Burnt Cork in Kentucky Derby, 1943Burnt Cork was a thoroughbred racehorse owned by Edmund Lincoln Anderson (1905-1977), aka "Rochester," the Negro comedian and former vaudeville performer who teamed with Jack Benny on radio in The Jack Benny Program and in the television series, The Jack Benny Show. Several newspapers around the country accused Anderson of entering Burnt Cork in the 1943 Kentucky Derby as a publicity stunt, and prior to the race, Anderson was advised not to enter his horse; its odds were 25-1. Anderson would not be swayed, however; he attempted to hire jockey Carroll Bierman, who had won the 1940 Kentucky Derby with longshot Gallahadion.
Anderson, his wife, and his valet stayed at the home of Kentucky House Member Mae Street Kidd in Louisville; the hotels in Louisville were segregated. Mae Street Kidd did not care much for Eddie "Rochester" Anderson but got along well with his wife. Kidd was invited to join the Andersons in their box during the Derby. Burnt Cork came in last place. He had come out of the gates fast, but quickly ran out of steam and came in 10th, 38 lengths behind the winner, Count Fleet, owned by Mrs. John D. Hertz.
Burnt Cork was ridden by jockey Manual Gonzalez and was trained by A. E. Silver. Edmund Anderson was disappointed in his horse's performance, but the loss became part of the comedy routine with Jack Benny ribbing "Rochester" on air during The Jack Benny Program. The newspapers and other comedians also poked fun at Anderson. During 1943, there were more than 200 newspaper stories in the United States and Canada about Burnt Cork's loss in the Kentucky Derby. Anderson continued to race Burnt Cork until the horse died in July of 1944.
For more see Kentucky Derby Stories, by J. Bolus; "Rochester entry in Kentucky Derby has good chance," Corsicana Daily Sun, 04/12/1943, p. 5; "Burnt Cork is long shot," Racine Journal-Times, 04/16/1943, p. 19; "Entry of Burt Cork would end doubts of last place in derby," Salt Lake Tribune, 04/29/1943, p. 19; "Burnt Cork runs in Crete Handicap," New Castle News, 05/22/1943; and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson in Passing for Black, by W. Hall.
*The term "burnt cork" refers to theatrical makeup that was first used by white blackface performers in minstrel shows, beginning in the early 1800s. The actors presented themselves as comical and stereotyped characterizations of African Americans. There were also African American minstrel performers who wore burnt cork, including one of the most famous and highest paid blackface performers, Bert Williams. Originally the makeup consisted of burnt cork that was pulverized then mixed with water, petroleum jelly, or some other substance and smeared on the uncovered areas of skin such as the face, neck, and hands. With the popularity of blackface performances in the U.S. and abroad, soon burnt cork was commercially manufactured, advertised, and sold to performers by mail. A popular item was "Crest Brand" Burnt Cork, billed as a healthier alternative to the original mix. It was sold by the Crest Trading Company in New York for 50 cents, plus seven cents for postage. Other burnt cork alternatives were grease paint and shoe polish. Today, there are blackface performers around the world. For more see The Witmark's Amateur Minstrel Guide and Burnt Cork Encyclopedia, by F. Dumont [available at Google Books]; and Behind the Burnt Cork Mask, by W. J. Mahar.