Sports in the Time of Slavery

What free black left a valuable account of the sporting life of slaves before the Civil War?

William Tiler Johnson (1809–1851), a slave who had been freed, was a barber and slave owner who lived in Natchez, Mississippi. He kept a diary of his important business affairs; his writings from 1835 to 1851 are the first known account written by a black man and documents sports activities of himself and his peers. He writes about how he ”negotiated a society of racial limitations and discrimination while embracing many white aristocratic values.” His diaries are one of the few extant records that provide extensive insight into the social and economic history of slaves. He documented his wins and losses in business as well as in the games that he played, such as “shuffleboard, checkers, quoits, marbles, billiards, and cards.” He was competitive in hunting, fishing, and horse racing, and also engaged in lotteries and raffles. Johnson documented his attendance at horse races, mule races, and cockfights. He practiced the sport of broad jumping against his sons. He and other free blacks of means were allowed to race their own horses, which were the slower, non-thoroughbred type. Whites who owed the race tracks often rented out their courses on weekdays for those who could pay the fee.


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