A completely dominant athlete, without advantages of wealth and in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, is rare indeed in the history of American sports. African-American jockey Isaac Murphy’s achievements in the middle of the Jim Crow era are even more remarkable. Murphy, born in 1861, won 44 percent of his races and three of the nine Kentucky Derbys in which he had mounts—winning on Buchanan in 1884, Riley in 1890, and Kingman in 1891—compared with the 20 percent winning rate of legendary jockey Eddie Arcaro, the rider of five Derby winners.
In 1892, the year after Murphy won his last Derby, the Kentucky legislature segregated the Commonwealth’s railroad cars. Soon, city parks in Henderson, Lexington and Louisville were segregated; swimming pools, tennis courts and baseball fields followed. According to historian and author Marion B. Lucas, African Americans rode 14 of the 15 horses in the first Kentucky Derby in 1875. And African Americans had ridden 15 of the first 28 winners of the Derby, including Murphy’s three victories. As Dr. James C. Klotter, professor at Georgetown College and the state historian, wrote in A New History of Kentucky, however, “after 1911 the race became an all-white affair.” The exploits of Murphy were all but forgotten.
In 1896, only five years after Murphy’s last Derby win, the United States Supreme Court placed its official stamp of approval on Jim Crow with the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. The court ruled in what became known as the “separate but equal” principle that as long as facilities for blacks were equal in quality, such facilities—transportation, hotels, water fountains, restaurants, libraries, funeral parlors and racetracks—should remain separate. Of course, in practice, the things remained separate, but rarely if ever were equal in quality. Teachers’ salaries were not equal and funding for black and white schools was not equal—to note just a couple of examples. Only Louisvillian John Marshall Harlan gave a dissenting vote in the case, offering in his opinion that segregation was wrong, that “the Constitution is color-blind.”
In the years before the court’s decision, however, Isaac Murphy had no peer on the track. Winning on his first mount at 14, Murphy learned quickly. On some cards, he rode winners in every race. Murphy rode at Saratoga Race Course in New York, Latonia in northern Kentucky, Washington Park in Chicago and Louisville’s Churchill Downs, where it was not unusual for segregated African Americans to be harassed in the grandstands.
William Duane Kenney wrote in The Encyclopedia of Louisville: “Murphy’s
brilliance dispelled the lingering notion that a jockey’s skill counted for little compared with the horse’s talent.” Murphy’s “control of pace was unmatched,” Kenney continued. When Murphy retired from riding to become a trainer, his record stood at 628 wins in 1,412 races.
Murphy died of pneumonia on Feb. 12, 1896, ironically in the year of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. But he already had experienced segregation first hand, and he had the courage, the talent and the strength to overcome it. In 1955, Murphy was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and in 1977, racing officials reinterred his body at the Kentucky Horse Park in Fayette County.
For more on Murphy, see William Duane Kenney’s “Isaac Burns Murphy” in The Encyclopedia of Louisville (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001) and Marion B. Lucas’s “Isaac Burns Murphy” in The Kentucky Encyclopedia (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1992), both edited by John E. Kleber.
— James Duane Bolin