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.
- Biography of Tom Bass, Founder of the American Royal Horse Show, by Kimberly R. Riley.
- Biography of George C. Hale, Fire Chief, by Susan Jezak Ford; Hale was a world famous fireman and chief of the Kansas City fire department – also an innovator in firefighting technology, especially with horse harnesses.
View images of the American Royal from the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
Check out the following books about Tom Bass and the American Royal.
- Tom Bass, Black Horseman, by Bill Downey; an excellent biography of Tom Bass.
- From Slave to World Class Horseman: Tom Bass, by J. L. Wilkerson; a biography of Tom Bass targeted to younger readers, contains some fictional quotations.
- The American Royal, 1899-1999, by Heather N. Paxton; a pictorial history of 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.
- Vertical File: Bass, Tom, Ramos Collection
- Missouri Valley Special Collections Postcard Collection Finding Aid, includes postcards from the American Royal Association
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.