With Breeders’ Cup coming, black jockey Isaac Murphy gets his due

October 13, 2015

The most celebrated jockey in Lexington this month won’t be riding in Keeneland’s fall meet, or afterward at the Breeders’ Cup.

In fact, he died 119 years ago.

Isaac Burns Murphy, a black Kentuckian who was the most successful jockey in Thoroughbred racing history, will be the focus of a series of free public programs and events Oct. 20-24.


Isaac Murphy. Keeneland Library photo

The celebration begins Tuesday with a lecture at the Lyric Theatre by Pellom McDaniels III, an Emory University professor, former professional football player and author of the 2013 biography The Prince of Jockeys.

The Kentucky Horse Park on Thursday will unveil a newly engraved tombstone for Murphy, who is buried there. Later that afternoon, new interpretive panels will be unveiled at the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden in the East End.

I Dedicate This Ride, former Kentucky poet laureate Frank X Walker’s play about Murphy, will be performed at the Lyric Theatre on Friday and Saturday nights. Also on Saturday, a new memorial will be dedicated at Murphy’s original gravesite at African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.

Each day that week, McDaniels will be speaking at the Lyric to local school groups and showing them an exhibit of photo and text panels about Murphy. The panels will remain on display in the theater’s gallery through Dec. 11.

“Isaac Murphy is a wonderful figure in history, for a lot of reasons,” McDaniels said.

Murphy was born into slavery in Frankfort four days after the Civil War began in 1861. After his father died in Union Army service in 1865, Murphy was raised in Lexington by his mother and grandfather.

Murphy became a jockey at age 14 and rode in the Kentucky Derby 11 times, winning three of them, in 1884, 1890 and 1891. By his calculations, Murphy won 628 of his 1,412 races, a 44 percent victory rate that has never been equaled. In 1955, Murphy was the first jockey to be inducted into the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame. He died of pneumonia in 1896.

McDaniels, 47, is from San Jose, Calif., and played for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons. After retiring from football, he earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in American studies from Emory University in Atlanta, where he is now an associate professor of African American studies.

McDaniels said he discovered Murphy while working on his doctoral dissertation about the role of black athletes in the 20th century, when racism made sports one of the few areas where black men could advance.

In looking at the roots of that phenomenon, he discovered black athletes in the 19th century who were revered by white Americans before the Jim Crow era led to systematic discrimination.

Pellom McDaniels III, an associate professor of African American studies at Emory University and former professional football player, is the author of The Prince of Jockeys, a biography of Lexington native Isaac Burns Murphy. Photo provided

Pellom McDaniels III. Photo provided

The star among them was Murphy, a celebrity described in the white press as an “elegant specimen of manhood.” He was lionized for his good looks, his intellect and his gentlemanly behavior.

“I thought it was very interesting that this man coming out of slavery would be in newspapers being represented as this quintessential man,” McDaniels said.

By the end of Murphy’s career, though, discrimination was marginalizing accomplished blacks who had made gains during Reconstruction, including athletes.

Previous biographers speculated that Murphy’s polish came from his association with whites in the horse industry. But McDaniels thinks a more likely explanation was Lexington’s black community, which was quite advanced for that time.

“The community was thriving,” he said. “There were businesses and very well-educated people there, lawyers and doctors.”

McDaniels thinks Murphy’s life story is a great teaching opportunity, especially for young people.

“Sports history is an opportunity to teach, especially young men, about these different nuances of social and economic and racial history,” he said

Murphy was a professional athlete who knew how to handle success with grace and responsibility — something rare now as it was then. His success brought fortune as well as fame, and Murphy and his wife, Lucy, lived in a Third Street mansion about where the Isaac Memorial Art Garden is now.

“He and Lucy had plenty of opportunities to leave Lexington and go to California and New York and Chicago, but he kept coming back home,” McDaniels said. “I think he came home because the people in Lexington knew him. They were his family and they helped him maintain his rootedness.”

East, west ends show promise of downtown

November 29, 2009

There’s more energy in two long-neglected corners of downtown Lexington than there has been in decades, and Monday night will be a good chance to glimpse some of it.

The East End Holiday Celebration is from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Isaac Murphy Park on the corner of East Third Street and Midland Avenue. Everyone is welcome to help decorate a community Christmas tree and enjoy hot cider, hot chocolate and caroling.

That same evening, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the opposite side of downtown, supporters of the Lexington Distillery District are gathering at Buster’s, a popular nightclub in a recently restored 140-year-old bourbon warehouse that is part of the district along Manchester Street.

The economic downturn has forced the Urban County Council to whittle down its list of bonded capital projects to avoid hurting the city’s credit rating. The cutting will commence Dec. 3 at 4 p.m. at the Budget and Finance Committee meeting in City Hall.

Monday’s gathering at Buster’s is part of a grass-roots effort to urge council members not to cut $3.2 million allocated for initial infrastructure improvements in the Distillery District. The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation and other community groups last week launched an e-mail and petition campaign.

Although most council members have voiced support for the Distillery District, tough choices must be made. It is competing with about $61 million in other capital bonding requests, such as street-resurfacing projects and maintenance items for city buildings.

Barry McNees, the Distillery District’s lead developer, has made a compelling case for city investment, which would be used for street and sidewalk improvements and work on the Town Branch Trail through the area.

