Fayette County

Visitors dig for history at proposed Isaac Murphy park

Anthony and Lauryn McFarlane of Stone Mountain, Ga., who were visiting their grandmother, swept the foundation of the house of Isaac Murphy, Kentucky's most famous African-American jockey.
Anthony and Lauryn McFarlane of Stone Mountain, Ga., who were visiting their grandmother, swept the foundation of the house of Isaac Murphy, Kentucky's most famous African-American jockey.

The grown-ups had started excavating at what will soon by the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden.

But by Saturday, it was the time to bring in the people who really know about digging: anyone roughly younger than 14. And about 20 of them did. They also swept, brushed and poked at anything that might have been in Murphy's house about the turn of the century, when Murphy, an African-American, was already Kentucky's most famous jockey.

The guest archaeologists were part of a celebration on Saturday to highlight the park that is 90 percent financed and is close to breaking ground during the 150th anniversary of Murphy's birth. It also was to celebrate that the grown-up archaeologists from Amec Earth and Environmental had found the foundation of Murphy's house earlier this spring, along with horseshoes, bits and pottery shards.

Experts had thought Murphy lived in the neighborhood near Lexington's first racetrack a few blocks off Third Street. But they didn't know that his house sat on the same piece of land being used to honor him — on East Third Street near Midland Avenue. That discovery was made by Lexington genealogist Pam Brinegar, who had been researching Murphy's family.

"That's been very exciting, and we're going to work that foundation into the design of the park," said Steve Austin, vice president of the Blue Grass Community Foundation, which has been a key partner in raising roughly $400,000 for the project.

The amateur archaeologists were having so much fun Saturday that officials decided to scrap speeches from Mayor Jim Gray and council members so the work could go on.

Austin said that land transfers and fund-raising have been challenging for the project, but it should be under construction by late summer or early fall.

The park has been in the works for several years, but it took on new life as a legacy project of the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. It's intended to be an entryway to the East End, a historic African-American neighborhood, and to honor Murphy, who rode the winning horse in the Kentucky Derby three times, in 1884, 1890 and 1891. At that time, African-Americans were prominent in the horse industry, a history that once was nearly forgotten.

"We're starting to recognize people who made this place the horse capital of the world," Austin said.

"This is a day of celebration for a community that's all about building up and not giving up," said Gray, who attended with council members Linda Gorton and Chris Ford. "This community and neighborhood has experienced the headwinds of economic turbulence, and yet they're all about persistence and determination."

Lexington resident Mary Black brought her three children and three grandchildren to the event. One of them, Anthony McFarlane, 5, who was visiting from Georgia, got to sweep dirt off part of the Murphy house foundation.

"I knew about Isaac Murphy growing up, but I did not know his house was here," said his mom, Leslie McFarlane, who was in Lexington for her mother's birthday. "I saw the signs and said, 'We have to do that.'"

David Cozart, who works for the Urban League and is chairman of the Isaac Murphy board, said the archaeological dig has brought new richness to the project.

"They're in there uncovering pieces of Lexington history," he said, pointing to the children. "They're excited about it, and we're excited about this project and what it symbolizes."

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