In 2013, Pellom McDaniels III, an assistant professor of African American studies and Faculty Curator of African American Collections at the Manuscripts Archives and Rare Books Library at Emory University in Atlanta, published The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy (University Press of Kentucky, 2013).
The biography made Americans aware of a sports hero that very few had heard of before. Murphy was the son of former slaves but became one of the most successful jockeys in horse racing history. Murphy won 44 percent of the races he entered, a record that remains intact today more than a century after Murphy rode his last race horse. He was the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times.
In the late 1800s, the Jim Crow culture of Kentucky and the South forced Murphy and other Black jockeys out of the sport of horse racing. He died in obscurity and was buried in African Cemetary #2 in Lexington, Kentucky. Years later, White political leaders exhumed his body and reburied it at Kentucky Horse Park without consulting with leaders of the African American community.
Now largely as a result Dr. McDaniels efforts to rediscover the story of the life of this great sports legend, the City of Lexington recently held a five-day tribute called “Celebrating Isaac Murphy.” A new headstone was dedicated at Kentucky Horse Park and a memorial was erected at his original grave site. The city hosted a public lecture and a play about Murphy’s life. An exhibit on the life of Isaac Murphy is being shown in the lobby of the Lyric Theater where the play was presented. The exhibit will be on display through December 11.
Dr. McDaniels notes that “the fact this history has always been with the people of Kentucky, especially Lexington, and the fact that I was able to help them revisit this in a way that has helped them come together is important.”
Dr. McDaniels is a graduate of Oregon State University. He played for the Kansas City Chiefs and the Atlanta Falcons of the National football league for nine seasons. Dr. McDaniels then earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in American studies from Emory University.