black people “a distinct species” and describing any mingling between Black and White citizens as “disgusting to the eye as it is immoral.” The Chatham Turf Club was ardently White only. In 1850, Chatham resident and turf club member Oliver Dauphin offered to race his horse against any “nag” in the county, as long as the rider was White. He “detested mingling” with Black athletes and named his horse “Jim Crow.” With Black riders banned from the club, the first recorded horse race involving a Black man took place on Chatham’s main street. Following the race, officials arrested the Black man for the outlawed race while his White opponent went free.
These racist practices were not unique to Chatham. Upon the formation of a Turf Club in Niagara in 1835, the Club’s racing program stated: “No Black shall be permitted to ride on any pretext whatsoever.”
Eventually, however, change began. By the late 1800s, free Black men were participating in both Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing in a variety of capacities. In Thoroughbred racing, Black jockeys became dominant in the sport.
Oliver Lewis, a Black jockey, won the first-ever Kentucky Derby in 1875, when 13 of the 15 jockeys in the race were Black. The trainer of the Derby-winning horse, Aristides, was a former slave named Ansel Williamson. Perhaps the most noted Black rider, however, was Isaac Burns Murphy, who won the Kentucky Derby three times in 1884, 1887, and 1890. In total, Black riders won the Kentucky Derby 15 times between 1875 and 1902. This included Willie Simms, who also won the Belmont Stakes and Preakness Stakes during the 1890s. Although these jockeys had their freedom, the horse owners remained White, maintaining the racial power dynamic and delineated roles in the sport.
Three African-American jockeys who dominated the racetracks in the late 1800s were Oliver Lewis, Willie Simms, and Isaac Murphy. Lewis won the very first Kentucky Derby on May 17, 1875, riding Aristides. Willie Simms won five of the races that would become the US Triple Crown series, including back-to-back Belmont Stakes. American Hall of Fame jockey Isaac Murphy is considered one of the greatest riders in American horse racing history. He rode in 11 Kentucky Derbies, winning in 1884, 1890, and 1891.
As new Jim Crow laws took hold, however, the perceived need to control the Black presence in sport caused White horse owners and fellow jockeys to again segregate horse racing. Following the dominance of Black jockeys in the late 1800s, Black drivers and jockeys were nearly eliminated from the sport for half a century.
“The Negro jockey is down and out not because he could no longer ride, but because a quietly formed combination shut him out. Gossip around the racing headquarters said that the White riders had organized to draw the color line.” — New York Times.
When Henry King rode in the Kentucky Derby in 1921, he was the last Black jockey to do so for 79 years. The White horse racing world had conspired against Black jockeys. While Black men were no longer able to ride, these men continued to tend championship horses behind the scenes, including the grooms for legendary horses Secretariat and Man O’War.
Above: A visitor to Dresden Raceway's Black Heritage display on August 1, 2021; Below: Fred List holds a photograph of his father, Harry List, on Dresden Raceway's Black Heritage Day in 2021
Back in Canada, Dresden remained segregated longer than any location in Canada, earning it the moniker as “the height of expression of Jim Crow in Canada.” According to historian James Walker, in Dresden, “not a single pool room would allow Black people… not a single restaurant, not a single barber shop where they could get their hair cut.”
Due to Dresden’s continued segregation, the town became the site of Canada’s first-ever racial discrimination case. After discrimination based on race in public establishments was made illegal in 1954, Dresden restaurant owners continued to ban Black customers, sparking sit-ins, and eventually charges. The case ended in May 1956, when Dresden restaurant owners received a conviction in Ontario Criminal Court, the first time in Canada that racial equality was declared a civil right. On August 10, 1960, the Canadian Bill of Rights received Royal Assent, giving Canadians of all backgrounds the same rights and privileges.
Despite the segregation of Dresden’s streets and stores, Black men continued their relationship with horses, and found their way into harness racing at Dresden Raceway.
Racing had originated on the site as challenge races between area farmers on Sunday after church. The sport in Dresden grew at the annual fair, and while other tracks in the region were closing, plans for a formal track were being set in Dresden. In 1913, the official Dresden Raceway track was surveyed and made into a regulation loop.
On the edge of Josiah Henson’s settlement, and only a kilometre from where Uncle Tom’s Cabin still sits, Dresden Raceway soon became home to a thriving community of Black harness racing trainers, drivers, and horse owners including the Prince, McCorkle, Grineage, Guest, and List families.
One of those Black trainers, Terry McCorkle, whose father Lonnie was a noted Black driver at the track, recalls, “When I was a kid around Dresden, there were some coloured guys training and driving — Grineage, List, an old guy named Herb Davis — they’d all have one or two horses apiece, but there were all kinds.”
Born in Chatham in 1942, Fred List was one of the trainers and drivers. He grew up spending his summers in barns and urging his father on at racetracks across Ontario and the United States. Like his father Harry, Fred was small; he’d make the perfect harness racing driver someday.
The family of Herb Davis celebrates Black Heritage Day at Dresden Raceway in 2021. Holding the flag is track promoter Gary Patterson and MP Lianne Rood. Photo: Ian Kennedy
List’s first experience training a horse came on his ride to school. Harry allowed him to take the family horse for the three-kilometre ride to his rural school, where he’d tie the horse outside the schoolhouse each day. After a few weeks, the horse refused to go all the way to school, stopping instead at a neighbour’s house. No amount of coaxing could get the horse to continue on, so List would tie the horse there and walk the rest of the way to school. List told his father, who rode with his son the next day, and when the horse stopped Harry worked with him until he continued on. From that day forward, List rode the entire way to school and his love for training horses was cemented.
