First Black female jockey Cheryl White celebrated in Minnesota

A person stands up while riding a horse on a racetrack.
At 17 years old, Cheryl White became the first Black woman registered as a jockey in 1971. Her story is the focus of a middle grade novel, The Jockey and Her Horse, by brother Raymond White and New York Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir.
Courtesy of White family

A lot of people know the name Caitlin Clark, the Iowa basketball superstar who has broken NCAA records held by women and men.

Have you ever heard of Cheryl White? She was also a trailblazer athlete.

At 17 years old she became the first Black woman to race horses professionally. White died in 2019 at 65 years old.

Now her younger brother is trying to make sure people remember her name and her story. He co-wrote a middle grade book called “The Jockey and her Horse” with New York Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir.

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Raymond White is traveling to Minnesota this coming weekend to share his sister’s legacy with members of The CREW, a nonprofit equestrian program for Black, Indigenous or youth of color in the Twin Cities.

He and The CREW board member Toni McWilliams joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about what Cheryl White’s story means to young equestrians today.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: A lot of people know the name Caitlin Clark, the Iowa basketball superstar who has broken NCAA records held by women and men. Ever heard of Cheryl White? She was also a trailblazing athlete. At 17 years old, she became the first Black woman to race horses professionally.

White died in 2019 at the age of 65. Now, her younger brother is trying to make sure people remember her name and her story. He co-wrote a middle grade book called The Jockey and Her Horse with New York Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir. He's on the line. Raymond, welcome.

RAYMOND WHITE: Hey, how you doing?

CATHY WURZER: I'm great, thank you. Raymond's going to be in Minnesota this weekend to share Cheryl's legacy with members of The CREW. That's a nonprofit equestrian program for BIPOC youth in the Twin Cities. Toni McWilliams is a board member and parent volunteer with The CREW. She's on the line. Hey, Toni.

TONI MCWILLIAMS: Hi, how are you?

CATHY WURZER: I'm great. Thank you to Raymond and Toni for joining us. Say, Raymond. I want to give folks some context to your sister's story. Black jockeys and horsemen dominated thoroughbred racing from the first Kentucky Derby, which was what, 1875? Through 1903 right before the Jim Crow era pushed them out. And there were decades before Cheryl came along in 1971, so she was truly a groundbreaker. But my goodness. How did horse racing become a dream of hers?

RAYMOND WHITE: Well, we grew up in a horse racing family. Our father was a trainer for over 60 years. He actually had a horse in the Kentucky Derby in 1932 and 1944. As my co-author likes to say, he had a horse in the Kentucky Derby when he wasn't allowed to sit in the grandstand to watch the horse run.

So he was one of the trainers that didn't get pushed out and remained in racing, so we grew up on a 400 acre horse farm in Rome, Ohio. And horses were something that were just part of our life our whole life.

CATHY WURZER: As you know, then, horse racing is a pretty dangerous sport, and I don't know what your dad thought initially when Cheryl said, hey, I want to be a jockey. What was his reaction?

RAYMOND WHITE: Well, he was from the old school. Born in 1903, he did not believe that females and women should be jockeys. However, I like to say that my father was such a great man that he did not let his bias stand in the way of helping his daughter achieve her dream or take a shot at it.

Sometimes, I joke, and I say, maybe he thought, I'll let her try it, but she'll probably just get tired of it. [LAUGHS] But what he discovered was that she was a pretty doggone good jockey to begin with, and she was very, very, very talented. And he became a champion of female jockeys himself after his daughter broke that ice.

CATHY WURZER: I have to say, I've been on racetracks and worked on the backside for a number of tracks in my youth. Yeah, I know. It's kind of an odd thing about me. But I've watched film of Cheryl ride. She had a beautiful set of hands. I mean, she really communicated with her horses.

RAYMOND WHITE: Yes. Her form was outstanding. I mean, her form was picture perfect, and she was just one with the horse. Actually, the logo for our nonprofit, the Cheryl White Project, that logo that we have is from her on a horse. We did a silhouette of it, so that's what we used as our logo. She was fantastic jockey.

CATHY WURZER: Toni, I want to bring you into the conversation here. How did you find out about Cheryl White?

TONI MCWILLIAMS: So I found out about Cheryl White through The CREW and our program. With our children, we try to have as much representation for the BIPOC community in equine as a whole. So at The CREW, we gave all of the children one of Mr. White's books. I read it, both my kids read it, and we just kind of fell in love with her story and all of the representation that Cheryl had for our community.

CATHY WURZER: Now, we should say-- and the reason I brought up the background for Black horsemen back in the day was I think there is a stereotype that BIPOC folks aren't involved with horses, that they're afraid of horses, or something like that.


