Vicki Moon – A Woman With A Way With Horses & Words
By Meg Mullery
Middleburg author Vicky Moon spent more than a decade researching and writing about a pioneering African American woman’s career training horses. Sylvia Rideoutt Bishop Had a Way With Horses chronicles the grit and determination of the first African American woman in the U.S. to make it in the white male dominated world of elite horse trainers. Born in 1920 in Charles Town, West Virginia, Sylvia Rideoutt Bishop discovered her love of horses and ultimate talent as a trainer by hanging around the Charles Town Race Track from a very young age.
Vicky Moon is no stranger to the equine and race track worlds and the political workings of Washington, D.C. As a child growing up in Florida, her mother owned race horses. Vicky herself competed in horse events on the show jumping circuit in Florida and beyond before moving to Washington, D.C., to cover equine sporting events for the Washington Post. Her passion for all things equine brought her to Middleburg, where she was again living, surrounded by her beloved horses, and continuing her writing career. Vicky Moon’s unique knowledge and dedication to research provide a story of a fascinating African American female horse trainer put in the historical context of gender discrimination and the civil rights movement. Vicky Moon has a way with horses. And words.
MM: When and how did you discover Sylvia Rideoutt Bishop?
VAM: I love to chat people up, and will talk to anyone. One day about 15 plus years ago I was standing in line for a coffee at a gas station/McDonalds in Marshall, Virginia and struck up a conversation while waiting my turn. Somehow the man in front of me told me about his “Aunt” who was a race horse trainer in Charles Town. I could tell he was a horse person. I already had a contract at the time to write a book about women who love horses. Two days later I drove to Charles Town to meet Sylvia. I knew this was important and we hit it off. I think the reason we got along was that I speak “horse.” I understood everything she talked about. We made an arrangement to meet every week, something like the 1997 book Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom. My book then became just about Sylvia and none of the other women I had in mind.
We began in August of 2004. Sylvia gave me notes and old photos and her little black book and I continued to meet with her. Then, during Christmas of that same year she passed, about the time my own father died. I had enough to continue and I dug in and decided this book was important. I drove to Charles Town every chance I had, going to the courthouse to research and meeting with the names Sylvia had given me. I also continued to write articles and work on other book projects in order to finance my research time.
MM: Sylvia was one of 17 children in her family. She had an interesting childhood not living with her family but a loving couple not far from her family home. Can you give any insight on that arrangement?
VAM: Sylvia’s mother, Bertha Rideoutt was what they called a “baby catcher” also known as a mid-wife. She delivered many children in the area. And also produced her own. Sylvia was chronologically fourth in line. I was told several different versions as to why Sylvia was sent to live with another couple. The other family, Lavinia and William Payne, had no children of their own and I can only speculate that may have been a consideration. It was a perfectly friendly and amiable arrangement between her birth parents as well as the Payne’s. The Payne’s had “stood up” for the Rideoutts when they were married and Lavinia was also listed as sponsor for Sylvia’s baptism. One telling remark of jealousy came from Sylvia’s sister, Lucille, who, 80 eighty years later, said, “She had a bike.” A cousin recalled that “Sylvia always felt her mother had given her away.” Many friends and neighbors had an opinion that she had a fear of abandonment. All this is curious but in the end, Sylvia eventually inherited a large home and many furnishings from the Payne’s.
MM: Talk a bit about how and where you did your research?
VAM: I spent half my time in the records room of the big old beautiful Charles Town courthouse. I urge everyone to go there to visit. I kept going back and went over birth, death and marriage records as well as real estate and other records. One revealing piece of information came from the fact that in those days, if someone purchased not just a car but a washing machine or even a wardrobe of clothing on layaway or with a series of payments, it was recorded in the records. If someone bellied up and didn’t pay, it was right there. Those details are very revealing. Life was not always lucrative.
MM: For the uninitiated, going to the races was a big event back in the day. Your book notes that a train left Union Station for the Charles Town Race Track as the destination. Do you have any thoughts on why racing has lost popularity?
VAM: The track in Charles Town opened Dec 3, 1933 with much fanfare. It was the first track with legalized racing in West Virginia and a total of $44,175 was wagered on seven races that day. The stands were filled with fancy names, like socialites Liz and Jock Whitney. I’m not sure I can agree that racing has lost popularity. Yes, there have been doping scandals but that also went on in Sylvia’s day and there are examples of it in this book. Also, while attendance at most tracks has been down, many, many racing fans – millions – are watching via cable channels devoted to racing, on streaming services on the internet, at off track betting parlors and casinos all around the country. In the past year, a record amount of money was wagered on horses and the amount of purse money would choke anyone. Millions.
MM: I didn’t realize the history of Charles Town. Even if horses aren’t your thing, a reader would thoroughly enjoy all you have discovered and uncovered about the town and the area. Anything surprise you?
VAM: Yes, yes, yes. Especially when I tell people that Charles Town was the result of the work of George Washington’s youngest brother, Col. Charles Washington, who designed and developed this town. Charles Washington lived on the edge of town at Happy Retreat. He practiced law and his office still stands. He designed the town of eighty acres and donated the four corner lots at the main intersection of (what else?) Charles and Washington Streets. There are also streets named for his brothers George, Samuel and Lawrence. Charles also named the roads on the main thoroughfare of Washington Street, Liberty and Congress. In addition, he named a street honoring his wife, Mildred. There are more than 70 family members buried in the church yard here. The museum is a treasure trove. Go visit.
I also find the history and story of abolitionist John Brown very intriguing. Most horsey people do not have a clue. Some have never ventured beyond the track. He was tried in this great big court house and visitors can still go into the same courtroom. They can walk up the street and see where he was hung. They made him ride on top of his own coffin and the wagon he rode on is on view at the Jefferson County Museum. (jeffcomuseumwv.org)
MM: What can we learn from life of Sylvia?
VAM: Great question. Her determination and everything to do with a simple NEVER GIVE UP.
About the Author: Meg Mullery is a real estate agent with Washington Fine Properties based in Middleburg, Virginia and is also a contributing writer to OTC.