1859 – 1934
Before Jackie Robinson ever donned a Dodger uniform – there was Tom Bass.
Before Rosa Parks ever demanded a seat in the front of the bus – there was Tom Bass.
Before Martin Luther King ever had a dream – there was Tom Bass.
Born a slave, the friend of Presidents, the most famous Black American horseman this country has ever known, today his story is largely unknown outside of Missouri.
Yet, once his name was a household word synonymous with equestrian feats of unparalleled beauty and achievement. But he didn’t start out famous.
He started out as a slave-child on a Boone County Plantation.
(Excerpts reprinted and edited with permission from Nancy Taylor Rojo’s blog ‘Noble Beasts’)
Tom Bass was born in 1859 on the huge Bass Plantation in southern Boone County near Ashland. He was fathered by William Hayden Bass, the son of plantation owner, Eli Bass. At the tender age of nine Tom Bass had taught the family mule to canter backwards. He was already developing a natural and phenomenal talent that would bring him fame and fortune as an adult. At some point, Bass left the Bass plantation for Mexico, Missouri, where he would eventually open his own horse-training stable. His reputation as a fair and honest man and phenomenal results brought rich and famous men from all over America to his training stable in Mexico, Missouri. Theodore Roosevelt journeyed to Mexico to ask Tom to provide him a well-trained mount for the New York saddle paths and Queen Victoria invited him to London in 1897.
Despite the prejudice he often encountered at horse shows, Tom would earn tremendous personal and professional respect from statesmen and leaders all over the world – unheard of for an American black man in that era. President William McKinley came to his home, as did William Jennings Bryan. On one of his visits to the Bass home, Buffalo Bill Cody brought along a young Oklahoma cowboy named Will Rogers. Tom would also gain international prominence and be forever known for inventing a bit that did not injure a horse’s mouth. The bit is still used today and is called a “Bass Bit.”
In 1890 Tom moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where he opened the Tom Bass Stables on Main Street. In 1892, when the K.C. Fire Department needed a way to make money, Tom suggested a horse show. This horse show eventually became the American Royal—one of the biggest horse shows in the United States. After decades of unparalleled success and hundreds of blue ribbons, Tom died of a heart attack in his home on November 20, 1934.