UK Features Projects on African-Americans in Kentucky's Equine History

Lexington played a significant role in the early history of horse racing and the equine industry, but few people are aware of the African-American jockeys, trainers, grooms, and handlers who helped shape the Bluegrass' horse heritage.

Mark Coyne, PhD, professor of soil biology in the UK College of Agriculture, and David Melanson, in the UK Office of University Relations, are working to bring this long-forgotten history to light through two community-based projects in Lexington's East End.

Through the Young Equestrian Scholars Initiative and the UK Commonwealth Collaborative project, which began in April and will run through June 2011, Coyne hopes to raise public awareness of the historical importance of the individuals buried at Lexington's African Cemetery No. 2. The Commonwealth Collaborative project partners UK researchers with representatives from all sectors of a community, including industry, government, education, and health care, to offer solutions to problems that have long plagued the state and stymied economic and cultural progress.

Located on East Seventh Street, the cemetery was built in 1869 by former slaves who were members of the Union Benevolent Society No. 2. This site is the final resting place of at least 80 known African-Americans who held a prominent place in the early years of Thoroughbred racing. Some of the notable individuals include Oliver Lewis, winning jockey of the first Kentucky Derby; James "Soup" Perkins, who is tied as the youngest winning jockey of the Kentucky Derby; and Abraham "Abe" Perry, trainer of the winner of the 1885 Kentucky, Tennessee, and Coney Island derbies. Isaac Murphy, who rode three Kentucky Derby winners and holds the all-time highest winning percentage of any jockey, was originally buried there. His remains are now located at the Kentucky Horse Park.

"For some, we know exactly what they did. For some, we know exactly where they are buried, but for many, we have no existing markers," said Coyne, who became involved with the community group that maintains the cemetery in the 1990s and now serves on its board of directors. "So we're trying to bring that whole story to light with this project."

During UK Fusion, a one-day service event in August, UK student volunteers spruced up the cemetery and installed markers at gravesites of known individuals in the equestrian industry.

During the school year, UK students will mentor K-12 students as they gather information from historical documents on these individuals. This information will be placed on the grave markers to contribute to an eventual self-guided walking tour through the cemetery. Some students might choose to display their findings in other ways such as artwork or public presentations.

"The more we do to bring those stories to light, the better reflection on Lexington, the better reflection on this community in Lexington, of the significance that we've had on a national basis for both the equine industry and history in general," Coyne said.

While the project begins with individuals in the equine industry, it doesn't end there. Coyne hopes the students also are able to find information about some of the other historically important African-Americans buried at the cemetery, including Civil War veterans, buffalo soldiers, and civil rights pioneers.

Some markers are already in place, and cemetery brochures are available at UK and the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau for those who want to learn more and tour the cemetery.

UK also has been involved in building a new park to recognize Murphy and other African-American members of Kentucky's famed equine industry. The Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden is being constructed in Lexington's East End neighborhood, where Murphy lived and raced.

"We are excited that the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden will help us share the powerful and important story of this great neighborhood," Melanson said. "African-American jockeys and African-American horse people helped make Kentucky the horse capital of the world, and the park will allow us to tell that story to a global audience."

Katie Pratt is an agriculture communication specialist at the University of Kentucky.

Want more articles like this? Sign up for the Bluegrass Equine Digest e-Newsletter.

More information on Gluck Equine Research Center and UK's Equine Initiative.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More