CATHY WURZER: But there's a deep history of some excellent horsemen. So I mean, Toni, tell me about the use of horses to try to bolster the confidence of your kids.

TONI MCWILLIAMS: So the use of horses for our children is to give them that social and emotional natural learning, because horses are prey animals, and they can sense our energy and other animals from miles away. So to have one of our children calmly approach a horse and be in their environment, it's a sense of empowerment for them.

Because you have this giant animal and this little tiny seven or eight year old approaching them and learning that you can interact, and there is a peace and a calm with the differences of size. And horses being a prey animal, it's just a beautiful thing to watch our little ones go through.

CATHY WURZER: It is. And Raymond, you were agreeing there in terms of-- I think there are some stereotypes. Would you agree?

RAYMOND WHITE: Oh, yeah. Absolutely, I would agree. And the problem is we just haven't had enough representation over the years, and we're trying to change that. That's kind of our goal through telling my sister's story, through writing a book, and just continuing. Through The Jockey and Her Horse, we're trying to educate through that.

You can do this. I like to say that we didn't write the book so kids would become jockeys. We wanted kids to realize their dreams and that they can achieve something if they really want to do it. But we do want more representation in horseracing and the equestrian world, period. Children need to be-- and I'm dying to come to see The CREW. I can't wait to come this weekend to meet with these kids and see The CREW in action.

CATHY WURZER: I would love to see the crew in action, Toni, because again, as a horse person, I understand what horses can do for a person. And I'm wondering. What growth have you seen among some of the kids when they're when they're working with horses and when they're up in the saddle?

TONI MCWILLIAMS: So personally from a parent volunteer and board member standpoint, I have two children who do participate in lessons, and I've seen my children come in. Maybe they're a bit frustrated or disheveled before we make it to the ranch. And by the time we get there, through practicing deep breathing and mindfulness, my children's anxiety have come down significantly from just being on the farm.

And this is before they approach the horses in the stable. They start to have a sense of calmness being around the horses. And as they go to the horse, the anxiety is gone, and you can literally see the light. The children smile, and they're just happy. And they have a sense of control. Our program is student led, so the children get to tell us what they want to do.

If they want to feed a horse, if they want to ride the horse, or practice some skills, or just learn about horse anatomy-- they have that autonomy to do what they want with the attention of the adult. And we are there to support them. And if they just want to sit and talk to a horse, they can do that. And it's very common, and it's a welcoming environment.

CATHY WURZER: It is fun to talk to a horse. I want to go back to Raymond for just a moment here if I could, going back to your sister and her story. I'm familiar with her, but a lot of folks just don't know about her. Why do you think that's the case?

RAYMOND WHITE: Cheryl was not a big self-promoter. She also went out west. She started her riding career here in Ohio-- Cleveland, Ohio-- and then here in the east and Midwest. But she went out west and found she just liked the environment, liked the lifestyle, and she kind of carved out a career out there.

But she wasn't a big-- if you don't keep singing your praises, if you don't keep tooting your own horn, you'll eventually kind of-- people fade away. She retired from riding in 1992. She won her last race. Ironically, she finished last in her first race, and she finished first in her last race. Go figure. That's kind of a funny thing.

But she just didn't talk about herself. Out in Mahoning Valley, she worked next to a guy for years. He knew she used to be a jockey, but he didn't know anything about her until she passed away. And he was like, oh my God. All them years I worked next to her, she never said anything about herself.

And she just didn't. She was humble, quiet. She just wasn't the one that toot her own horn. She just wanted to do her job and work with whatever capacity in horse racing. She was a lifelong race tracker working with horses, and she never deviated from that.

CATHY WURZER: What kept her going, do you think? Just the love of the horse?

RAYMOND WHITE: Yeah. I mean, just the love of the horse, the lifestyle. I mean, it's kind of all she knew. I mean, it's what she grew up doing. And from the moment we were kids, they threw us on the back of a horse before we could walk.


We grew up around-- she spent 21 years riding. She went from riding and being a jockey to galloping horses to working as a patrol judge and then kind of working the administrative side of racing. And the joke is she could do any job on the racetrack from hot walking a horse to being a steward. She had actually passed her stewards test twice-- once in California and once here in Ohio. She was very talented.

CATHY WURZER: Before we go, Toni, real quick. Where's the event this Saturday?

TONI MCWILLIAMS: My apologies. The first one is at Strohfus Stock Farm this weekend, and the second one is at Canterbury Farm from 5 to 8 PM. Everyone's welcome to come out and enjoy raffles and giveaways and autographs.

CATHY WURZER: Perfect. Thank you. Tony and Raymond, we appreciate it. We got to run. Thank you so much.

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