WASHINGTON – For the three decades that Desnee Flakes groomed horses,she always dreamed of an African-American jockey winning the Kentucky Derby. Little did she know,that dream was realized 100 years ago.
She told about her journey of discovery Friday to another woman who has edited a book about other undiscovered stories. Renee Poussaint,the former network television correspondent,teamed up with Camille Cosby in 2001 to create the National Visionary Leadership Project.
Poussaint talked about her project,to preserve stories about extraordinary African-Americans,and the accompanying book at Howard University's book store Friday.
When Poussaint invited the audience of about 30 to ask questions or comment,Flakes was second in line for the microphone. Flakes told Poussaint about Jimmy Winkfield.
Flakes has worked at racetracks across the United States since 1974. But in all those years and places,the 49-year-old groom knew several black jockeys but none who had the opportunities or the success that Winkfield had.
But last summer,a visit to the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville,Ky.,changed all that. She was floored by what she saw: an exhibition on African-American jockeys.
“I couldn't believe it,” Flakes said about the museum's “A Natural from the Start” exhibit about Jimmy Winkfield,an African-American jockey who won consecutive Derbies in 1901 and 1902. “I had no idea all those names and faces even existed.”
“I decided it was my mission to tell their story,” Flakes said. This mission led her to Cincinnati,Ohio,to interview Winkfield's daughter,Lillian Casey.
The horse groom turned aspiring writer traveled to Howard University from her home in Aiken,S.C.,to share Casey's story with Poussaint. Flakes offered her article to the NVLP.
Poussaint was visiting the book store to sign copies of the project's latest result,“A Wealth of Wisdom: Legendary African American Elders Speak.” The book's pages are filled with the words of well-known visionaries such as Maya Angelou and Ray Charles,but the stories of lesser-known elders are told,too.
Poussaint expressed her excitement about the mounting interest generated by the book and said she wanted to make more material preserved and accessible. “A Wealth of Wisdom” tells the story of 50 elders. The NVLP has collected another 50 interviews. Only those at least 70 years old are eligible.
The book is currently ranked 21st on the New York Times best seller list for hardcover non-fiction.
“We are hoping to continue to expand it every year,” Poussaint said. “We're hoping this will end up being an annual publication.”
The project has partnerships with eight universities,including Howard. The NVLP trains students to interview elders in two-hour video- or audio-taped sessions. As part of the application process,students must nominate an elder in their community for consideration. The top three student projects each year win scholarships.
Poussaint said the project is unique because it humanizes famous visionaries by exposing personal anecdotes. For example,Poussaint recounted how Coretta Scott King said she was a childhood tomboy. King used to beat up her siblings,in addition to the little boys in the neighborhood,Poussaint said.
Poussaint told of how King noted the irony,saying,“Isn't it odd that I would end up in the nonviolence movement?”
Said Poussaint,“We're happy the project can share that these elders were not always perfect.”
Joining Poussaint at Howard,midway through her two-week book tour,were two featured visionaries in “A Wealth of Wisdom.” Sister Mary Alice Chineworth,a member of the Oblate Sisters of Province,the nation's first order of black nuns,and David Driskell,an art historian,curator,retired professor and leading authority on African-American art,told their stories.
Chineworth,87,said,“one of the greatest handicaps of my life” was not asking her grandfather about his experience in slavery. She said that young people should be able to reach out to their grandparents and talk about the past.
“I think one of the troubles is we don't have the family intergenerational context that we used to have,” Chineworth said.
Driskell,73,a Howard alumnus,agreed with Chineworth. “The family structure is so important for us as African-Americans,” he said.