“No justice, no Derby,” demonstrators chanted on a sweltering afternoon last week as they draped the racetrack’s gilded entrance sign with a purple banner depicting Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old Black woman killed by police in her Louisville apartment in March. The gathering was highly strategic, aimed at a marquee event that brings in hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Many Black residents consider it an enduring symbol of Louisville’s inequalities and segregation.
“It’s something we’ve always seen like through a window,” said 19-year-old Quintez Brown, a college student and protest organizer who has never been to the race.
Tensions over the Derby — as well as the juxtaposition between its colorful pageantry and the poverty of its surrounding community — have long existed. But 2020 sharpened that divide: When it appeared that a delayed Derby would still host nearly 23,000 guests, even as the city reeled from Taylor’s death and calls continued for charges against the officers involved, activists condemned the race and demanded its cancellation.
“What I don’t understand is how the city thinks we just go to some celebratory event while this city is hurting,” said Black poet and activist Hannah Drake, 44, who lives near the track. “To just go on like that didn’t happen, to me is a slap in the face.”
The race, now set for Saturday, will be run without spectators because of the public health risks amid the coronavirus pandemic. Officials’ unprecedented announcement in late August, which described the Derby as “a time-honored American tradition … about bringing people together,” did little to quell efforts to boycott or disrupt it.
“Most people in the African American community sort of look at that Derby thing as a time for richer, Caucasian members of the city to have a good time, spend their money and enjoy life,” Yashia Crawford, 38, said at a recent protest where dozens of people were arrested.
It isn’t just that African Americans feel unwelcome at the legendary track: It’s that they once dominated the race, only to be sidelined by segregation and have their contributions mostly ignored.
In the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, all but two jockeys were Black, including winner Oliver Lewis. Over the next 27 years, African American riders would win 14 more times. “Black talent was at the fore,” said Leon Nichols, founder of the Project to Preserve African American Turf History.
Eventually, Black jockeys were forced out. Between 1921 and 2000, none rode here.
“Like too many things in America, what African Americans helped start and what African Americans helped become a powerhouse in the economic field, we were excluded from once money was made,” said Lamont Collins, founder of Louisville’s Roots 101 African American Museum. “And that’s the truth of the Kentucky Derby.”
The city is now nearly a quarter African American; according to the Louisville Urban League, 35 percent lived at or below the poverty line in 2018.
The communities in the shadow of Churchill Downs are racially mixed, with mostly modest homes and small commercial and industrial strips. They are a sharp contrast to the wealth of the track, in a section of town troubled by crime and drugs. The racetrack’s grounds expanded recently, swallowing up part of a neighboring street and annoying residents by redrawing traffic patterns. Spikes on the top of some of its perimeter fence face outward — as if to signal “you aren’t welcome in this place,” Drake said.
For many African Americans, the Derby experience has never been characterized by the glitzy parties associated with the event.
They instead headed to the city’s predominantly Black West End, enjoying a different kind of horsepower while parading souped-up cars and playing music on one of the Louisville’s main drags. Vendors on sidewalks would sell T-shirts and food.
But “Broadway cruising,” as it was known, fell victim to deadly gunfire in 2005. The city banned it the following year.
Jecorey Arthur, a Black musician who, at 28, recently became the youngest person elected to Louisville’s Metro Council, likens the ban to “modern-day Jim Crow” that perpetuates African Americans’ exclusion from Derby festivities.
Arthur had pushed for Saturday’s race to be canceled unless it barred spectators. Some people reacted as if he had spoken blasphemy, he said, because the race is “just such a sacred time for our city. But what they fail to realize is that it has never been sacred for us, for over 100 years now, because we haven’t been included in that celebration. We haven’t been included in that economic impact. We haven’t been included in Louisville.”
The current demonstrations echo the city’s turbulence 53 years ago, when civil rights activists protesting discriminatory housing policies planned to disrupt the Derby to pressure public officials.
Black residents rallied behind the slogan “No housing, no Derby!” Protest organizer Dick Gregory said upending it would “keep those out-of-town folks from enjoying a city we can’t even enjoy ourselves.”
Like today, Louisville was tense. Counterprotesters chucked rocks and eggs at marchers ahead of the race, and the Ku Klux Klan threatened to bring thousands of members to Churchill Downs. On race day, 2,500 security personnel — including over 1,000 National Guardsmen — were stationed at the track. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was in town at the time, and hours before the horses were set to run, he called off the protests because of fears of violence. “Sometimes the prediction of a race riot is an invitation to riot,” King explained.
Protests are expected again in coming days, and an all-Black armed paramilitary group that trooped hundreds of its members through Louisville in July has vowed to return.
Both Mayor Greg Fischer (D), who has talked about the Derby as a unifying force, and Gov. Andy Beshear (D) have said they will not attend the race. By tradition, Kentucky’s governor presents the solid-gold trophy to the winning horse’s owner.
In a statement this week, Churchill Downs alluded to the past and present: “We know there are some that disagree with our decision to run the Derby this year. We respect that point of view but made our decision in the belief that traditions can remind us of what binds us together as Americans, even as we seek to acknowledge and repair the pain that takes us apart.”
It will be a bizarre scene as the bugler plays the call to the post Saturday. The suites, boxes, grandstands and infield where more than 150,000 fans usually crowd will all be silent. Outside the gates, the residents who make fast money by allowing visitors to park in their driveways and on their lawns will go without, too.
During the Derby, Drake feels like she’s held captive in her neighborhood by street closures. She resents the city’s eagerness to help an affluent, largely White crowd celebrate, while police have aggressively confronted the racial justice sit-ins that have called for accountability for Taylor’s death.
“I mean we can’t even shut down a street to protest on behalf of a woman who was murdered by [officers],” she said. “But you can shut this down all weekend to get drunk and watch the horses run?”
Josh Wood is a freelance journalist based in Louisville.