Racing, racism and a reexamination: new biography on Isaac Murphy puts his life and career in context of the times
People in Lexington know all about Derby winning jockey Isaac Murphy; or do they? In Isaac Murphy: The Rise and Fall of a Black Jockey, historian Katherine C. Mooney finds that the superstar athlete was both an American hero, employed by the country’s elite to ride their prized horses, and a Black man living in a racist country, who for every success he achieved could never be truly seen beyond his skin color. She recently spoke with WUKY's Alan Lytle.
From Yale University Press:
The rise and fall of one of America’s first Black sports celebrities
Isaac Murphy, born enslaved in 1861, still reigns as one of the greatest jockeys in American history. Black jockeys like Murphy were at the top of the most popular sport in America at the end of the nineteenth century. They were internationally famous, the first African American superstar athletes—and with wins in three Kentucky Derbies and countless other prestigious races, Murphy was the greatest of them all.
At the same time, he lived through the seismic events of Emancipation and Reconstruction and formative conflicts over freedom and equality in the United States. And inevitably he was drawn into those conflicts, with devastating consequences.
Katherine C. Mooney uncovers the history of Murphy’s troubled life, his death in 1896 at age thirty-five, and his afterlife. In recounting Murphy’s personal story, she also tells two of the great stories of change in nineteenth-century America: the debates over what a multiracial democracy might look like and the battles over who was to hold power in an economy that increasingly resembled the corporate, wealth-polarized world we know today.
Pairing highly qualified writers with subjects whose lives illuminate the breadth, diversity, and richness of Black experiences, the Black Lives series produces brief, authoritative biographies of individuals of African descent who profoundly shaped history.