Over the weekend, several folks sent me links to an article about the Dartmouth Sorority who cancelled their annual Kentucky Derby Party. The story goes that the sisters of Kappa Delta Epsilon, a local sorority at Dartmouth College, has traditionally held an annual Derby-themed spring party, but decided to cancel this year's event because their 2015 Derby party was met with Black Lives Matter protesters who claimed that the event promoted racial inequality. The KDE chapter voted almost unanimously to opt for a Woodstock-themed party this year because, in the words of the chapter president, a Derby party is "related to pre-war southern culture.”
Now, after four years as a sorority girl and more years than I can count as a sorority alumna adviser, I can tell you that the politics of these things are generally so Byzantine and Machiavellian that they'd make Thomas Cromwell's head spin. It seems that KDE is actually already under suspension for alcohol and conduct reasons, so it makes sense that they'd want to toe the line with university officials; flying under the radar certainly seems advisable in those particular circumstances.
I don't care to engage in the argument that these Ivy League sorority women need to spend a little more time studying their history. (The first Kentucky Derby took place ten years after the end of the Civil War.) I will, instead, quote my own sorority sister who also happens to be a Harvard Law grad: "I assume the sorority had no idea how to throw a Derby Party." (Maybe they got their inspiration from a Mad Men episode, rather than an actually Derby event...)
The sad truth is that Ivy Leaguers in New Hampshire probably don't really get what the Kentucky Derby is all about. As a Kentuckian who loves all things Louisville and Derby-related, it is heartbreaking and infuriating for me to think of the First Saturday in May engendering connotations of racial injustice or inequality. In fact, one of the things I've always loved about the Kentucky Derby is the way that the Falls City, with a whole lot of help from the Kentucky Derby Festival Committee, creates a multi-week celebration for Louisvillians of all socioeconomic backgrounds. You may not have the means to sit on Millionaires Row, but you can certainly take in the Balloon Race, the Thunder Fireworks, or the Pegasus Parade for free. You can dine at the Chow Wagon on a quite limited budget, and infield tickets to the race itself are affordable for most anyone who wants the experience. Derby may be billed as the Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports, but for Louisvillians, the party goes on for weeks and is open to all.
Even more importantly, the Derby community gives back in a meaningful way. I recently sat in a room of volunteers who were planning fundraisers for the Backside Learning Center. These folks -- racing industry insiders, Thoroughbred owners, and even a celebrated former jockey -- were donating their time and resources to help improve the quality of life for backside workers and their families. The BLC's Derby Party for the Backside -- the only opportunity for the grooms, assistant trainers, and other folks who live on site and provide daily care for the horses to enjoy a Derby-season party -- was deemed THE Derby party of the year.
Here in Kentucky, Derby is for everybody. You can buy a Derby glass for $3 at Kroger and watch the race on TV, or you can sit in luxury boxes. You can celebrate in style, or simply sing along with My Old Kentucky Home. There are little girls in my neighborhood who always set up a "mint julep" mocktail stand on Derby morning, dressed in their Sunday best. I hope the sisters of KDE read up on how to throw a more appropriate Derby party, and I hope that everyone gets to experience Louisville in May at least once; it's the best party you'll ever attend!