MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Finally this hour, an unsung figure in the integration of sports. A horse trainer in reconstruction-era Missouri. At a Kansas City horse show this weekend, a new arena will be named for the man who rode some of the most celebrated horses of his generation. From member station KCUR, Sylvia Maria Gross reports.

SYLVIA MARIA GROSS: Anthony Arnold is calling his 16 horses into the pasture behind his house.

BLOCK: Come on!

MARIA GROSS: Arnold keeps them for the Tom Bass Riders, an African-American riding club that he started with his wife, Patricia Jackson. Jackson grew up on a farm in Missouri but it was much later when she learned about the man who was born a slave, not far away, who became a champion horse trainer.

BLOCK: I was so enthused. Here I was, an adult person, been into horses and I've never heard of Tom Bass.

BLOCK: Tom Bass actually integrated sports, and they always want to talk about Jackie Robinson and how he integrated sports. But it was actually Tom Bass.

MARIA GROSS: Anthony Arnold says these days, not many African-Americans attend rodeos or the more elite equestrian riding competitions. So he and his wife are trying to get more urban kids into the saddle. This weekend, they'll ride in a parade at the American Royal, that's Kansas City's big livestock event. They're cutting the ribbon for a new warm up arena named for Tom Bass. American Royal Director Jim McNair says it's an appropriate honor for a man who was a star attraction there for decades.

BLOCK: He was sort of the horse whisperer before they'd ever coined the term.

MARIA GROSS: Tom Bass' father was a son of a plantation owner in Missouri and his mother was a slave. He was raised by his grandfather, also a slave, who was an expert at handling horses. Legend is that as a boy, Tom Bass would play with wild bulls and untrained horses followed him around like puppies. His white father told him that he would never be allowed to show horses because of his skin color until the day came that his father needed him.

BLOCK: The reason he was able to break in was the fact that he was so good that they gave him an animal to show that no one else could show. Not only did he show with it, he took second place with it in the competition.

MARIA GROSS: After the Civil War, Bass started his own stable buying and selling champion horses. In the riding world, he's remembered as a trainers' trainer, someone who could gently coax wild stallions to trot and mares to waltz. He's also known for inventing a more humane bit that's still used today. Historian Pellom McDaniels says the horses helped Bass create an identity as a freeman.

BLOCK: If you look at the images of him on horseback, he's very polished. The sport in itself that he participates is a very classy sport and you have to be in some ways well-groomed to participate in a sport such as this.

MARIA GROSS: Bass was the first trainer to teach a horse to canter backwards. He later sold it to Buffalo Bill Cody for his "Wild West" show. In 1897, he became the first African-American to perform in Madison Square Garden. Back at his stable, Anthony Arnold's tried out some of Bass' tricks on his donkey.

BLOCK: Well, we tried to make him canter backwards but it just won't happen.

MARIA GROSS: While Tom Bass made equestrian history, he apparently took a lot of those training secrets with him to the grave. For NPR News, I'm Sylvia Maria Gross in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.