As a child, List worked at Dresden Raceway as a groomer and handler. In the barns, no one treated him differently. His father, after all, was one of the most accomplished harness racing drivers in Ontario. But in Dresden, List was still a second-class citizen.
On one occasion, List had finished cooling down a horse, which was brought to Dresden by two Indigenous men who were in town to train their steed. When they finished, out of appreciation for List who was only 12 years old at the time, the duo offered to take him downtown for food. The ensuing event was typical in the city and indicative of the divide that occurred in Dresden even when it came to the differing treatment of Indigenous and Black people. List describes it thus:
“We went down to a restaurant in Dresden; we went in and sat down, they ordered.
They said: What do you want, Fred?
I replied: I’ll just have a hamburger and french fries.
The waitress [referred to] me and said: We can’t serve him in here. They asked: What do you mean?
The waitress repeated: We can’t serve him in here.
They said: Fred, you go on out and wait in the truck, we’ll bring you a hamburger.
The duo tore that place apart and threw tables and chairs out into the street; and they brought me out a hamburger and fries. The police chief came along and just shook his head.”
McCorkle also recalls the division in the town, although he was too young to remember the height of Jim Crow expression in Dresden. “I remember in Dresden seeing Black and White washrooms, but I never grew up through it really.” Still, he knew that Black participants in sport, like his father and the Lists, faced inequality when it came to dealing with White horse owners and the economics of the sport. “They never really had breaks because you never had good owners. You’ve got to have good owners with money to buy the good horses.”
Above: Fred List (right) drives New Departure to a second-place finish. Photo originally published in The Windsor Star.
Above: Left, Teddy McFadden (foreground) watches Fred List prepare Stewart Valo for a race; Right, Lonnie McCorkle, driver, trainer, and owner with Canadian Jade. Photos originally published in The Windsor Star.
Lonnie McCorkle. Photo Facebook/McCorkle.
While Dresden took the brunt of Canada’s desegregation attention in the 1950s, the town was not unique. In fact, across North America, there were thousands of cities where racism festered and spewed. List can remember walking into a barber’s shop while in a town where his father was racing and being told by the barber that if he cut his hair, the men in town would burn down his shop.
Even on the track itself there was inequality.
“My dad was a great racer, better than me,” recalls List of the days working with his dad. “They’d give him the horses no one else would touch, and he’d win. He never got good horses, but it didn’t matter, he’d win races all over the place.”
That was the way it was in Dresden, and in the sport of harness racing other Black racers were experiencing similar discrimination.
“As far as driving and training, I don’t think we really do get a fair shake with things,” said famed American Black harness racing driver and trainer, Dewayne Minor. “I’ve produced some nice horses and had some decent owners, but they don’t stay as long as they would with a White trainer. If you don’t produce right away, they’ll pull out.”
Perhaps the most famous Black driver in harness racing history is Lewis Williams, who starting in 1963 put together a career that included more than 2,000 wins. The American Harness Racing Hall of Fame called Williams, who is the only Black Hall of Fame harness racer on either side of the border, “the most successful African-American in the primarily Caucasian world of harness racing,” saying, “Williams always felt his skin color hampered him from attracting new owners as easily as his White counterparts.” In Williams’ own words, he did not receive the “same trust and respect afforded White trainer-drivers with equivalent or even lesser talents.”
Lewis Williams was given his first racehorse at age 14. He left school at age 16 to work with horses and became one of the most popular trainer-drivers in the business. The only Black Hall of Fame harness racing driver on either side of the border, Williams won more than 2,000 races in his career.
Across the border in Canada, Fred List would similarly go on to win countless races across Ontario, setting new track records at Dresden Raceway as he went. The future of Black involvement in harness racing, however, is still marred by uncertainty according to George Teague Jr., who aside from Williams was one of the most successful Black drivers in United States history. “I don’t see the next generation of Blacks (in harness racing),” Teague said in a June 19, 2020 interview with HarnessRacing.com. “Maybe it’s not a sport for African-Americans since it’s such a White game. This game has a long way to go or shortly it’s going to be an all-White game.”
Beecher Stowe's book, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Photo: Wikipedia
On the first Black Heritage Day at Dresden Raceway, as the horses trotted onto the track, the colours of the jockeys’ jerseys struck a contrast with the colours of the horses themselves. Today was going to be a good day. Change was coming. Yet, as every flash of blue or red on a jockey’s jersey sped by, all my mind could see was the Confederate flag, and the man who had decided to wake up and choose hate that morning.
On the walls at Dresden Raceway, however, hung another symbol, one of inclusion. Here, the new Black Heritage display honoured the Black riding and racing community that brought change to the area.
I stood talking to Fred List as he smiled while holding a photo of his father and watching the horses pull their drivers down the home stretch. He was no longer separate or secondary — he was the guest of honour. Over the public address system his name echoed through the grandstand and across the track to the barns where he once worked. A race was scheduled that day in honour of Fred and Harry. When it finished, I watched as he stepped onto the track and draped a green blanket embroidered with his family name over the winner. If he wanted, after the races, Fred could have strolled down the main street of Dresden, walked into a restaurant, and ordered a hamburger and fries.
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Main Photo: The Henson homestead, situated on the grounds of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, is the home Josiah Henson resided in while living at the Dawn Settlement. A former slave, abolitionist, and minister, Henson was the inspiration for the title character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Photos: Wikipedia