Hard work, skill, dedication and talent characterized the African-American men who cared for and rode the thoroughbred race horses at this presidential estate during the 20th century, contributing to a rich equestrian tradition in Virginia and America.
A new exhibit in the William duPont Gallery at James Madison’s Montpelier, “A Brief History of Black Horsemen in Racing,” tells part of that story, with an emphasis on the local citizens who worked for Marion duPont Scott. Her family owned and lived in the Orange County plantation home from 1901 until her death in 1983.
A thoroughbred horse breeder and accomplished horsewoman who inaugurated the Montpelier Races in 1929, Mrs. Scott lived and breathed equine pursuits, but only with the assistance of a faithful crew.
More than 100 people gathered in the duPont Gallery on Sunday, including descendants of the featured horsemen, to celebrate and educate about the lesser-known history explored in the exhibit, which was curated and researched by Reva historian Zann Nelson.
At Sunday’s event, Nelson thanked members of the Washington, Johnson and Smoot families who shared stories and memories for the exhibit, calling them “gifts that are precious to us all,” which advocate “conversation that enlightens.”
The exhibit consists of a dozen panels, one odf which features the late Edward Washington, a Madison County native who was Marion duPont Scott’s highly regarded stallion manager. Known as the “stud man,” his charges included Battleship, the first American-owned-and-bred horse to win the British Grand National.
Three of Washington’s granddaughters, all sisters, attended the reception Sunday, clearly proud of his accomplishments and that Montpelier would choose to honor him in this way.
“He was a gentleman,” said granddaughter Linda Campbell, of Orange. “I remember him taking the horses into the barn.”
The stallion manager would take his grandchildren to the barn with him some Sundays, added Joyce Washington, another of his grandchildren. He would walk to the barn from a home on the Montpelier property where the Washington family lived for generations.
“He would feed the horses and put them in the barn,” said Joyce Washington, adding she would stay back when the powerful beasts were around. “We were little then.”
Hazel Washington said her grandfather was a good man.
“He was the one who held the horse, Battleship,” she said. “He cared for that horse and worked for Mrs. Scott for a long time,” from the late 1930s until his death in 1972, according to research.
“We miss him a lot,” Hazel Washington added. “He taught us a lot.”
So valued was Edward Washington to the equine operation at Montpelier that Mrs. Scott included him in the portrait of Battleship she had commissioned by leading equestrian artist W. Smithson Broadhead.
“I tell my grandkids about it,” said Campbell. “He was a strong man.”
Also featured in the exhibit is Charles “Charlie” Smoot (1900-1979), a successful steeplechase jockey from Fauquier County who joined the staff at Montpelier around 1930. Mrs. Scott, “far more interested in issues of skill and talent than those of race,” discovered that she needed the African-American jockey on her team, the exhibit stated. Once, when officials at a track in North Carolina attempted to bar Smoot from the track because he was black, Scott famously spoke up.
“Scott replied, ‘Fine, but if Smoot doesn’t ride, my horses, they don’t run.’ The officials conceded,” according to the exhibit.
He worked at Montpelier for the rest of his life, rising to the position of race barn manager.
Sid Trimmer, of Gordonsville, worked for Smoot for five years in the 1970s.
“He was a horseman’s horseman, a gentleman, and we all loved Charlie,” Trimmer said at Sunday’s reception. “We were all kind of a family over at the race barn and when he passed away we were his pallbearers—that’s what he wanted.”
He recalled a story he heard about Charlie Smoot and a difficult race at Belmont.
“He won a race in the steeplechase, but the day before he had broken his collarbone and he didn’t say anything about it because he knew he had a good horse to ride and the race the next day,” Trimmer said. “Towards the end of the race, the horse pecked into a fence real bad and it broke his arm, snapped it, and he put the reins in his mouth and finished the race and won it.”
The day started early in the horse barns at Montpelier, he recalled, and Smoot would also keep an eye out for “Momma,” which is what the staff called Mrs. Scott. She was known as the “First Lady of American Steeplechasing” and was the first woman to ride astride at the National Horse Show.
“Charlie would be walking around making sure things were right and he’d go outside and watch the big house,” Trimmer said of the Georgian mansion built around 1760. “When she came down those steps, Charlie would come in the barn, say, ‘Momma’s coming,’ and that’s when we’d start tacking the first set up. She trained the horses; she told us what to do with them every day. It was fun working there.”
Smart and ambitious
Martha Strawther, director of the Montpelier Steeplechase Foundation, said African-American contributions to horse racing were very significant, and that the mistress of the Montpelier mansion well recognized that fact.
“I don’t know if it was because she was a woman in a man’s world, but she was pretty color blind. When she recognized talent, she rewarded it and it didn’t matter where it was,” she said, recalling the story of her insistence that Smoot be allowed to race on the track in North Carolina. “She was so influential that her horses ran.” As for Edward Washington, “To real horsemen,” said Strawther, “grooms are such an integral part to their care.”
Descendant Sylvester Windbush attended Sunday’s reception in tribute to his great-uncle, Lewis Ellis, who helped form the Orange Colored Horse Show when Jim Crow shut out African-American horsemen from the sport they knew and loved.
“Because segregation had come in, they started their own because they were barred from racing in the Kentucky Derby and all the others,” Windbush said. “They pooled all their money and sold stock in the horse show, sold them for $25 per share—that was a lot of money. I still have one of those stock certificates.”
He expressed pride in the history of his ancestor, and said it was wonderful Montpelier was hosting the exhibit.
“I’m glad he’s getting honored for a change,” Windbush said. “They were smart and very ambitious.”
Back to the forefront
Typically, enslaved men worked closely with the country’s most valuable horseflesh and after the Civil War people of color continued to dominate horse racing as jockeys, groomers, trainers and the occasional owner, according to the exhibit. During the 1875 Kentucky Derby, there were 15 horses, of which 13 were ridden by black jockeys.
The equestrian tradition at Montpelier is a huge part of its history, said Elizabeth Chew, vice president of museum programs.
“The contributions of African-Americans were monumental,” she said. “We just wanted to honor that history.”
The exhibit will be on display in the duPont Gallery, next to the visitors center, through February. In May, it will travel to Shenandoah Crossing in Gordonsville to coincide with the annual Legislative Trail Ride hosted by the Virginia Horse Council for state legislators.
“We think this is such a very important part of Virginia’s history, particularly our equine history. The significance is displayed today, and is indicative of the contribution our black horsemen made to the equine industry,” said Sue Alvis, of Richmond, president of the Virginia Horse Council.
“It’s a shame that over the years we lost sight of that contribution and that’s why it’s so important we have this display today to bring it back to the forefront.”