SBishop Bright Gem clip IMG3439001.tif

Trainer Sylvia Bishop standing next to “Bright Gem” with jockey Jack Sollars aboard the winner of race number 3 at Laurel Racecourse on August 19, 1963.

The cover of the December 1961 issue of Ebony magazine featured a photograph of Bonnie Bianchi. In an article entitled “WOMAN ENGINEER – Brainy as well as beautiful, she is one of 30 with similar training,” Bianchi was lauded for landing a position as “a scientific writer for the Nuclear Division of the Martin Marietta Corp. in Baltimore.” Her preparation for this new post was marked by significant academic achievement. According to the article, she was “the first woman graduated (magna cum laude) from Howard University’s Electrical Eng. Dept.” and was “the only Negro in a class of seven to receive a master’s in technical writing from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.” The article also noted that Bianchi’s position with Martin Marietta was especially significant in light of the fact that she had “gained prominence in a man’s world by writing engineering reports for schools, the military, and the Atomic Energy Commission.”

To its credit, Bonnie Bianchi was not the only woman featured in this issue Ebony. In a play on a popular 1950s sitcom, the magazine highlighted “OUR MISS BROOKS – Liberia’s official is first Negro woman to head major committee in the United Nations.” In this instance the Miss Brooks was Angie Elizabeth Brooks, formerly the Assistant Attorney General of Liberia. Representing Liberia, Brooks had served on the United Nation’s Fourth Committee and in September [1961] became its “first woman chairman…and helped the UN bring independence to 821 million people formerly sliced and almost devoured by powerful nations.”

But Bianchi and Brooks were not the only women spotlighted in Ebony’s December 1961 issue.

On page 101 of the December magazine, a woman is pictured holding the bridle of a thoroughbred racehorse. The article’s title was “LADY HORSE TRAINER – West Virginia mother leads busy life teaching thoroughbreds secret of speed.” The “Lady Horse Trainer” was none other than Charles Town native Sylvia Rideoutt Bishop. Like many men and women born in Charles Town, at an early age Bishop was attracted to the thoroughbred horse racing industry. As a teenager, she started grooming horses and after learning to ride, came to the track in the early morning to exercise horses. After years of experience working around and riding thoroughbreds, Bishop reached a point where she felt competent to go to the next level. Just before the world plunged into the Second World War, Sylvia Bishop applied for and received a license to train thoroughbred horses in the State of West Virginia. In light of the fact that Bishop’s brothers and sisters were also either working in or connected by marriage to the thoroughbred racing game, becoming a thoroughbred horse trainer may not have seemed a big deal to them. But, in 1961, Ebony recognized that it was a big deal because Sylvia Bishop was the first African American woman thoroughbred horse trainer at the Charles Town track, in the State of West Virginia, and in the whole of the United States.

In the Ebony article, Bishop was quoted as saying “training horses is hard work, but if you like it, it is the same as a hobby and no work at all.” Horses in Bishop’s stable raced principally at half-mile tracks – venues like both Charles Town and Shenandoah Downs and the tracks on the Maryland Fair Racing Circuit – places like the Hagerstown Fairgrounds, Timonium, and Marlboro Racecourse. When Bishop started her training career, thoroughbred tracks were generally open for nine months and went dark in the winter months. This meant that she and her team worked non-stop, seven days a week for nine months with one eye on a breather at Christmas. When the New Year began, many horses would stop training and were sent to one of many local farms for R & R. However, for most men and women in the racing game, time off from the track meant time off from a paycheck. Economic survival necessitated skill at money management which was frequently supplemented by taking on a second and sometimes a third job.

To make ends meet, Sylvia Bishop put her managerial skills to work and took a second job working for a local Charles Town couple. Payne’s Hotel was a landmark in Charles Town’s West End, owned and operated by William H. Payne, a World War I veteran, and his wife Lavinia Strother Payne. The Paynes built their hotel in the middle of the block between West Washington and West Congress Streets with its front door facing South West Street. To guarantee success, every good hotel had a restaurant, and Payne’s was no exception, and in her “spare time,” Bishop managed the restaurant in Payne’s Hotel overseeing its day-to-day operation. In recognition of Bishop’s managerial prowess, when Lavinia Payne died in June 1962, she willed the hotel property to Bishop. The hotel remained in her possession until she sold it in January 1999.

Like many Pioneers, it appears that for most of her professional lifetime Sylvia Bishop did not receive acclaim as a groundbreaker in the thoroughbred racing industry. For example, the January 11, 1961 issue of the Baltimore Sun reported that “Mrs. Sylvia Bishop’s Irish Dash” won the first race at Charles Town. The title Mrs. was a reference to her gender but gave no indication that she was the FIRST Mrs. to train thoroughbreds.

Finally, as her training career began to wind down, Bishop received acclaim. In February 1991, Bishop was acknowledged as the “nation’s first black woman trainer” at the second Annual African-American Heritage Society’s tribute to African American horsemen and horsewomen held at the Pimlico Sports Palace in Baltimore. Other tributes would come after her death in 2005. In 2008, Sylvia Bishop was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Charles Town Races. Four years later the Sylvia Bishop Memorial, a seven-furlong race for fillies three years old and older, was added to the Stakes Races scheduled at Charles Town. Each is a fitting tribute to a woman who spent over 60 years in the thoroughbred racing game hoping that someday she would “hit the jackpot.”

All of the quotations are attributed to articles named which appeared in the December 1961 issue of Ebony magazine.

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