Tom Bass trained horses and rode them in horse shows, winning well more than 2,000 first-place ribbons across the nation. He was visited by U.S. presidents and rode in the inaugural parades for two of them, was honored by the queen of Romania, won championships at two World’s Fairs, sold one of his horses to Buffalo Bill Cody and was invited by Queen Victoria to her Diamond Jubilee Celebration in England. Those are amazing achievements, but what makes them even more amazing is that like fellow Missourian George Washington Carver, Tom Bass was born a slave and did all this during the time when segregation and racial prejudice was rampant in the U.S.
Tom Bass was born on the plantation of Eli Bass in Boone County, Missouri in 1859. His mother was a slave girl named Cornelia Grey. His father was William Hayden Bass, the white son of the plantation owner.
Born just prior to the beginning of the Civil War, Tom Bass was riding horseback alone at the age of 4. By the time he was 6, he was jumping his mounts over fences. When he and the other slaves were freed, Tom’s mother left the plantation and Tom was taken in by his grandfather Presley Grey, who stayed to work with the plantation’s horses.
When Tom was 9, his grandfather gave him a stubborn mule to work with. The first time Tom rode him, the mule decided he’d had enough and sat down with Tom on his back. Tom got off and worked with the mule until he got up and they rode on. Before long the mule was the best-trained animal on the place. Tom even taught him the gaits of a saddle horse.
Soon Tom was being brought troublesome horses by white clients. When Tom was 20, he was hired to work as a trainer for the Mexico Horse Sales Company in Mexico, Missouri. Not long after, he invented a bit that could be used to train a horse without savaging its mouth like the bits in common use in those days. Tom was encouraged to patent the bit, but he refused, saying he wanted others to use it. It was soon widely copied, but was known as the Tom Bass bit.
While working for the stable at Mexico, a mare with the reputation as a man-killer was brought to Tom. She had to be driven into her stall with a pitchfork. After two days, Tom was riding the mare without any difficulties. She was such a fine mare that the owners decided to show her, but the hitch was that only Tom could ride her. They entered her into a show, with Tom as the rider. Never had a black man ridden in a horse show before and Tom was uncertain about whether to attempt it. But when word spread among the other show riders that only Tom could ride the mare, no one complained. Tom took second place on the mare.
In 1882, Tom married Angie Jewell, the town’s first black school teacher. His new bride taught Tom to read and write. The next year, the Mexico Horse Sales Company sold and Tom decided to take a chance on starting his own training stable. By 1888 even the governor of Missouri was sending horses for Tom to train.
In 1891, Tom moved his stables to Kansas City. A year later he was appointed to the Board of Advisors for the KC Fire Department. In need of a way to raise money for the department, Tom suggested and helped organize a horse show—the American Royal. After three years, Tom moved his stables back to Mexico.
Tom’s fame grew when he bought a white colt he named Columbus. He trained the horse and entered him into the St. Louis horse show where he competed in the most complicated class—one in which the horses performed to music played by a band. Tom and Columbus performed the Spanish Trot and the Caprice. With Tom on his back, Columbus pranced, pirouetted, pivoted and leapt. He cantered backwards and then, while standing on his hind legs, turned a full circle before kneeling and bowing his head to the judges. Tom and Columbus won first place.
In 1897, Buffalo Bill Cody showed up at Tom’s stable in Mexico to buy Columbus. He used the horse for a year in his show before Tom bought him back. His career as an entertainer was not over, however, because Tom leased Columbus to the California Frank’s Wild West Show in 1909.
In 1928 Tom was the first black man to ride in Madison Square Garden (as the guest of the Vanderbilts) and the New York press declared him the “American Horseman Emeritus.” He entered the show ring for the last time in 1931, suffered a heart attack while competing and was forced to retire. He died in 1934 at the age of 73.
His friend, Will Rogers, wrote a eulogy for Tom in his syndicated newspaper column. I’ll let Will have the last word: “If old Saint Peter is as wise as we give him credit for being, Tom, he’ll let you ride in on horseback and give those folks up there a great show and you’ll get the blue ribbon yourself.”