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Recognizing Buried History in African American Cemetery # 2

Sign with names of African American horsemen listed
Lexington's African American Cemetery No. 2 would have been an obscured and overgrown park if it hadn't been for dedicated researchers who have verified and recognized the remarkable individuals laid to rest here.

The board of the African American Cemetery No. 2 has summarized the story of care, hard work, and community support that is bringing new life to the cemetery grounds. We thank them for submitting this guest blog post.

Post date: June 14, 2019

Research on African Americans in the horse racing industry associated with African Cemetery No. 2 in Lexington, Kentucky 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, collecting occupational information associated with the racing industry -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.

An unidentified horseman's headstone engraved with a horseshoe

An unidentified horseman's headstone engraved with a horseshoe.

Butler confirmed the burials 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 “Soup” 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 far-fetched. Many have a difficult time imaging 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, and 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 video 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 Isaac and Lucy Murphy.

Cemetery visitors can now find a bench and signage recognizing Isaac Murphy.

Cemetery visitors can now find a bench and signage recognizing Isaac Murphy.


The verification continues for men of the racing industry buried in the cemetery through 1940. Data from death certificates, obituaries, census and articles and 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 nineteen jockeys/race riders, twenty-six trainers, thirteen grooms, forty hostlers, forty-three horsemen, two foremen, three exercisers, and five stable hands interred in African Cemetery No. 2, Lexington. It is certainly coincidental, but appropriate, that the number adds to 151; the cemetery will observe its 150th year of existence in 2020.

We have another year before the observance to document other men involved in the racing industry. Butler’s quest has now stretched into the lifetime of others. New information discovered will be posted on the cemetery’s website as well as shared with the Chronicle of African Americans in the Horse Industry.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Institute of Museum and Library Services