The antebellum South is an often-discussed era of American history, from the wartime turmoil to the post-Emancipation shift in racial relations. But in regards to horse racing, it might surprise you that the period’s fastest-growing sport owed a great deal to slavery.

In Katherine Mooney’s Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack, the author explores the explosion in popularity of horse racing through slavery, and how black figures within the sport eventually gained fame and, in some cases, freedom.

Mooney spoke with Bill Littlefield.

Highlights From Bill’s Conversation With Katherine Mooney

BL: On the plantation of a white man who owned race horses, the black men charged with the care of those horses were slaves, but they were responsible for the plantation’s pride and joy and the masters often deferred to them. What did you learn about how some of those men lived that contradiction?0801_oag-race-horse-men-cover-again

CM: Many of these guys have really unimaginable privileges that distinguish them from other slaves. They can go basically where they want, they make a good bit of money, they get to give orders to white men, they get to have their opinion listened to, and in fact, the first guy that I ran into – and what made me want to do this project in the first place – was a guy named Charles Stewart who worked in Virginia and Kentucky and Louisiana as a slave. He, in fact, bought his first wife, but about five years into their marriage after they’d had three children, he decided to sell her back to the man he bought her from in exchange for a trotting horse. And when the guy said, “Well, she’s older now, she’s had some kids,” and he said, “Oh, I know she has wear and tear on her, so I’ll throw in the kids too.”

BL: Woah. What a story!

CM: Yeah. The reason that he threw in the kids was, “With mares, the mare is 80 percent of the foal, so she’s no good, so the kids are gonna be no good.” So he was sort of too good at his job. And that’s in fact what was really different after freedom was that that became possible.

BL: How was the institution of slavery reinforced by the growing popularity of horse racing, and how was it challenged?

CM: I think it was reinforced particularly in the 1840s and 1850s because it really did become a sort of national sport, particularly with the rise of the telegraph. Horse racing became a more national sport because it was easier to get results more quickly. For instance, Abe Hawkins, who was a slave in Louisiana in the 1850s, who would ordinarily have been sort of locally known, become national celebrities, and they’re known about in New York. And in a strange way, slaves who were celebrities in fact proved that slavery was this cutting-edge institution that could do basically anything, that highly-skilled labor could come out of slavery, that they could have industry, they could have international prestige.

But, particularly in the 1850s, as more and more people start coming into this space, that’s when you start to see the cracks. For instance, one of the owners was this man named Robert Harland, and I thought, “Well, that’s interesting, I wonder if he’s related to John Marshall Harland, the Supreme Court justice in Plessy v. Ferguson.” And they were related and in fact, I later discovered that they were half-brothers, except that Robert Harland’s mother had been a slave. And so, he was a free black man who owned race horses. I looked at that and I thought, that’s a place where letting these people in is weakening the institution of slavery, because here’s this man who has prestige and has power, and he’s reminding you that blackness and slavery are not the same thing.

Bill’s Thoughts On Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack

Historian Katherine Mooney’s Race Horse Men explores the complexity of the circumstances faced by black jockeys, grooms, and trainers during the 19th century in the U.S.

Before the Civil War, wealthy horse owners in the south were dependent on their property to take good care of their property. Slaves with experience raising, training, and riding horses were exceptionally valuable to plantation owners. In some cases this circumstance led to plantation owners deferring to the judgment of their slaves, some of whom attained celebrity for their achievements in the stables and at the races.

In the decades following the war, black jockeys succeeded at Churchill Downs and elsewhere. Eventually they were squeezed out of the profession they’d dominated because their achievements were incompatible with the Jim Crow laws and the insane contention upon which those laws were based, namely that no black person could out-perform any white person at anything. A horse race in which black and white jockeys competed against each other was as intolerable as a school room full of children of different colors, or a water fountain shared by people of different races. That notion was so obviously given the lie by the reality black jockeys, grooms, and trainers had established that the reality could not be allowed to survive in a culture built on the poisonous, carefully nurtured myth.

Race Horse Men is set in the world of a sport which was exceptionally popular during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the achievement of the book transcends sports. Katherine Mooney does a terrific job of recreating a sense of a time in this country when the success of any black man, whether a jockey, a boxer, an attorney, or an entrepreneur, was a threat to a system determined to keep an entire race in a subservient state.