Finally, after many months and years of fundraising, the Isaac Burns Murphy Memorial Art Garden has broken ground on the East End of Lexington, KY. The Memorial Garden, long-planned as the downtown trailhead of the Legacy Trail which will extend some 12 miles to the Kentucky Horse Park, celebrates the achievements of jockey Isaac Burns Murphy as well as other African American contributions to the Thoroughbred industry. Located at the intersection of Third Street and Midland Avenue, where Murphy’s house once stood during the late 1800s, it is also only a few blocks away from where the Kentucky Association Race Track operated prior to the construction of Keeneland.
Isaac Burns Murphy (1861–1896) was one of the most dynamic jockeys of his era. Still considered one of the finest riders of all time, Murphy was the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times, and his 44 percent win record remains unmatched. Despite his success, Murphy was pushed out of Thoroughbred racing when African American jockeys were forced off the track, and he died in obscurity.
In his book, The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy, Pellom McDaniels honors a man who epitomized the rise of the black middle class. Murphy helped prove that African Americans were not only worthy of citizenship, but capable of representing the best of humanity.
Continue for an excerpt from The Prince of Jockeys
from the epilogue:
Putting a life into perspective in a way that is not only meaningful but also revealing of the choices and decisions made in the context of events, intended or otherwise, can be a difficult proposition. This is especially true when there are no personal papers or archives to consult. In this case, gathering the threads, shards, and jagged pieces of a life can be a painstaking task. Biography involves the exploration and clarification of the past in ways that may not fit traditional means of writing historical narratives. Revealing the world into which a person is born, lives, and eventually dies requires an interdisciplinary approach that utilizes various sources and analytical methods to draw conclusions. Invariably, the intent is to explore and understand the multitude of factors responsible for shaping the individual the biographer has deemed captivating and worthy of a commitment of time, resources, and energy. The biographer’s mandate is to leave little doubt in the minds of readers.
The life of Isaac Burns Murphy followed the contours of American history. He was born during slavery and died at the beginning of Jim Crow segregation, one of the many crossroads in America’s social, economic, and political development. He was raised in a community that took seriously the promises of the Declaration of Independence, and Isaac’s achievements were a testament to black Lexington’s commitment to its future, as demonstrated by its commitment to its children. Through the efforts of teachers, ministers, and common folk, Isaac understood that his own achievement was a sign of the community’s progress and advancement. Isaac knew that he represented the people he came from, and he honored his past by remaining a part of the Lexington community.
Lucy Murphy became an example of black womanhood that challenged many popular notions of who could claim to be a “lady.” Educated, beautiful, and a key component of Isaac’s success, Lucy helped shape the man who would be identified as an elegant specimen of manhood. Both Isaac and Lucy were instrumental in elevating the black professional jockey to an occupation that was considered the equal of a doctor or lawyer. It is clear that they had a great impact on both their friends and outside observers who viewed Murphy as the quintessential jockey whose legendary status grew with every victory, every quote published, and every dignified likeness produced for public consumption.
After the death of her husband, Lucy still had her sister Susan and Lexington’s black community for support. However, nothing could minimize the loss of her beloved Isaac. For a long time, she kept flowers on his grave. Records show that Lucy continued to live at the Third Street home until around 1903, when she sold the property and moved with Susan to 347 North Limestone Street. Lucy apparently exhausted her savings and the money left to her in Isaac’s will,1 because at some point she began to work as a housekeeper in Lexington to support herself. On February 24, 1910, Lucy died of pneumonia at her home, shortly after the fourteenth anniversary of her husband’s death. The lone photograph of Lucy is in the T. T. Wendell Collection at the Kentucky Historical Society. She was beautiful.
More than 100 years after Isaac’s death, there is growing interest in the history of black jockeys and their impact on the sport of kings. Previously, depictions of black jockeys were limited to lawn statues, the caricatures used in advertisements for horse liniments, and the Sambo-like figures in the lithographs made popular by Currier and Ives. Clearly, these did not reflect the contributions of black jockeys to the greatness of the sport. Unfortunately for African Americans, the emphasis has not been on the totality of a life lived during the tumultuous period between the Civil War and the end of the nineteenth century, or on the achievements in all things among that first generation born at the end of slavery. For most, the success of black jockeys in the nineteenth century is seen as some form of racial superiority connected to their athleticism. The history of black jockeys is not understood as an extension of the institution of slavery, which evolved into a critical example of agency in the context of horse racing during Reconstruction and the decade that followed.
