Salute to the Black Jockeys of the Kentucky Derby

Shirley Mae

As if running a restaurant and a jukejoint weren’t enough to keep her busy, Shirley Mae Beard founded the Salute to the Black Jockeys Who Pioneered the Kentucky Derby event in May 1989.  (The name was later shortened to Salute to Black Jockeys, Inc.)  

With both of her businesses situated on the outer fringe of the Sheppard Square and Clarksdale Housing Projects in Smoketown — Louisville’s first African-American community — Shirley Mae sought to cut through the apathy that lassoed the community and inspire the youth in the nearby housing projects to aspire to finish their education and to avoid early teenage pregnancy/parenthood and criminal pursuits.  The event was always free to the public to ensure that these kids would always be afforded the opportunity to participate and be included.  In fact, Shirley Mae depleted her retirement funds to fund this event annually to ensure that the event remained free to the public… and that it remained in the projects… easily accessible to the children there.

While Shirley Mae and her sons and daughters had learned about the black jockeys who had pioneered the Kentucky Derby from a set of World Book Encyclopedias she purchased back in the 1960s, she was shocked to find that no one in Smoketown had ever heard of these black pioneers.  The Salute to Black Jockeys then took on a second misson… to educate African-Americans about their rich roots in the Kentucky Derby and to give them their own Kentucky Derby event to celebrate those roots during the Kentucky Derby Festival.  To this end, Shirley Mae enlisted the talents of all of her sons and daughters to get the event off and running.

Photo by Nina Greipel

Chef Theresa Simpson displays a framed portrait of black jockey Isaac Murphy that she drew with colored chalks on black cloth. Photo by Nina Greipel

Chef Theresa (her oldest daughter) paid a visit to the Kentucky Derby Museum — where she found a treasure of black jockey photos and memorabilia hidden away in the basement.  Chef Theresa’s discovery not only yielded all the names of the 11 black jockeys who had won 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derbies… namely, Oliver Lewis who rode Aristides to victory in the first Kentucky Derby in 1875… but she was able to secure photos of these black pioneers, as well.  Those photos were not on display anywhere in the Kentucky Derby Museum until Shirley Mae started the Salute to Black Jockey event in 1989.  Now, those photos have not only found their way out of the basement to their rightful place in the Kentucky Derby Museum… but they also dot the walls of Shirley Mae’s Café.

Chef Theresa also went on to become the coordinator of the weeklong Salute to Black Jockey event… featuring the largest inner city carnival in the Commonwealth of Kentucky… right there in Smoketown’s Lampton Park amid the Sheppard Square Housing Project… complete with midways with big attractions like Ferris Wheels, Tilt-A-Whirls, patting zoos, pony rides, games, tournaments, contests, concerts and concessions.  But because the carnival was nestled inside an inner city housing project where many of the children could not afford to ride the rides… Salute to Black Jockeys also had to solicit sponsors like Coca-Cola, the Courier-Journal, Churchill Downs, social clubs and other businesses to purchase ride tickets to hand out to the kids who could not afford to pay.

Accomplished artists in their own rights… Chef Theresa, along with her younger brother Edwin, originated all of the Salute to Black Jockey artwork for souvenirs and memorabilia (logos, t-shirts, caps, scarfs, posters, handbags and jackets) that is currently being bootlegged all over Kentucky during Derby time.  Edwin also teamed up with sisters Edvetta and Pamela to do all of the setup necessary to accommodate the event.  Yet another sister, Dee, handled all of the publicity for the event and obtained the celebrities to attend the event through her law firm in Los Angeles, CA.  Dee also coordinated the annual Salute to Black Jockey’s Essay Contest… in schools throughout Kentucky and southern Indiana.  And finally, Shirley Mae’s oldest son Bill, the owner of a St. Matthews computer company, was responsible for the logistics required to run the event… office space, computers and other office equipment, ground transportation, hotels and security.

Photo by Nina Greipel

Shirley Mae displays the original Salute to Black Jockeys t-shirt (featuring artwork by Chef Theresa Simpson) along with a photo she took with actress Whoopi Goldberg during the inaugural 1989 Salute to Black Jockeys event. Photo by Nina Greipel

Salute to Black Jockeys, Inc.: No One Can Name Names Like We Can  

“No one can name names like we can.”  That was the slogan for Salute to Black Jockeys, Inc., when it came to the high profile celebrities Shirley Mae brought to town for her annual black jockey event.  The first such celebrity was Academy Award-winning actress Whoopi Goldberg, who attended Shirley Mae’s inaugural Salute to Black Jockey event in 1989.  Then came blues legend B.B. King, Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman, tennis star Zina Garrison, football legend Paul Hornung, 4-time Grammy Award-winning recording artist Tramaine Hawkins, jockey Pat Day, WWF wrestlers, the Grammy Award-winning Clark Sisters, actress Dawnn Lewis, recording artist Vanessa Bell Armstrong, U.S. Rep. Romano Mazzoli, Ky. State Rep. Tom Riner, Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, Louisville sculptor Ed Hamilton, the University of Louisville Women’s Basketball Team, ABC Wide World of Sports, ESPN Sports and many others.  Stars like Oprah Winfrey, Arsenio Hall, Marla Gibbs, jockey Eddie Arcaro and Al Green all lent their names to the event… even though their schedules prevented them from attending.  Many observers used to say that the Salute to Black Jockeys event attracted bigger stars to the “ghetto” than the Kentucky Derby Festival Committee attracted to the official Kentucky Derby events.  They coined the phrase:  “The Salute to Black Jockeys has all of the stars and no money.  And the Kentucky Derby Festival has all of the money and no stars.”

Unlike the celebrities who attended the Kentucky Derby Festival gala-like events, the celebrities who attended the Salute to Black Jockeys event came to reach and encourage the young people and other residents of the inner city housing projects… to inspire them to rise above their circumstances and succeed.  And while many attempts were made by the Kentucky Derby Festival and representatives of the local government to move the Salute to Black Jockeys event to a more mainstream location, Shirley Mae resisted those attempts and stayed true to the children of the inner city.

Black Winners of the Kentucky Derby 

Year                        Jockey                           Horse    
1875                     Oliver Lewis                      Aristides
1877              Willie ‘Billy’ Walker           Baden Baden
1880             George Garrett Lewis               Fonso
1882                       Babe Hurd                        Apollo
1884            Isaac Burns Murphy            Buchanan
1885        Erskine ‘Babe’ Henderson       Joe Cotton
1887                      Isaac Lewis                    Montrose
1890            Isaac Burns Murphy                Riley
1891             Isaac Burns Murphy            Kingman
1892                   Alonzo Clayton                     Azra
1895            James ‘Soup’ Perkins               Halma
1896                    Willie Simms                 Ben Brush
1898                    Willie Simms                    Plaudit
1901                 Jimmy Winkfield          His Eminence
1902                Jimmy Winkfield            Alan-A-Dale