By Mark McGee
Photography by Shane Shiflet & David Pruett

Jerry Williams, Aaron Witherspoon and Jesse Dotson represent generations of African American trainers in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry.

All three are successful trainers, but they have heard the stories of the indignities and challenges those who went before them endured as they battled obstacle after obstacle.

They can cite those stories of frustration and futility of not being allowed to show in the same classes with white trainers and being relegated to all-black shows or “grooms” classes that were a part of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration for many years.

Some trainers like Roosevelt Williams, Frank Witherspoon and Willie “Flip” Cook refused to dress in costumes or participate in the antics that were a part of the class preferring to dress in traditional riding habits.

But Williams, Witherspoon and Dotson also can recall every accomplishment by those who helped open the show ring gates for the present generation.

According to the National Multicultural Western Museum Facebook page, Frank White was the owner and operator of Frank White Stables and Training Center near Junction City, Oregon, and the first African American trainer to win a blue ribbon at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in 1993. The 1994 Celebration Blue Ribbon Yearbook lists White and In The Limelight as winners of both the Plantation Pleasure Driving Two-or-Four Wheel vehicle class, as well as the Plantation Pleasure Four-Year-Old class. In The Limelight was owned by Michael and Jamie Vavrinec from Sisters, Oregon.

Frank Witherspoon was the first African American trainer to break the color barrier to ride in a class with white trainers at the 1968 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration aboard Go Boy’s Flying Cloud. Before the Celebration, he integrated shows at the Ellington Agricultural Center in Nashville, Tennessee, and a show in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the same year, Frank’s son Aaron recalls.

Aaron remembers trainer Joe Martin spent a great deal of time with the Witherspoon family when he was a youngster. Aaron adds that Ronnie Spears also started his training career under Frank.

“A lot of people congratulated Daddy (on breaking the color barrier),” Aaron said. “I don’t know of anything bad that happened to him.” 

In 1969 he rode Maiden’s Son to 10th place in Division A of the Two-Year-Old Stallion class for owner H.S. Musselwhite to become the first African American trainer to win a ribbon at the Celebration.

“At the time, they usually had two or three workouts in classes,” Aaron said. “They had three workouts in the Two-Year-Old Stallion class trying to beat him.”

Aaron saw firsthand many of the successes his father achieved. 

“I was Daddy’s right-hand man,” Aaron said. “He had an outstanding horse called Delight’s Can Do. He trained King Oak’s Go Boy who won the first 15.2 & Under Amateur class at the Celebration. My Daddy had a lot of success with a lot of horses. He had quite a career.”

In 1983 Aaron showed a colt for Jesse Dotson at the Tennessee State Colt Futurity and became the first African American to win a blue ribbon in the history of the show. He added that same week he became the first African American to win a blue ribbon at the Intern ational Pleasure and Colt Show.

Mississippi native Frank White became the first African American trainer to win a world championship at the Celebration in 1993 with In The Limelight, a four-year-old mare. Actually, they won two world championships at the show with first place ties in the Plantation and Fine Harness classes. 

Cook, a well-known trainer, became the first, and so far, only African American to be a member of the Celebration judging panel at the 1990 show.

Trainer Jerry Williams, based at his J and J Stables at Nearest Green Distillery in Shelbyville, Tennessee, rode in the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration for the first time in 2000. It was a special time since his father Roosevelt, who had never ridden in the Celebration, was there to watch.

But Jerry says his most special Celebration win so far is directing his nephew, Walker Williams, to the Lead Line World Grand Championship in 2019.

Jerry has 19 horses entered in the 84th annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, the most ever for him and his son Jeremy. In an interesting twist Jeremy will turn 25 on Sept. 1 during the Celebration.
Their customers include Paul Simmons, Don Collins, Dennis Parks, Regina Sauls and Jim Gilbert.

“Things are going pretty good,” Jerry said. “Fawn and Keith Weaver (owners of Uncle Nearest Distillery) are good people.”

Jerry was already using the training barn when Sand Creek Farm was sold to the Weavers by Bob Kilgore.
“Bob introduced me to Keith and Fawn.” Jerry said. “Fawn likes the horses. They want to keep the horse atmosphere.”