Initially, horse racing was primarily a leisure activity of the wealthy, upper-class elite, and participation as a horse owner required a certain birthright. For a brief time, black jockeys were lionized as “artists of the pigskin” and “heroes of the turf,” but then their significance dissolved into nothingness. Yet it always surprises me when people say with disbelief, “There were black jockeys?” The history of horse racing is directly linked to the South and gentlemen farmers, so I often respond by pointing out that someone had to clear the land, cultivate the fields, and raise the crops; someone had to build the barns and fences to maintain the livestock; and someone had to care for those animals, which required early-morning feedings as well as the grooming and training of horses. Presidents George Washington and Andrew Jackson and some of the wealthiest men in America had horses on their estates, and a majority of them owned slaves. Without a doubt, enslaved African Americans were responsible for taking care of these animals, so it was natural that they developed into outstanding jockeys. They were always there, in the background and foreground, both directly and indirectly, maintaining the fa.ade of white supremacy.
Isaac Murphy’s rise as the premier jockey of his day coincided with the many opportunities that opened up for blacks in the postbellum period, especially during Reconstruction. The fact that he was able to read and write from an early age, gain access to the wealthiest Americans (who paid him well for his services), and use his purchasing power as a capitalist made him a model for resistance to popular notions of black inferiority. He was a modern black man who would defend his integrity when challenged, using his words not only sparingly but also strategically. If the notion of black manhood was stained by past ideas related to polygenesis or a religious understanding of who had been made to serve whom, his success and public civility contributed to the unraveling of racist ideas with an eloquence that was both disarming and maddening to rabid white supremacists.
Murphy’s example of what African Americans could achieve when competing on a level playing field became the focus of black leaders such as T. Thomas Fortune, who recognized that public spectacles like horse racing could provide metaphors for American race relations. For Fortune, the question of identity was not that much of a concern for blacks, who were in the process of developing a new sense of themselves as first-class citizens through their striving and development; in contrast, whites’ ideas about civilization and their place in it were unraveling quickly because most whites believed the myth of black inferiority. The public success of black men and women caused whites to question who they were, how these changes in society would shape their futures, and, ultimately, what they could do to make it stop.
The realization that blacks could rise above their previous station based on their pursuit of education, gainful employment, and power as consumers undermined whites’ sense of racial superiority. In the spring of 1896, three months after Isaac’s death, the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson heralded the beginning of Jim Crow segregation. The “separate but equal” policy adopted by the U.S. government unleashed hell on earth for African Americans, who became the focus of retribution by whites jealous of their success. Subjected to public humiliation, harassment, and even lynching, African Americans were forced to fight back, leave their homes, or learn to negotiate the changing times using the skills honed during slavery.
Murphy’s death also marked the demise of the black jockey in American horse racing. By the end of the century, only a handful of quality black jockeys could be found on American racetracks. Great riders like Anthony Hamilton (1866–1904), Willie Simms (1870–1927), and Jimmy Winkfield (1882–1974), the last black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby, were shut out by a system that favored white jockeys and wanted to rid the tracks of black competition. Eventually, all three would leave the United States to race in Europe.
In 1895 Simms became the first American jockey to win a race at Newmarket in England, riding an American Thoroughbred named Eau Gallie. Simms’s style of riding on the neck of his horse was ridiculed by the English elite, until he won the Crawford Plate at Newmarket.2 His success helped change how the English thought about horse racing and jockeyship. In 1901 Simms traveled to France and raced at the Jockey Club in Paris. After retiring, Simms made a name for himself as a capable trainer, using his expertise to teach young riders about jockeyship. He later developed an interest in steeplechase racing and helped shape the sport with his style of riding. Simms would die in 1927, outliving Murphy by nearly thirty years.
The same year Murphy died, his close friend Anthony Hamilton became the focus of a scheme to purge horse racing of its most visible and successful black riders. Accused of pulling a horse at Brighton Beach on July 23, 1896, Hamilton was suspended and brought before Jockey Club officials. After a meeting with the stewards, who questioned him about his “peculiar rides on Hornpipe,” he was allowed to return to racing.3 Despite the stewards’ findings and the lack of evidence that Hamilton had done anything wrong, like Murphy, he too became the focus of racial taunts and slurs. On the track, white jockeys colluded to keep him from winning major races by boxing him in, which would eventually limit the number of mounts he was offered and the amount of money he could make. Like Simms, Hamilton would eventually leave America for Europe. In 1901 he was contracted to ride for J. Metcalf, who owned one of the most important stables in Austria-Hungary. Later that year Hamilton applied for a passport to St. Petersburg, Russia, where he would race Russian-bred horses for wealthy breeders in Warsaw. Hamilton’s success in Europe would end with his untimely death in Italy in 1904.
