Isaac Murphy of Lexington rode race horses, very well, for almost 20 years at the end of the 19th century. He was the first jockey inducted into the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing, in 1955. In 2011, the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage created an award in his honor.
It's way late but very fitting that Lexington is finally recognizing this man with the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden.
"Isaac Murphy is to Lexington what Muhammad Ali is to Louisville. The difference is that Louisville celebrates the accomplishments of Muhammad Ali but Lexington doesn't do the same for Murphy," Thomas Tolliver said Monday. "Until today."
Tolliver, an East End community activist and vice president of the art garden's board, was speaking at the ground-breaking for the garden that will soon take shape on a half-acre at the corner of Third Street and Midland Avenue.
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It's only a stone's throw from the site of the Kentucky Association Race Track, where Murphy rode, trained and owned race horses. The half-acre includes the site of the house he owned and occupied, with his wife Lucy, from 1887 until his death from pneumonia in 1899. Excavations revealed the limestone foundations of Murphy's house and they have been incorporated into the park's plans.
Even more impressive is that the park is designed as an outdoor classroom with story boards that will tell not only Murphy's story — the son of a former slave, he became the winningest jockey ever in America, claiming three Kentucky Derbies among his triumphs — but also those of other successful black jockeys, and the neighborhood's long history in Lexington's equine industry. It will have an amphitheater where the planners envision groups gathering for talks on the neighborhood and its history.
The park will be the trail head for the Legacy Trail, a walking and biking path linking Lexington's urban core with the Kentucky Horse Park, where Murphy is buried.
Monday was an important day, the culmination of seven years of effort by a public-private partnership that includes the city, the Blue Grass Community Foundation, and dedicated volunteers like Tolliver and board president David Cozart.
They all deserve credit for their hard work to connect Lexington with a neglected part of its past, to link urban neighborhoods with our rural area, and to, at long last, give Isaac Murphy his due.