Soil Scientist Works to Preserve Early Equine History

Soil Scientist Works to Preserve Early Equine History

Coyne is working to make sure African American equestrians' stories are not forgotten.

Photo: University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment

African Americans played a major role in Kentucky's early equine history as jockeys, trainers, and grooms. A University of Kentucky (UK) soil scientist is working to make sure their stories, and others, are not forgotten.


Coyne is working to make sure African American equestrians' stories are not forgotten.

For the past few years, Mark Coyne, PhD, professor of soil biology in the UK College of Agriculture, has led several efforts to introduce UK students to this rich history while they help maintain and improve Lexington's African Cemetery No. 2.

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 cemetery is the final resting place of at least 80 individuals who were well-known in early Thoroughbred racing circles. Some of the notable horsemen interred there include Oliver Lewis, winning jockey of the first Kentucky Derby; James "Soup" Perkins, the youngest winning jockey of the Kentucky Derby; and Abraham "Abe" Perry, trainer of the 1885 Kentucky, Tennessee, and Coney Island derbies winner. Isaac Murphy, who rode three Kentucky Derby winners, was buried there originally, but his remains are now at the Kentucky Horse Park.

In June Coyne and several UK students finished researching the cemetery's history with the help of the Young Equine Scholars Initiative, a UK Commonwealth Collaborative. Former UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. started Commonwealth Collaboratives in 2006, and the programs use UK's resources to address problems holding back the state's cultural and economic progress.

Through the Young Equine Scholars Initiative, students researched the history of about 80 individuals interred in the cemetery. The information they gathered was placed on signs that now hang throughout the cemetery at some of the notable individuals' gravesites and in three brochures that are available at the cemetery.

"As we've done the research, what we've found is that a lot of these individuals that were involved with the equine industry moved away but came back here to be buried," said Coyne, who is also a member of the cemetery's board of directors.

They also researched the history of the Kentucky Association Racetrack and posted information at the track's former site near William Wells Brown Elementary School in Lexington.

Cemetery board member Yvonne Giles became involved with the cemetery while searching her families' genealogy. Forty-six members of her family are buried there, and she has done extensive genealogical searches on just about every gravestone in the cemetery. She helped teach the students involved with the Young Equine Scholars Initiative about genealogical research.

"We look at (the cemetery) as a modern-day laboratory to find your roots, conduct research, and learn how to maintain a historical site," said Giles, who is a UK food sciences alumna. "If we didn't have cemeteries we wouldn't have much of a history, particularly African American history, because a lot of our heritage is not written down."

As part of the initiative, a student designed a landscape plan to draw interest to the cemetery and improve its physical aesthetics. UK's Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity helped install the cemetery's main bulletin board, which lists historical information and holds brochures.

For the past two years, Coyne also has had a group of students from UK For Unity and Service In Our Neighborhoods (FUSION) volunteer their services. FUSION is a one-day service event in August during which students, faculty, and staff donate three hours of their time doing one of several community service projects. In 2010 FUSION students installed sign posts for historical information and weeded throughout the cemetery. With a grant from the UK Ag and HES Alumni Association, FUSION students this year mulched and weeded around trees and shrubs in the cemetery, per the landscaping plan's design.

Sarah Jones, a junior from Louisville, was this year's FUSION site leader for the students who volunteered their time at the cemetery.

"I wanted to do a project that would allow me to do outside work and get my hands dirty," she said. "The cemetery has so much history and is well maintained but needed a little work. Plus, it is such an important part of this area and Lexington."

The UK Ag and HES Alumni grant will also provide money for tree removal and tree planting at the cemetery that will occur this fall and next spring.

Katie Pratt is an agriculture communications 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