Lexington’s African American Horsemen: Findings and Recognition
Updated: Jul 30, 2021
Research on African Americans in the horse racing industry buried in African Cemetery No. 2, Lexington has been a decades-long endeavor.
Dr. Anne Butler, board member of African Cemetery No.2, Inc, from 1995 to 2013, pursued a quest for African American men who were crucial to the development and continuance of racing, a multi-million-dollar industry in Kentucky, to the end of a lifetime. She recorded data from death certificates dated 1894 through the 1930s, colleting occupation information – jockey, race rider, trainer, groom, hostler, stable hand or just plain ‘horseman’. Prior to her death she had identified eighty-seven names of those employed, some of whom were involved with trotting horses.
Butler confirmed the burial of Oliver Lewis, first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby (1875), James “Soup” Perkins, second youngest to win a Kentucky Derby (1895) and Tommie Britton whose early career as a jockey was very promising.
In 2010 the cemetery board created the Y.E.S. program (Young Equestrian Scholars) to expand its research effort. University students from several disciplines were awarded stipends through a
Community Collaborative Grant from the University of Kentucky. Their work resulted in printed brochures about jockeys James Perkins and Tommie Britton, thoroughbred trainer June Collins and trotter trainer Nelson Cleveland. Another student added biographical data – birth date, parents, etc. – for those identified in our database.
Marisa Williams aptly summarized the thoughts and feelings of the students as they worked on this project.
“In current times, the idea of African Americans being involved in the equine industry is very farfetched. Many have a difficult time imagining that Blacks were essentially responsible in catapulting the sport to become the phenomenon it is today. The extraordinary lives of these amazing athletes are slowly being uncovered and reveal astonishing information.”
The Community Collaborative Grant supported placing archive panels in the cemetery. They describe duties and responsibilities of horsemen and identify the grave sites of jockeys Oliver Lewis, Tommie Britton, Joseph Scott; trainer of trotters Matt Clarke, groom Octie Keys; hostler Daniel Hart; trainers and jockey of the Perkins family and farriers. A professional brochure and a DVD – Eight Acres of History, produced by the Lexington Public Library, were also funded through the grant. The DVD can be viewed on YouTube.
In 2015, Bill Cooke (former director of the International Museum of the Horse) supported the board’s continuing recognition of African Americans in Horse racing. Archive panels were installed for Thoroughbred trainer Abraham Perry, jockey Cassius Clay Tankersly and a memorial bench and signage at the original grave site of jockey Isaac and Lucy Murphy.
The verification continues for men of the racing industry buried in the cemetery through 1940. Data from death certificates, obituaries, census and articles/notes in trade journals and newspapers have been invaluable sources. Most men employed in the industry came from northern, central, and western Kentucky counties, others from Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, and Tennessee. To date there are one hundred fifty-nine men who had been employed in the racing industry. To view the list, click on ‘Horsemen’. Some of the men from our database were profiled on the Chronicle of African Americans in the Horse Industry, International Museum of the Horse website.
Some of the men from our database were profiled on the Chronicle of African Americans in the Horse Industry, International Museum of the Horse website.