Following the death of Hamilton, Jimmy Winkfield also left the United States for Europe, where he earned a living racing horses for wealthy owners in Russia and Austria-Hungary. With backtoback Kentucky Derby victories (1901 and 1902), Winkfield had been one of the top jockeys in the United States, but like Hamilton, he chose to leave because of the hostile environment. European jockeying paid well, and it was attracting talent from several countries. In the “Land of the Czars,” Winkfield became the premier jockey for General Michael Lazareu, whose wealth and love of horses made the duo a lethal combination on Russian tracks, especially in the Warsaw Derby. Over a ten-year period, Winkfield would earn hundreds of thousands of dollars, marry interracially, move to France, and live like no other American jockey could have imagined. Winkfield was the last of the great black jockeys, and with his death in 1974, the era came to a close. The memories associated with them also began to fade into obscurity.
In 1955, the year Isaac Murphy became the first black jockey inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga, New York, controversy erupted over where he had been buried. The Lexington Herald carried the erroneous wire story from Mobile, Alabama:
There are perhaps still a few around who recall the tragic death some 58 years ago in a spill at the old Lexington track where some 15 horses trampled him [Isaac Murphy] to death. But even fewer probably recall that his body was shipped to Mobile, Alabama, and buried in a white cemetery. It was the wish of Willie Cottrill, owner of Buchanan, Murphy’s first Derby winner, that the jockey be buried in the family plot. The owner and breeder, one of the wealthy men of his time, died before Murphy, but his wish was carried out. A head marker once designated the jockey’s grave, but it has long since disappeared.
Clearly, the paternalistic tone of this editorial harks back to a time when white men could lay claim to black bodies as property, in life and in death. Joe Thomas, a reporter for the Lexington Herald, wrote a the response that would begin the search for Isaac Murphy. “Faux pas,” Thomas began his June 28, 1955, column:
Isaac Murphy was not killed in a spill at the old Lexington track. He is buried in Lexington and it was very unlikely that his body was ever sent to Mobile, Alabama, for internment in the family plot of Willie Cottrill, owner of Buchanan, Murphy’s first Kentucky Derby winner.
This department apparently was the victim of some Alabama folklore, which is now taken for fact. The source of the information in Sunday’s Turf Topics was a Mobile newspaper.
Actually, the great Negro rider died in his bed of pneumonia February 12, 1896. He had last ridden at the previous fall at the local track and had won on his last mount. Obituary accounts written at the time make no mention of his burial anywhere but Lexington.
Thomas’s column would motivate newspaperman Frank Borries (1914–1968) to look for Murphy’s grave and validate the Hall of Fame jockey’s final resting place.
Unfortunately, by 1955, African Cemetery Number 2 had been neglected for decades. Overgrown “weeds, briers and brambles” consumed the sacred space and covered the overturned grave markers and headstones. With the help of Gene Webster (the son of Richard Webster, a contemporary of Murphy’s), Borries located the burial site of the great jockey from Lexington.6 All that remained was a four-foot-tall concrete marker, erected in 1909 by a group of men from the community who wanted to honor Murphy’s memory. The discovery of the whereabouts of Murphy’s grave led to a controversial attempt to honor his memory.
In January 1967 the vice president of the Kentucky Club Tobacco Company, Stuart F. Bloch, saw an opportunity to both gain publicity for his company and honor the memory of Isaac Burns Murphy. The idea was for the tobacco company to create a monument to Murphy and rebury him at Man o’ War Park in Lexington, Kentucky. By May, a committee had been formed that included Judge Joe Johnson, Mayor Fred Fugazzi, and Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro as acting chairman. Apparently, no one discussed the proposal with Lexington’s African American community, which would be losing one of its symbols of achievement and success. In addition, this plan would take Isaac away from, Lucy, who had been buried next to him, and separate him from the generations of African Americans buried in the sacred space. Rather than taking Murphy from his community and using his likeness as a commodity, a better course of action would have been to clean up the cemetery and provide funding for its maintenance, but that would have involved a public acknowledgment of past wrongs.
In the years following, Frank Borries began research for a biography on Murphy. Although he was unable to complete it, the project was taken up by his wife, Betty (1915–2006). Her Isaac Murphy: Kentucky’s Record Jockey (1988) was the first to offer a glimpse of the man who was considered one of the most important jockeys in American horse racing. In subsequent years, sports historians have recognized Murphy’s significance as a jockey, but few have depicted him as a man who knew his place in the world. Few have attempted to understand the rootedness provided by African American communities and the sense of agency instilled in their children. The legacy of Isaac Burns Murphy is one of complex origins, a sense of purpose, and an extraordinary degree of intelligence. Lexington, Kentucky, is fortunate to have him as a model of the best kind of nobility: humble, dignified, human.