Isaac Murphy’s Story Is a Critical Piece of Bluegrass History

Saturday, September 11, 2010

If the African-American presence at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games and the Kentucky Horse Park is low, it’s not Isaac Murphy’s fault.  The 19th-century superstar who is buried at the entrance of the horse park won 44 percent of all his races and was the first jockey to win three Kentucky Derbies, including a victory in 1891 aboard Kingman, the only horse owned by an African-American to win the Derby.
In a 20-year career cut short by poor health, Murphy, a Central Kentucky native, racked up similar accomplishments at racetracks around the country. Though it might seem unusual today, his presence in the horse racing industry wasn’t uncommon in the early days. It is a well-documented fact that a significant number of trainers, jockeys, hot walkers, stable hands and grooms, before and after the Civil War, were African-American.

In fact, 13 of the 15 jockeys in the first Kentucky Derby were black, and 17 of the first 28 Derbies were won with black jockeys on board. But, a generation later you could barely find one active black jockey. What happened?

There are as many stories explaining the disappearance of blacks from the horse racing industry as there are opinions of the true origin of ornamental black lawn jockeys, but one thing is clear: because of the historical disconnect, few people today acknowledge or expect a relationship between African-Americans and horse racing, and given the history, it’s truly unfortunate.

It’s unfortunate because Murphy’s story is an important American story. His accomplishments are part and parcel of Kentucky lore and history. And we continue to rob our children of part of their rightful inheritance by not telling his story as loudly as we trumpet the accomplishments and legacy of Muhammad Ali.

Isaac Murphy was born Isaac Burns. His mother, America Burns, brought him to Lexington to live with his grandfather, Green Murphy, after his father joined the Union army at Camp Nelson. Located just south of downtown Nicholasville, Camp Nelson was the third-largest training ground for “colored” troops during the Civil War. More than 10,000 black soldiers passed through its gates.

Families of slaves enlisting with the Union were automatically granted manumission, and so many of them followed their husbands and fathers to the camp that the federal government eventually ordered the establishment of barracks, a school and a hospital for families of the enlisted men. One of the important educational tour stops for history fans or Civil War buffs should include a stop at the Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park on U.S. 27.

The first jockey inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame, Murphy was as much admired for his character and high values as for his accomplishments on the oval. He was one of the first riders to master pacing, often winning his races by a head or less after overtaking the leaders in the stretch. Many of these victories were accomplished without using the whip or spurs. Legend has it that Murphy simply “talked to his horses” to get them across the finish line first.

He and his wife, Lucy Murphy, were part of a vibrant black middle class in Lexington and lived a lavish lifestyle in a mansion on what is now Third Street.

Originally laid to rest in a lavish coffin that was modeled after the one Ulysses S. Grant was buried in, he was buried in the nearby African Cemetery No. 2, then exhumed and reburied in Man O’ War Park, then re-exhumed and buried a third and final time at the Kentucky Horse Park across from Man O’ War, perhaps the greatest racehorse in history.

Many see the opportunity for Murphy to reside at the front gates of perhaps the greatest horse event in North America, the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, as an extreme honor while others wonder if being separated from his wife, whose body remains in an unmarked grave back in the African Cemetery, is actually a tragedy.

You decide.

Frank X Walker is an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Kentucky and Editor/Publisher of PLUCK! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture. His book of poetry about Isaac Murphy is being published this month.  Read more: