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Archive for May, 2011

On May 17, 1875, Aristides, a chestnut thoroughbred, became the first winner of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. About 10,000 people gathered to watch 15 horses compete in the race, which at 1 1/2 miles was slightly longer than today’s 1 1/4 mile race. While Aristides’s owner, Hal McGrath, expected his other horse Chesapeake to take first place, Aristides maintained an early lead over the field for the win.

Aristides’s jockey, Oliver Lewis, was one of many African-American champions who dominated the sport in the late 19th century. Fifteen African-American jockeys won in the first 28 years of the Kentucky Derby, and only two white jockeys rode in the 1875 race. The most famous of these jockeys gained celebrity status and could earn over $20,000 per year, equal to over $475,000 today. As the prize money for jockeys increased and Jim Crow-era racist policies spread throughout the nation, African Americans were increasingly prevented from winning or even competing in horse races. While some black jockeys found success in Europe, no African American won the Kentucky Derby after 1902.

Panoramic views of the 1921 (above) and 1940 Kentucky Derby races at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Images courtesy of the Library of Congress

Opening History includes numerous images of horse racing, including those in the Jack Bradley Photojournalism Collection from Bradley University and Panoramic Photographs: Taking the Long View, 1850-1991 from the Library of Congress.

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On May 2, 1920, the Indianapolis ABCs played the Chicago American Giants in the first baseball game of the new Negro National League. The league, which had been formed by a meeting of mainly Midwestern team owners during talks in Kansas City, Missouri, provided an opportunity for African-American players to thrive even within a Jim Crow-era environment that barred them from white teams. While professional and amateur black baseball teams had existed since the 19th century, the Negro National League developed a successful structure that led to the creation of other African-American leagues outside the Midwest and proved to be an economic boon for many black communities in the 1920s and 1930s. Ultimately, the demise of Negro League Baseball came only with the integration of white major leagues; in 1945, Jackie Robinson made history when he left the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro League team, for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Satchel Paige, one of the best-known players of Negro League Baseball, joined the newly integrated major league Cleveland Indians in 1948. Image courtesy of the University of South Alabama

Opening History has several important resources relevant to the history of baseball in America and the integral role African-American team members and fans have played in the success of the game. In particular, the Atlanta History Center Album includes many images of the Atlanta Braves Major League Baseball team, including photographs of Hank Aaron and other well-known players.

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