Jerry’s father had a lengthy list of customers who were championship riders.

“My Dad had a lot of customers like Carol Lackey, Mary Louise LeBlanc and Sharon Higginbottom,” Jerry said. “He was always getting horses ready for his customers to show, so he never got the chance to ride in the Celebration.”

Jerry’s son Jeremy is the fourth generation to become a walking horse trainer. Jeremy’s great-grandfather Frank Williams in Louisiana was the first in the family line.

“I am teaching my son the same way my Daddy taught me,” Jerry said. “He is doing pretty much all of the riding now.”

His father started training and showing walking horses in 1947 and worked out of his own training barn. Jerry recalls his father was the first African American trainer to win an open class at the Pin Oak Horse Show in Texas with a mare named As Beautiful Does in 1976.

It was through his father that Jerry was first exposed to what was then Sand Creek Farm.

“I always had a dream to be a trainer,” Jerry said. “My Dad came up from Louisiana to bring mares for breeding when Billy Gray was here at Sand Creek. I was eight-years-old. I remember walking through the hallways and looking at all the colts and the other horses. I thought, “I wish I could have a place like this.’”
“Everything is not easy. You don’t give up and you keep working. People, even in the Black community told me I would never be able to win. I never let that stop me.”

He and legendary trainer Billy Gray formed a strong working bond.

“When I was riding They Call Me Kid Rock, he would coach me from the rail,” Jerry said. “I appreciated his help.”


Their predecessors dealt with many issues. African American trainers, riders and owners have no plans to give up as they take the next steps towards a higher visibility and greater success in the showring.

When Jerry came to Middle Tennessee in 2000, he only had three horses in his barn. He started training in 1989 and admits it was a struggle to get started. In his first two months in Shelbyville Jerry’s stable expanded to 10 horses. Now he has 44 stalls with 40 horses in training.

“It was a little harder for black trainers to be recognized,” Jerry said. “I just kept at it.

“When I first moved to Tennessee, I was showing a lot, but I wasn’t getting tied like I thought I should be getting tied.”

He called his father to get his advice. His father told him not to give up or give in and leave the profession.
“I told him I didn’t know if this was for me or not,” Jerry said. “I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. He told me if he could get through it, I could get through it.”

Jesse Dotson, who trains weanlings and yearlings at Dotson Brothers Stables in Thompson’s Station, Tennessee, admits you have to persevere. His mother gave him his first Tennessee Walking Horse when he was a youngster, and he has no plans to be driven from the business he loves.

“It is pretty frustrating,” Jesse said. “But you have to be mentally tough and know what the circumstances are.”


“Daddy worked with a horse called Ebony’s Empire,” Aaron said. “The horse had a hitch no one had been able to fix, but Daddy worked with him and made him into a world champion.

“Sammy Day heard about what he had done and had to meet him. Sammy was a big fan of Daddy.”
Aaron praised his father’s skills as a trainer.

“He knew how to work a horse,” Aaron said. “He might not ride more than four or five horses each day, but he worked with them. He would work them some and let them relax and then work them some more. He treated them as athletes.”

Aaron said one his father’s best skills as a trainer was his ability to set a horse’s mouth.

“He knew how to put a mouth on a horse so a horse would respond,” Aaron said. “He knew what a horse was supposed to do.”

Jerry remembers many of the things his father experienced due to segregation in the United States and particularly in the walking horse business.

“I remember as a kid in shows in Louisiana and Arkansas,” Jerry said, “we would be the only Black family there. We took a lot of verbal abuse.”

“He would go to horse shows, and he would win a class, but they wouldn’t tie him because of his color. That hurt me a lot to see that happen.”

Jerry’s father had a customer who wanted to show at the fair in Franklin, Louisiana, but African Americans faced restrictions in terms of how many days they could ride in this particular show.

“At the show, the only time blacks could go to the horse show was after midnight on Friday night,” Jerry said. “Saturday was called ‘black day.’

“But the show started on Thursday. One of our customers, Dr. Sterling Albritton, had to get permission from the mayor of the town for my dad to be able to go there and show on Thursday.”

Jerry’s father was known for his ability to be able to train a horse to switch gaits on voice command.

