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The Forgotten History Of African-American Jockeys



That bugle marks the running of the 142nd Kentucky Derby today. The Derby brings up images of ladies in fancy hats and men in seersucker suits - mint juleps of course. But today we want to talk about some Derby history that you may not know much about. It's about the jockeys. While you will not be seeing any African-American jockeys at the Derby today, it was not always that way. In fact, black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 Derbies. Why? Because the first black jockeys had been born into slavery or grew up as children of slaves tasked with caring for the horses on plantations and farms.

That's an interesting bit of derby history that we learned from Pellom McDaniels, who's the author of a biography of Isaac Burns Murphy, a legendary black jockey, at least during the late 1800s, whose story has largely been lost over the years. Pellom McDaniels is a professor of African-American studies at Emory University in Atlanta, and we reached him there. Professor McDaniels, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

PELLOM MCDANIELS: Oh, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I read that at the very first Kentucky Derby in 1875, 13 of the 15 jockeys were black. How did all that happen?

MCDANIELS: You know, blacks were part of the farms that raised these horses. They were responsible for caring for them, they trained them and of course they rode them. And so to have that first Kentucky Derby in 1875 have this great representation of black jockeys wouldn't have been uncommon. It was a fact.

MARTIN: So tell me about Isaac Burns Murphy. He's the subject of your book "The Prince Of Jockeys."

MCDANIELS: Well, Isaac Murphy was born 1861, so right at the beginning of the Civil War. And he came to prominence as a jockey right during the 1880s. His mother was sick with tuberculosis, and so she decided to apprentice him off. And he had to learn how to ride or he was going to be orphaned and have to figure out something new for his life. And he took to it like a birds to the wind.

MARTIN: I understand that he was the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times. And his win record - 44 percent - is unmatched. His success kind of paved the way for the black middle class in a way and ended up changing the role of jockeys. Can you talk a little bit about that?

MCDANIELS: He made he made it a profession. He was able to command a salary - rather a few contracts making on average of $10,000 a year, which would be equal to about 350 to $400,000 in today's terms. So what he was able to do was spend his money on items that made him a consumer. So he had a shotgun collection. He and his wife owned property in Chicago. They were able to take these vacations in this off-season that allowed him to spend his money and spend time with family.

MARTIN: So how was it then that he wound up being buried, as I understand it, in an unmarked grave? What happened?

MCDANIELS: Well, at the end of his life, his career began to unravel. When you get into the 1890s, 1893, black jockeys are starting to be excluded in races in New York. And so Murphy because of the contracts he's able to command, these white jockeys are jealous of him. And so they box him in or they provide false information that he has the potential to pull a horse in a very important race. And the owners start to really exclude him from having the opportunities he once had.

MARTIN: So he started being excluded because of professional jealousy.


MARTIN: Did that have an effect on the opportunities for other black jockeys as well?

MCDANIELS: All black jockeys then had this problem because you had this collusion between the owners of the thoroughbreds and white jockeys and white trainers to exclude black jockeys so that they wouldn't benefit financially nor...

MARTIN: And that was just racism. It was that they basically had a worldview that black people shouldn't have that. Is that what you're saying?

MCDANIELS: If black people are supposed to be inherently inferior, to have someone who demonstrates success in material terms unravels this idea and therefore those whites during this time period who believe themselves to be inherently superior, something's broken in their psyches. And Murphy represents that kind of attack on white supremacy.

MARTIN: So what happened is, what, they started shutting black jockeys out?

MCDANIELS: Yeah, physically they started boxing them in, basically knocking them off their horses where a jockey would be trampled and killed.

MARTIN: Oh, so you mean literally boxing people out...


MARTIN: ...To the point they could be hurt.


MARTIN: Do you mind if I mention that before you were a professor, you were a professional athlete yourself? You were a defensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs and the Atlanta Falcons. And I was wondering if there was anything that resonated with you about Isaac Burns Murphy's story in your own life as a professional athlete.

MCDANIELS: Well, his story - I think it's important for African-American athletes, especially because this notion that because of our blackness or due to our blackness we're naturally athletically gifted. And here's a story of someone who had to pursue his craft as a jockey out of necessity, and he had to work at it. It was not something that was a given. It wasn't that he was commanding these horses to do phenomenal things. He understood what the horses' capacity was and took advantage of that.

MARTIN: Pellom McDaniels is a professor at Emory University. He's the author of "The Prince Of Jockeys: The Life Of Isaac Burns Murphy." Professor McDaniels, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MCDANIELS: Oh, thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.