Recipient of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2018 “Community Preservation Award.”
IT ALL STARTED WITH A BOOK
When Emory University professor Pellom McDaniels came to Lexington in 2015 to lecture at Keeneland library and promote his new book Prince of Jockeys, the Life of Isaac Burns Murphy, he unknowingly set in motion a series of conversations that culminated with the creation of a grassroots advocacy group called Phoenix Rising Lex.
While Prince of Jockeys is a detailed accounting of the life of Isaac Murphy growing into manhood in post-Civil War Lexington, and going on to become the best known athlete in America,it also discusses the many black jockeys and trainers from the late 19th century, the majority of whom were from the Bluegrass, who went on to fame. This raised a recurring question: What about all the other Black jockeys and horsemen whose stories had never been told? Aren’t they also deserving of recognition?
Enter Phoenix Rising Lex, a group of like-minded citizens who felt that successful Black horsemen have not gotten the credit they deserved. Phoenix Rising Lex formed with the simple mission to uncover the stories of Kentucky’s Black horsemen and make those stories known and accessible. In its three years of existence, Phoenix Rising Lex has hosted numerous events where Black horsemen, living and dead, have been celebrated.
For instance, in 2017, when the equine world celebrated the 100th birthday of the legendary Man o’ War, focusing largely on his remarkable racing career, Phoenix Rising Lex decided to honor two of Man o’ War’s African American grooms, Will Harbut and Cunningham Graves. As part of its celebration, Phoenix Rising Lex re-produced as a souvenir the iconic 1941 cover of the Saturday Evening Post which featured Harbut and Man o’ War in a gentle snuggle. It marked the first time a horse had been on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post and no doubt paid a rare honor for a Black man too.
“Our aim is to research and honor all black horsemen, not just jockeys,” said Phoenix Rising Lex President, Bill Cooke, who recently retired after four decades as director of the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park. “It’s true that jockeys and trainers garner the most attention, but there are African American owners, farriers, grooms and others who played important roles in horse racing that have never gotten their rightful recognition.”
Phoenix Rising Lex’s effort to uncover and highlight this bit of racing’s lost history has not gone unnoticed. In June 2018, Phoenix Rising Lex was the recipient of the Community Preservation Award given by the Bluegrass Trust for Historic Preservation.
– Thomas Toliver, Vice President, Phoenix Rising Lex
WHAT WE’VE DONE
- Attained our 501(c)(3), non-profit IRS status in January 2017
- Hosted its 3rd annual Phoenix Festival at the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden. Themed Honoring the Past, Inspiring the Future, honorees were the late Thoroughbred owner and trainer, and civil rights activist Oscar Dishman, Jr., and entrepreneur and educator Jeremy Reese, founder and operator of Frankie’s Corner, a program to teach inner city youth the basics of working in the horse industry. We also highlighted the historic 1891 Kentucky Derby, the first and only to be captured by an African American jockey, trainer and owner. Past recipients include the successful Black jockey, James Long, Gene Carter, and Man o’ War’s last two grooms, Will Harbut and Cunningham Graves.
- Sponsored a week-long visit to Lexington, including a free lecture at the Lyric Theater, by Dr. Katherine Mooney, professor of history at Florida State University, and author of the award-winning book, Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom were Made at the Racetrack.
- Reprinted 300 copies of “Racing Heritage; African American Trainers, Jockeys and the Kentucky Association Track,” Lexington’s only brochure exploring the history of the Kentucky Association track and the significance of its Black horsemen in the growth of the Bluegrass horse industry and Lexington’s historic East End neighborhood.
- Continued our support for the Charles Young Community Center, and sponsored ornaments for the community Christmas tree in Charles Young Park.
- Supported and promoted the efforts of the International Museum of the Horse in their production of Central Kentucky’s only permanent African American museum exhibit, “Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf” at the Kentucky Horse Park
- With the generous support of Hall Media, developed our logo, established a new email address, and social media presence, and our new Phoenix Rising Lex website. Hall Media also arranged for TV and radio interviews related to all functions mentioned.
- Participated in Lexington’s “Roots and Heritage Festivals.”