In Petersburg, Virginia, on the corner of Sapony Street and Pocahontas Street, stands a white sign with a headline that reads “Charles Stewart (ca. 1808-After 1884)” followed by text about this African American horseman’s singular life. The sign is part of Virginia Department of Historic Resources’ Historical Marker program, which began in 1927 by installing the first historical markers along Route 1. Now considered the oldest program of its kind in the U.S., the program continues erecting signs along Route 1 that commemorate historical figures and moments. In this instance, the sign memorializes slave-born Charles Stewart’s rise to become one the best jockeys, horse trainers, and stable managers of that day—all while remaining the property of his rich white owners. Stewart was famous in his lifetime; as the plaque will tell you, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine published his dictated memoir in 1884. But time had mostly obscured Stewart’s story, until 2015 when historian Katherine C. Mooney published “Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack.” This book expands upon the nutshell version of Stewart’s life contained in the historical marker and his dictated memoir, by contextualizing how slavery and fame could exist side by side, demonstrating the important contributions made by African Americans to sports in the 1800s, and illuminates Charles Stewart’s almost-forgotten career.
“Old Charles has been a life-long servant and friend, I might almost say necessity, knowing anything about the names and dates of races and race-horses, which are given exactly as he remembers them,” reads the introduction to Charles Stewart in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. The writer goes on to record Stewart’s life story as he relays it verbatim: born in Pocahontas Island as the son of slaves, Stewart began working with horses as the “monstrous lean and pert” 12 year old slave of William R. Johnson, one of the country’s leading figures in horse racing. Stewart fell deeply in love with the animals and sport, recalling his first race at age 13 (a sweepstake race of two miles on a horse named John Stanley), and his evolving career as a horseman. Stewart’s aptitude with horses led him from the racetrack to the stables, where he ran a breeding operation that took him back and forth from Virginia to Kentucky. He went on to manage southwest Louisiana’s leading training stable under the ownership of U.S. Senator Alexander Porter, until the Civil War abolished slavery.
During his life as a slave, Stewart enjoyed many of the privileges of his wealthy white owners. He had money, fame, and luxuries. His memoir records time spent in Paris, where he enjoyed the same liberties as a free white man. Mooney recounts how Stewart’s life contrasts with slaves by having “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.” Stewart even bought his first wife, and decided to sell her back–plus the children they’d had together–after five years of marriage in exchange for a trotting horse. While this type of transaction is audacious even within the context of slavery, it illustrates what Stewart himself claims: that horses were his first and primary love.
Horses and their races were, in fact, the love of many Americans. The invention of the telegraph and its ability to quickly deliver news catapulted horse racing as a beloved national sport. Meanwhile, the horseracing industry both depended upon slaves and wore that dependence as a badge of accomplishment. It proved that the institution of slavery provided the resources necessary for producing highly skilled sportsmen and caring to the menial labor entailed in their ascent. As the Baltimore Sun writes, black jockeys “were professional in every sense. This was their job, they were in it full time, competing in uniform at the highest levels in a highly regulated, minutely recorded sport, for huge stakes and before giant crowds.” African Americans did not break into mainstream sports, the article argues. They practically invented them.
After the Civil War and abolishment of slavery, African Americans were no longer able to compete in horse racing, due to Jim Crow laws that specified a Black person could not win out over a white person in any area of life. Stewart continued to work with horses, however. And while he is almost unknown today, what distinguishes him and his action from being an expected outcome of a time where enslaved humans had little control over their narrative–past or present–is his character. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine describes how at 84 years old, he still worked every day. He showed up to every interview elegantly dressed, with a giant blue umbrella. Stewart wasn’t able to read or write, a fact that he ingeniously twisted towards his favor by saying that he “was too smart” for it. “When anybody has got as much sense [in the] head as I had,” Stewart says, they must take care not to “stuff more” in, lest it cause his intelligence to overflow.
Route 1 travelers who enjoy reading about Stewart’s life on the historical marker can be sure to check out the 130 other markers installed in the state of Virginia alone.
Elisia Guerena Dec 10, 2020 Signs Sports
Elisia Guerena Dec 10, 2020
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