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Practically Paradise
Inside Practically Paradise

The Last Black King of the Kentucky Derby

The Last Black King of the Kentucky Derby CoverHow can a positive picturebook full of joyful moments like winning the Kentucky Derby two times in a row make me sad? Because the underlying racial prejudice still exists. I celebrated the last black king – Jimmy Winkfield – as I read this with students. We rejoiced over his success and were thrilled with the descriptions of the race. 

The Last Black King of the Kentucky Derby by Crystal Hubbard. Illustrations by Robert McGuire. Lee & Low Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1-58430-274-2

Yet when I finished reading, the questions began. Is this true? We haven’t had a black jockey win the derby since 1902? Do they allow jockeys of any color or race to compete? Is there a rule against it? Why wouldn’t the horse’s owner want the best jockey no matter what race he was? Why was Jimmy Winkfield allowed to race and win so much in Europe but not the U.S.? Have there been any Asian jockeys? How about jockeys from South America? Are they racing and not winning, or not allowed to race?

Okay, Hubbard and McGuire, you two caused this by creating a suspenseful exciting picture book that middle school students related to as well as elementary. It seemed like a simple story of achievement that I was giving the students. The illustrations are okay – rough oil paintings with some details of mud but not the muscles. I have seen other paintings of horses that I like even better, why did the students enjoy this one so much. What drew them to this story?  Perhaps it was the writing. (You’ll have to read some of the students’ responses below) Perhaps the simplicity of the drawings maintains the quick flow of the story and keeps the pages turning.

Lee and Low books, you published this! Go on and give me some background information sources on the web so I can help students understand what prejudice is and how people changed in their treatment of others over the years.  Why was it acceptable to have 14 of 15 jockeys be black in the first Kentucky Derby on May 17, 1875, but Wink was the only black jockey in 1901?  Why were he and his daughter not allowed to enter the front door in 1961 for the Kentucky Derby Banquet?

Rats! I guess this is where being the librarian comes into play. I need to have more books ready for the students when they read this title. I need to have websites ready. I may even have to do some research myself on this topic. What? Only one of those students had ever seen or touched a real horse?! How am I going to get a real horse to school? We live in Tennessee – the home of the Walking Horse. There are horses near where I live in Mount Juliet. Oh, right, most of my students are living in the city.

Let’s see what else I can find out:

Wikipedia actually has some useful sources on Jimmy (Wink) Winkfield.

Let’s go check the Kentucky Derby’s official pages on African Americans in the Derby.
Aha! There was another black jockey, Marlon St. Julien,  recently. Whoops! He came in 7th. Hmm! There were some owners and trainers, but, nope, not many and not recently enough.

Uh, Oh! Women aren’t much more common as jockeys and trainers either.

The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame has an article. I didn’t know that "during the Russian Revolution, he helped the racetrack community and 200 horses escape from Odessa on a 1,000-mile journey."

There’s more information in the U.S. House of Representatives Resolution 231 honoring Jimmy Winkfield. 

Okay, I found a couple of reviews, but where are all the comments? Somebody needs to go on Jacketflap, Shelfari, LibraryThing, or GoodReads, and start chatting. Hello, librarians, time to rise and shine. Go read this book and let’s have a chat over some coffee.

As for the racism involved, I’m going to throw this back to the teachers and say, "Your turn."

Here is what the students in Ms Rota’s class said:

It was great! It had great pictures. Was this a true story? It was a long story. My friends and I loved it. You’ve done a great job with this story, Ms Hubbard.

I like this book because I like the horse. I like all of the things that they had there and one day I want to see what they look like up close and I want to feed the horses.

The Last Black King of the Kentucky Derby is a good book, one of the best I’ve ever read. This book is about a black man that raced on horses all his life. You will love this book when you read this book.

I like this book very much. It is a great book to read and I think it is the best book ever.

He was very good at horse riding. He was very happy and I like it. It was exciting. I like when he got a whole lot of medals.

I really liked the story. It was good. It’s better than good. I think anybody would like to see this book because it is very interesting.

This book was the best book. Thank you ever so much Mrs. Chen for letting us read this.

The book is so good and I loved when he got to the Kentucky Derby. I love that book.

It was a really great story. You’re a good author and there are great pictures in the book.

You can learn more about this book from the publisher’s web site at Lee And Low Books.