Into the Sunset

Tom Bass, a founder of the American Royal

Tom Bass, a founder of the American Royal

American Royal Arena Interior

American Royal Arena Interior

Tom Bass died on November 4, 1934, following a celebrated career as a horse trainer and a founder of the American Royal in Kansas City. Bass, the son of a white man and a young female slave, was born a slave in 1859 near Columbia, Missouri. He gained his freedom after the Civil War and moved to Mexico, Missouri, where he gradually developed non-violent horse training methods that differed markedly from the prevailing methods that emphasized beating and yelling at the horses.

When Bass moved to Kansas City in the early 1890s, he was already nationally famous for winning competitions at horse shows, but as a member of the horse advisory committee for the Kansas City Fire Department, he made one of his most lasting contributions. In 1892, Bass suggested that Kansas City could put on its own horse show to raise funds for the department. The department held the city’s first major horse show in a tent that year, and in 1905 the Kansas City Stockyards added the horse show to the annual American Hereford Association Cattle Show, creating the American Royal Livestock Show.

In the first two decades, one of the show’s strongest attractions was Tom Bass and his most renowned horse, Belle Beach, which could dance waltzes, the fox-trot, and cakewalks to the rhythm of music. At the time Bass was also the only African American allowed to perform at the American Royal, but he helped the show emerge as one of the most important in the nation. Today the American Royal Association boasts one of the largest livestock shows in the world and credits Bass as one of its most important founders.

Curiously, in this era of legally sanctioned segregation and discrimination, Bass’s African American race barely hindered his career in Kansas City or elsewhere. He won two World’s Fair horse competitions, performed for five U.S. presidents, and was invited to meet Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom in 1897. In the late 1920s he retired to his home in Mexico, Missouri, where he died at the age of 75.

 

Read the following biographical sketches prepared by the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

View images of the American Royal from the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Check out the following books about Tom Bass and the American Royal.

Visit the American Royal Museum at 1701 American Royal Court, Kansas City, MO 64102.

Visit the American Saddlebred Horse Museum at 501 S. Muldrow Street, Mexico, MO 65265.

Continue researching Tom Bass and the American Royal using archival material from the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

References:

Lawrence O. Christensen, Dictionary of Missouri Biography (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 39-40.

Bill Downey, Tom Bass, Black Horseman (St. Louis: Saddle and Bridle, 1975).

Heather N. Paxton, The American Royal, 1899-1999 (Kansas City, MO: BkMk Press, 1999), 12-13.

Kimberly R. Riley, Biography of Tom Bass, Founder of the American Royal Horse Show, Missouri Valley Special Collections, The Kansas City Public Library, 1999.

Jason Roe
Historical date: 
Sunday, November 4, 1934

About the Author

Jason Roe is a digital history specialist at the Kansas City Public Library, content manager and editor for the Civil War on the Western Border website, and the author of the Library's popular "This Week in Kansas City History" column. Prior to joining the Library, he earned his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012. While at KU, he was named the 2011-2012 Richard and Jeanette Sias Graduate Fellow at the Hall Center for the Humanities, and he received the History Department's 2012 George L. Anderson Award for Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation for his work, "From the Impoverished to the Entitled: The Experience and Meaning of Old Age in America since the 1950s." He enjoys tackling a wide variety of projects relating to U.S. and local history.

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