“Dad did a lot of groundwork with his horses,” Jerry said. “He had a lot of patience. He would tell a horse what to do and he would do it.”

Jerry also is proud of the character of his father, who weathered all of the adversities he faced with a sense of dignity.

“He was very honest,” Jerry said. “He never drank. I never saw him do anything that wasn’t right. People who knew him and remember him have nothing but positive things to say about him.”


Cook said in an interview with sportswriter Larry Taft in “The Tennessean” on August 28, 1988, “the frustration of feeling you have a better horse and not having him placed where he belongs is not restricted to color”. 
That is not a universal belief among African American trainers, though they see the climate improving.
According to Aaron, his father would say, “I can’t control what the man with the pencil in the center ring can do, but I know what my horse can do.

“He wanted to win, and he had good enough horses to win,” Aaron said. “He paid his entry fee just like everybody else. He always said you had to keep fighting and keep on showing your horses.”

During the summers while he was attending Middle Tennessee State University, Jesse started working with lead line weanlings and yearlings in the summer for Dr. DeWitt Owen, a highly respected equine veterinarian based in Franklin, Tennessee.

“I worked with Ben Bowman and learned how to work lead line from him,” Dotson said. “I liked it and I have just kept doing it.”

Dotson has worked for Middle Tennessee Electric Company for 45 years but continues to work his weanlings and yearlings. He has seven broodmares and usually trains five or six at halter each year at the farm.
“I like horses,” Jesse said. “I like raising babies, getting my own mares in foal, anticipating what kind of colts they are going to have and training them.”

Jesse started training professionally in 1977 and made his first Celebration appearance in 1978.

“I got a ribbon in my first class at the Celebration, but I don’t remember what it was,” Jesse said. “I wasn’t nervous, but I knew if I was going to get a ribbon, I was going to have to be the best I could be.”

Jesse’s son Jaron does most of the showing for the barn. He was second seven years in a row before he won his first blue ribbon in 2019 with Luchador in the Owner-Amateur Weanlings class.

Jerry says the goal everyone is striving for, especially African Americans, is for everything to be equal in the showring.

“We want to be judged on our talent and not the color of our skin,” Jerry said. “And that is getting a lot better.”


Jesse sees life in the ring as “slowly” improving for African American trainers, riders and owners. He sees African American owners of walking horses as an untapped market. He also likes the direction the breed itself is going in terms of quality horses with talent.

“There are a whole lot of Black folks with a whole lot of money who would get in the business if they felt like they would be treated fairly,” Jesse said. “In Mississippi, a lot of Black folks are buying top broodmares and breeding them to former world grand champions.”

Cash In My Stock, the 15.2 & Under World Grand Champion in 2001, got his start at Dotson Brothers Farm in Thompson’s Station, Tennessee. The Dotson Family has owned land in Thompson’s Station since 1889.
In 1983, Jesse received Reserve World Grand Championship Yearling honors guiding Cash Caress for owner Bonnie Cady. 

Jesse’s son, Jesse III, won the 2001 Youth Weanling World Championship. His father points out he was the first African American to own and train a first-place winner in the Celebration. 

Jaron has enjoyed a successful 2022 show season with four different weanlings – I Am Luther James, Mr. Charlie Wilson, Luc Belaire and Miss Sassypants, all winning first place ribbons. I Am Luther James and Mr. Charlie Wilson have two first place ties to their credit.

Jesse predicts one day an African American trainer will win the World Grand Championship. However, it is his goal to win the Weanling World Grand Championship. Jaron was reserve in 2019 with Luchador in the Weanling World Grand Championship.

Aaron has a goal outside of the showring. He would like to see his father become a member of the Hall of Fame.

Jerry has seen his training facility thrive. Plans are underway for an indoor riding barn to be added. But he knows there is so much left to do.

“I have been successful,” Jerry said. “I try to keep positive. I have told my friends in Louisiana and Mississippi to come up here and they can use the stalls in my barn. Sometimes the black trainers, riders and owners feel like they are under the radar.

“As the years go by things are gradually getting better and better. We have to be patient. It would be wonderful to watch the first black trainer win the World Grand Championship.”