In August of 2003, I had the pleasure of meeting Liliane Casey. Liliane's life is like a highway. It intersects with history in every direction. Her mother born a Baroness fled Russia to escape the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Her father is the last Black American born jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. At 78 years old she is vibrant and gracious. Though she left France for Cincinnati in 1939, she retains a French accent. Passing through the apartment foyer into the living room, pictures of her father, Jimmy Winkfield
, and husband Dr. Edmund Casey, drew me in. The reason for my visit was to obtain her personal account of her father's life, but the pictures of Dr. Casey with Chairman Mao Tse-tung and President Reagan inform me this is a family with a front row seat through much of 20th century world history. And she is a living link, to two exceptional Black men
Jimmy Winkfield was born in Chilesburg, Kentucky in 1882, the youngest of seventeen, sharecropper's children. By age 16 he was a jockey, and made his first appearance in the Kentucky Derby at 18, finishing 3rd. In 1901 and 1902 he would win back-to-back Derbies, a feat done only once before, by Isaac Murphy who was also Black. At 21 he would cement his place in racing history by finishing second in that race. No other rider has placed in all his or her Derby appearances.
1903, America's south was festering with resentment towards the freed Blacks. They wanted education and far worse, land. To insure White dominance in the region, Jim Crow or the Black Codes were instituted. Leon F. Litwack describes sharecropping in his book, "Trouble In Mind" (1) as "a slavery of debt as effective as a slavery of ownership." Also he speaks to the issues of Klan violence and "daily examples of White men in Louisville, Kentucky harassing Blacks with signs of prosperity." (2) Lynching, beatings, rape and land grabbing enforced Jim Crow. In the north, White (mostly immigrant) jockeys began working in concert to eliminate Black jockeys either by fighting or rough riding. In 1903 the Black jockey's popularity was waning, and racing's face would forever change. The White owners, and trainers fearing more for the safety of their horses than their Black riders, were making the transition to the White rider. That year Jimmy had an agreement to ride in a $60,000 stake race for John Madden, one of racing's powerful owners, breeders, and trainers. But prior to the race Jimmy switched mounts (termed as spinning). Though neither horse won, Madden was angry over being spun and blackballed Winkfield. Jimmy had other worries as well. According to Liliane, he had begun to receive threats from the KKK. Fortunately, he was offered a contract to ride in Russia.
In Russia an opulent life awaited, unencumbered by racial repression. He rode for Prince Lubormoriski of Poland and Russian oil man Michel Lazzareff. In a June 1974 article in Ebony, he described his life there. He had an apartment in Moscow and a cottage on a river ten miles outside of town. He associated with princes and millionaires. Unlike Kentucky, no one was shocked when he took a Russian bride, Alexanandra. (3) However, their union was unable to bear the weight of the death of their son George. I asked Liliane if he ever shared memories of life in Russia. "Oh he had an active social life there. He was well regarded, and a favorite dance partner because, he was excellent at the polka and waltzing." He was also proud of his racing career, because he spent numerous years perched atop their jockey standings.
Liliane can't tell me the events that led to Jimmy's flight from Russia. But, by 1919 the Russian Revolution was felt throughout the country. So this diminutive Black man, having come to Russia fearing for his life in America, left Russia fearing for his life. Lilian told me her father, "probably had no more than an eighth grade education." Now fluent in two languages, Russian and English, he prepared to lead a contingent of horsemen, along with their families, and 200 horses across Eastern Europe. In order to survive the trip, they conducted races: they also ate horsemeat to stave off hunger. When they reached Warsaw, Poland they had only 100 horses left. In Russia Jimmy left $50,000, two homes, and 4,000 shares of Russian Railroad stock (a fortune in today's money). (4) Thankfully natural talent assured he would not struggle long.
In 1922 Jimmy decided to move from Poland to Maisons-Laffitte near Paris. It's not known if he got much news from home but in 1920 " The Cleveland Advocate," a Black newspaper had run a story titled 'France Invites Black Americans.' (5) According to the article, France had suffered a loss of 3,000,000 men in WWI. They invited Black men to help in the reconstruction effort, no doubt relying on their discontentment from racial hatred in America. Because Black soldiers of Senegal (135,000) and America (200,000) had distinguished themselves in battle, they were regarded as "saviors of France." (6)
Soon after his arrival, he reacquainted himself with Baroness Lydie de Minkmitz, a Russian exatriate and racing enthusiast. Not long after they married, their son Robert was born followed by his sister Liliane in '24. They built a three-story house with stables, and in 1930 Jimmy decided to retire from riding to begin training horses. He did well as a trainer, continuing his relationship with the oilman Lazzareff, for whom he now trained.
The 1920's signaled the Jazz Age in Paris. I asked Liliane if she recalled any famous Americans visiting her family home. "Yes of course, I remember Paul Robeson
, Josephine Baker
, and others. But we were young and in those days children weren't allowed to listen to adult conversations." We shared a laugh about that, because that was my recollections of childhood too. She continued, "Many Americans found their way to our house and they were always welcome. Also, my father and Bing Crosby would often speak when he came to Deauville for the races."
