Men who worked mules always found time to race them as well. By 1900 nearly 2.5 million mules worked in the fields of the American South. Racing provided entertainment at a range of social gatherings from antebellum agricultural fairs to the Kentucky Derby to informal barbecues. Mules often shared the racing program with ponies, harness horses, and native running horses. At the 1835 Maury County Fair in Tennessee, planters organized mule races on the last day of the fair, using slaves as jockeys. The mule population peaked at more than 4.4 million in 1925, before the growing presence of tractors began to shift the southern agricultural economy from manual labor to mechanized labor.
Despite the diminishing numbers of mules, mule racing surged in popularity in the Mississippi Delta during the Great Depression, with farmers holding races on their plantations to provide entertainment. Washington County planter Larry Pryor held an annual “Pryor Derby” on Silver Lake Plantation in the 1930s and helped women in the towns of Rosedale and Greenwood organize their first races in 1938 and 1941, respectively. The large public events featured pari-mutuel betting and were advertised on the radio as far north as Chicago.
Planter family home-movie footage of mule races in the Mississippi Delta towns of Rosedale and Greenwood provides a rare glimpse of the popular social event attended by whites and African Americans during segregation. Footage of the 1946 Rosedale races documents the grounds and audience as well as the racetrack. The 8mm film reveals a county fair atmosphere with speakers’ platforms draped in patriotic bunting, sound trucks, announcers, large scoreboards, decorated concession stands, betting booths, musical groups, crowds of white people, and grandstand seating covered by enormous pavilion-style tents with flying pennants. The African American presence on the film is limited to mounted riders gliding through the white crowds on their way to and from the racecourse and a small section of track where black men and women stand to watch the races.
Federal Emergency Relief Administration payments to displaced Delta tenants and sharecroppers in the 1930s threatened white control over the labor pool. The annual mule races reinforced the premechanical social order that linked African Americans with the lowly mule, reassuring whites of continued social and political control. The Rosedale races were operated by the female members of the local country club known as Walter Sillers Memorial Park, while the women’s Junior Auxiliary sponsored the Greenwood races. Temporary, makeshift tracks were staked out with rope at the Rosedale country club golf course and at the American Legion baseball diamond in Greenwood. The women modeled the mule races on thoroughbred horse racing to provide a comic spectacle for white audiences as contrary plow mules wreaked havoc on a circular race course. The male members of the white community cooperated with the race organizers in supplying animals and riders but took the competition much more seriously than did the women.
African American men competed among each other to ride in the races. Interviews with planters and former riders reveal that many of the large farmers invested time and money in acquiring and training fast mules. Such animals developed reputations, and planters tried to disguise fast-running mules by dyeing their hair and changing their names from year to year. Some planters used the same winning riders every year, while others held competitions on their farms to select the best hostlers from among their employees. African American farmhands vied for the chance to participate in the races. The home movie footage shows that the mules were ridden bareback by African American men wearing everyday clothing with large numbers attached to the backs of their shirts. In addition to public recognition of their superior animal handling skills, riders benefited financially as the job provided a rare opportunity to make hard cash in a sharecrop economy. The men were paid to ride and received tips and bonuses if they won.
Though widely advertised as mule races, the Rosedale and Greenwood programs also included horse racing. White men rode against black men in the horse races but not in the mule races. Because of their close association with blacks, mules were considered inferior mounts, unfit for white men. The exception was the “Gentlemen’s Jockey,” a spoof on thoroughbred racing in which white planters rode against each other on their prize mules. A second exception occurred during World War II when white soldiers from outside the South who were stationed at the Greenwood Army Air Field and at Camp McCain attended the races and competed on the mules. World War II interrupted the Rosedale races, which resumed in 1946 and continued into the 1950s, when the lack of mules brought them to a natural end. Greenwood held races from 1941 to 1948.
- Melvin Bradley, The Missouri Mule: His Origin and Times, vol. 2 (1993)
- Robert Allen Carpenter, Delta Review (Summer 1964)
- James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992)
- Pete Daniel, Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures since 1880 (1985)
- William Ferris, “You Live and Learn, Then You Die and Forget It All”: Ray Lum’s Tales of Horses, Mules, and Men (1992)
- Karen Glynn, “Mule Racing in the Mississippi Delta: 1938–1950,” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 1995)
- Robert Byron Lamb, The Mule in Southern Agriculture (1963); “Mule Races Off to a Fine Start,” Greenwood Commonwealth (6 August 1941)