McNees said the timing of council support is critical. That’s because a former vice president of one of Kentucky’s major distillers has formed a new company that wants to invest about $11 million initially and perhaps $25 million eventually in a boutique distillery, bottling plant and restaurant in part of the long-abandoned Pepper Distillery complex.

Before the company commits to the investment, it wants to make sure the city will provide the public infrastructure needed to support it, McNees said. Because much of that area was largely abandoned for decades, it lacks modern infrastructure.

The distillery’s initial investment, combined with $11 million in other private money already invested in the development, would qualify the Distillery District for state-approved tax-increment financing. That means tax revenues generated from new development in the area would repay the city for up to $45.8 million in infrastructure improvements.

Several council members I talked with last week said they think the Distillery District is a smart investment for creating new jobs and tax revenues and rehabilitating a shabby part of town.

“Once we can start investing in the public part — curbs, gutters, burying utility lines, etc. — the businesses will follow more quickly,” Council member Linda Gorton said. “And then the revenues will come in.”

Like the Distillery District, the East End is coming back to life after decades of decline. If you haven’t driven around there lately, come down to the Christmas tree lighting and take a tour; you won’t recognize the place.

New housing developments are nearing completion, the Lyric Theatre is being restored, and an art garden is planned for Isaac Murphy Park, which will soon be the end of the 9-mile Legacy Trail to the Kentucky Horse Park.

Monday night’s holiday event is being sponsored by the city, the Blue Grass Community Foundation’s Legacy Center, the Isaac Murphy Art Garden board, the Living Arts and Science Center and the William Wells Brown and Martin Luther King neighborhood associations.

The East End and Distillery District are dramatic bookends for the revitalization that downtown Lexington has been experiencing for several years, and Vice Mayor Jim Gray sees a pattern.

Both are projects that focus first on improving the economy and quality of life for Lexington residents; attracting visitors is a secondary goal. And both are authentic reflections of Lexington’s history and culture — the rich African-American heritage of the East End and the bourbon-making legacy of the Distillery District.

“They’re both recognizing the value and inspiration of history,” Gray said. “But they’re not being stuck in history; they’re building on it and moving us forward.”

Leadership Lexington marks 30 years

April 21, 2009

When I moved back to Lexington in 1998 after 22 years of living elsewhere, I realized how much had changed — and how much I never knew about the city where I was born and raised.

So I applied to become a member of the Leadership Lexington class of 2000. The program, sponsored by Commerce Lexington, is marking its 30th year and has begun taking applications for the 2009 class.

I learned a lot in Leadership Lexington, and I’m not the only one.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” said Kevin Stinnett, another Lexington native who left town only long enough to attend Centre College in Danville.

Stinnett was in Leadership Lexington the year after I was, and it helped inspire him to run for the Urban County Council. He’s now in his third term representing the 6th District.

“It has been one of the most valuable things I’ve done in terms of networking and building lasting friendships,” Stinnett said. “It helps individuals to get out of their comfort zones and appreciate all of the things going on in our community.”

Mahendran Naidu, a member of Leadership Lexington’s 2002 class, had a similar experience. Unlike us local boys, though, Naidu was born and raised in India.

The software engineer lived in a half-dozen major cities around the world — from Chicago and San Francisco to Taipei and Singapore — before conducting a search for the perfect American “small town” in which to settle down and raise a family. That search led him and his wife to Lexington in 1998.

“Leadership Lexington was awesome,” said Naidu, who owns Techdomain, Inc., a technology services company. He was inspired by his Leadership Lexington experience to start Educare, a non-profit organization that helps the Fayette County Public Schools teach students life skills.

More than 1,000 people have gone through Leadership Lexington in the past three decades, including many public officials and top executives in local companies, non-profit organizations and law firms.

Here’s the way Leadership Lexington works: A steering committee of 20 graduates reviews applications and selects a class of about 40 people. (I’m in my second term on the steering committee.)

After an orientation retreat in August, the class meets one day each month for the next nine months. Each day focuses on a different aspect of Lexington: media, growth and preservation, government, education, diversity, health and human services, public safety, arts and quality of life and economics and workforce development.

On each of those days, the class travels to various locations around town and meets with leaders in that field. Then, on graduation day in June, class members discuss leadership development and how they plan to put their experience to use in the community.

“You have very good speakers who educate you about what’s going on, and about the problems of the community and what needs to be done,” Naidu said.

Since 2002, each Leadership Lexington class has organized and executed a community service project. One of those was to create the Leadership Lexington Youth Program, which provides a similar experience for local high school students.

Another service project was to help the East End neighborhood launch the effort to build the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden to memorialize the famous African American jockey and help revitalize the neighborhood. That project has since been taken up by the Bluegrass Community Foundation’s Legacy Center.

“It’s almost like a mini-MBA program,” Naidu said of Leadership Lexington. “Every year, I forward the applications to my friends and strongly urge them to apply.”

For more information, go to www.leadershiplexington.com, or call Linda Stampf, Commerce Lexington’s vice president for leadership development, at (859) 226-1610.

Isaac Murphy event

Speaking of the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden, there will be a community event at the location, Third Street at Midland Avenue, Thursday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. to raise public awareness of the project.

Chris McCarron, the famous jockey and founder of Lexington’s North American Racing Academy, will be at the free family-oriented event, which also will include food, music and children’s activities.