Jimmy wanted Liliane to have the best education possible, so in 1939 he sent her to live with his niece in Cincinnati, Ohio. Unlike Robert, who would come over later, but who never felt comfortable in America, she embraced her African-American culture.
"I never felt a stigma being biracial in the Black community." she says. Upon her arrival Liliane only spoke French and Russian. In order for her to learn the language she took French courses. In that way she learned to translate words back to English. She combined that with an eight grade English course, though she was a 15-year old, high school sophomore. In spite of these handicaps, she graduated on time and went to Fisk University with a double major in English Literature and Social Work. While at Fisk she worked part-time as a librarian. Her superior there was none other than Arna Bontemps, a member of the Harlem literati. When I asked if they ever discussed his writing she said, "No." But it was the kind of "no," which tells me she's from a time when people didn't pry.
By 1941 France was being invaded by the Nazis. At age 59, Jimmy and his family again had to flee. He couldn't bring his wife to the American south; their marriage violated the law of many states. They moved to New York where Jimmy was relegated to menial jobs in racing, because in the time he had been away from the States he had effectively been erased from much of racing folklore, along with the majority of Black riders, owners, and trainers. According to Liliane while in the U. S. her father always walked behind her mother, to avoid trouble or death.
Jimmy began dying his hair to mask his age. He tried to gallop horses but his age made that difficult to do fulltime. He and Robert worked the New York, Maryland, Chicago and West Virginia tracks, as well as the Aiken, S.C. training center. In Aiken, he may have reunited with Bing Crosby, as some of his horses wintered there. If he did there is no indication Crosby informed locals of his identity. While there he worked for "Pete" Bostwick, whose daughter Dolly remembers hearing the last, Black American, jockey to win the Kentucky Derby worked for her father, unfortunately no one thought it important enough to preserve any records of his employment.
As Liliane was beginning her senior year (1945) at Fisk she met a Meharry Medical School sophomore named Edmund Casey. Edmund was in the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). (7) ASTP was instituted during WWII; its objective was to send qualified soldiers to colleges and universities selected by the War Department.
Edmund went to Meharry a historically Black college. In fact, in 1947-48 of the 1,268 graduates from southern medical schools, only 58 were Black, and all attented Meharry. (8) On July 2, 1946 after Liliane graduated, she became Mrs. Casey.
Dr. Casey would finish his military obligation by serving stateside from 1952 to '54. Liliane's parents had returned to Maisons-Lafitte in 1953, reclaiming their home and stables, which the Nazis had used to stable their Calvary. Jimmy was able to do this with the proceeds he made from a stakes winner he was training. His son Robert returned to France in '54.
Dr. Casey started his practive as an internist, with a specialty in heart and lung diseas in 1954. In 1972 he was chosen with only nine other doctors, to study the Chinese delivery system of medical care and acupunture. While in China he met with Chairman Mao-Tse-tung. In 1973, the Secretary of Health and Welfare invited him to the White House for a meeting with President Richard Nixon. That meeting is included in Nixon's tapes. As the President of the Heart and Lung Association, he also met with President Ronald Reagan. Dr. Casey was a sought after speaker, who continued to train other dentists and doctors in the use of acupunture, until his death in 1997.
Though Jimmy continued to come back to the States to visit Liliane, it was a visit in 1961 that stands out. Having come home for surgery, he was invited to a Turf Writers dinner at the still segregated Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. Apparently Sports Illustrated extended the invitation to dinner as a thank-you for a story, '80 Years Around The World.' When Liliane and Jimmy arrived for the dinner they were told that Blacks weren't allowed to enter from the front. After a representative from Sports Illustrated came down, and explained just who Jimmy Winkfield was, they were allowed into the dinner. With the exception of Roscoe Goosens, an old jockey who rode with Jimmy, they were ignored. Not even the Sports Illustrated staff engaged him in conversation. Liliane told me, "We were uncomfortable, but we were hungry and I didn't know the city well enough to look for another place to eat. They never acknowledged what my father had done." When Jimmy and Liliane left, promptly after dinner, they felt belittled.
Liliane had spent a lifetime hoping the Racing Hall of Fame would honor the achievements of her father. It is only fitting this man, small in stature, who accomplished gigantic things, should take his rightful place among lesser stars. Liliane has lived to bear witness to his induction; it is the final rest stop for a life that's like a highway. And it is a fitting tribute for a family that has accomplished so much.
1. Trouble In Mind, by Leon F. Litwack-Knopf-NY 1998 pg.116
2.Trouble In Mind, by Leon F. Litwack-Knopf-NY 1998 pg. 153
3.The Saga of Jimmy Winkfield, pg. 70- Ebony Magazine June 1974
4. The Saga of Jimmy Winkfield, pg. 70- Ebony Magazine June 1974
6. www.africana.com/research.encarta- France-pg. 7 (link no longer exist)
8. History Of The Negro In Medicine, by Herber M. Morais - International Library of Negro Life and History, vol. 4. New York: Publishers Company, Inc., 1968 -pgs. 137-138