There are many lingering and tragic results of racism in this nation that are likely to take generations to untangle, and one is the unfortunate state of the reputation of African-American horse jockeys from an age gone by.
Iris Barnes, curator and coordinator of an upcoming exhibit on African-American jockeys to be shown at Harford Community College, summarized the place these athletes should occupy in the history of American sport: "They talk about 42 and Jackie Robinson integrating sports, but really it was these [African-American] jockeys who led the pack."
Quoted for a recent article on the jockeys and the October exhibit that will highlight their accomplishments, Ms. Barnes added: "Their contributions are often overlooked."
"Overlooked" is something of an understatement. It hasn't been that many years at all since a status symbol that went hand in hand was having a hitching post in the form of a black-faced jockey in front of a stately home. They came to be regarded as racist symbols, but continued to be popular as lawn ornaments. As recently as the 1980s, if not more recently, these lawn jockeys, were, given the overt racism generally associated with them, all too common in these parts.
The exhibit planned at HCC will have a portion dedicated to examining the origins of lawn jockeys and how they evolved into racist caricatures.
A harsh reality of our national past is that people of African heritage were, for decades after the Civil War and well into living memory, relegated to very specific places in society. The movie "42," which Ms. Barnes made reference to, is showcasing for a new generation the effort that went into doing something as basic as integrating professional baseball.
Movies like "42" and exhibits like the one being organized by Ms. Barnes are valuable for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, they highlight that though this nation was, to borrow a phrase, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, it has taken generations to even come close to realizing that concept. Even as our founders enshrined lofty notions about human potential, they ensnared people of African heritage in slavery. The nation's founders, it turns out, had some good ideas, and some ideas that left a lot to be desired, both of which were codified in key documents like the Constitution.
It is likely the exhibit also will show that horse racing is an exciting sport that once had a much larger following than it enjoys today. Certainly, popular tastes change from generation to generation, but there's a reason why the sport was popular: it is fast-paced and exciting, though the action is short-lived.
Though no one needs to be reminded about racism as bigoted notions remain a shameful part of our modern culture, hopefully the day will come when exhibits on things like the cultural importance of African American jockeys are necessary not to remind us of what wrongs remain to be righted, but to remind a future generation that there was a time when people believed a people's character could be judged based on skin color.