Posted: February 23, 2022
Race Week in Charleston has been popular for centuries. People coming to the city from all over the state would spend a week in February in Mardi Gras-like revelry, staving off the chill with not only horse racing, but dinner parties, balls, social calls, gambling, shopping, and any other manner of leisure time you can imagine. The wealthy, the middling-sorts who wanted to climb the socio-economic ladder, and foreign tourists would all descend upon Charleston to attend the races at Washington Race Course, and to see and be seen in all of the other fashionable spots in the city. However, with every social occasion enjoyed by the controlling elite there came additional work for those who were enslaved. Every aspect of Race Week, just like every aspect of urban enslavement, was intertwined for those enslaved and their enslavers. Let’s take a look at a brief overview of the history of Race Week:
Historically, there would be no race week without the Jockey Club. The South Carolina Jockey Club was the first on this continent, formed in 1758 by the wealthy planter class. The United States of America was not yet a country, and as good British subjects the elite felt the need to show their brethren in Europe that they were equals, by engaging in similar leisurely activities. In truth, races had been held in Charleston since at least 1734, but the official club was not formed until two decades later. Most importantly, though it was named the “Jockey Club”, the membership of this club was only for owners – of both horses and enslaved people – not for the jockeys themselves, who were enslaved Africans and African Americans. Over the centuries the South Carolina Jockey Club was suspended and re-formed many times, including a suspension during the American War for Independence (with reinstatement in 1783 after the British evacuation of the city), and in both 1788 and 1791. Each time, the organization was reestablished, and it wasn’t until 1899 that the club disbanded for good.
The heyday of racing in Charleston belonged to the first half of the 19th century. With Race Week increasing in size and prominence throughout the early 1800s, grand events and big prizes came along with the growing attention. Grandstands were built at Washington Race Course (present-day Hampton Park) to accommodate VIPs (horse owners and others in the upper classes), regular visitors, and even a women’s-only grandstand. The atmosphere of Race Week amongst the elite was one of jovial recreation; foreign visitors were granted access to the races for free, balls and banquets were held, and the Charleston truly took on an ethos akin to today’s Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans.
To get the complete story, however, one must remember that for every added leisure activity belonging to the wealthy, there was added tasking and responsibility, and less rest, for the enslaved of the city. Schools and businesses were closed, which meant that houses were full of people requiring service all day long, and the enslaved were expected to pick up additional duties in order to make the week run smoothly. In addition, the attention that would be turned to grooms, farriers, carriage drivers, and footmen as they cared for horses would increase. Enslaved jockeys would be put under similar scrutiny, and they would experience immense pressure from those who enslaved them to win their races. The pressure to succeed likely grew in proportion to the increasing sizes of trophies and purses as the 19th century wore on. To get a closer look at one of these trophies, watch the video embedded here, as Carin and Grahame talk to Gibbes Museum of Art’s Director of Curatorial Affairs, Sara Arnold, about the cup that is currently on exhibit in the gallery.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the country’s stock of thoroughbred horses was depleted, and the wealthy elite of Charleston turned their attention to preserving their livelihoods, while the emancipated African Americans of the city were free to find employment of their choice. The Jockey Club was again disbanded, this time for nearly 100 years. In 1984 the charter was revived, and racing returned to the Lowcountry as the Steeplechase of Charleston, which is now held each November at Stono Ferry Plantation’s race track.