James Long wonders why more people don't study the African Cemetery No. 2 on Lexington's East Seventh Street.
"This cemetery should have a billboard on the highway as you approach the city, like Keeneland does, so people can understand the significance of it," Long said Saturday, waiting for the rain to end so he could deliver a lecture among the graves.
This isn't just local black history, Long said. It's national sports history. Some of the earliest stars of horse racing — including Oliver Lewis, who in 1875 rode in and won the first Kentucky Derby — are buried here.
"The very first professional athlete in America was not a basketball player, not a football player, not a baseball player," Long said. "He rode horses, the sport of kings, and he was African-American. That was the sport back then. And it was primarily African-Americans who worked in it because the jobs either were too dirty or too dangerous for anyone else."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Long, 57, is no dry academic. He grew curious about the role of blacks in racing because that was his own life. Long retired to Kentucky in 2008 after working for 33 years as a jockey.
He fell into racing by accident. A diminutive teenager in the early 1970s, Long worked in a newspaper printing plant in Brooklyn. His boss stormed into the plant one day, cussing about the performance of a jockey, having lost money on yet another race. The boss stopped on the floor to stare at him.
"He looks me up and down and suddenly he says, 'You're pretty small. What are you, 95 pounds? You could do it. What are you doing in the morning?' I said, 'I'm not hanging out with you, I can tell you that.' He said, 'We're going to Belmont,' and sure enough, he shows up at my house at 3:30 in the morning."
That trip to Belmont amazingly led to two years in Miami, breaking in yearlings, and then a career as a jockey. At the racetracks, he said, there seemed to be fewer black faces with every passing year. Yet the oldest racing stories involved black jockeys and black groomsmen. Long wondered what had happened.
"I wanted to know more, but I had to go out and dig up some information myself," Long said. "My first assignment was an easy one — (acclaimed Kentucky jockey) Isaac Murphy — there was a lot of stuff out there. But my personal hero was Jimmy Winkfield, and there was almost nothing published about him."
His studies convinced him that black horsemen often were treated as expendable in life and forgettable in death, he said.
"Even today, it's a dangerous sport. But back then, there were no safety regulations, no regulating authorities. For these gentlemen" — Long waved his hand at the surrounding graves — "it was anything goes. You weren't supposed to hurt any of the horses. But if you could win by knocking that 14-year-old boy off his horse in the middle of the race, you were expected to do it."
A few feet from where Long stood was the grave of Cassius Clay Tankersley, a teenage jockey in the 19th century for Borak Thomas, founder of Dixiana Farm in Lexington. Tankersley was killed in a race. His employer commissioned a grave marker saying the youth was "Known to be honest and reliable."
The rain ended, so Long moved to a green tent to give his remarks to a small crowd. The occasion was Juneteenth, commemorating the announcement, in 1865, of the abolition of slavery in Texas.
For his audience, Long recited some of the more famous names in racing. He also noted that America's founding fathers, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, often were slave owners and horse enthusiasts, and their stables were staffed by entrusted black servants.
He shared the — perhaps apocryphal — story of Jocko Graves, a black farm boy who served Washington during the Revolutionary War. According to legend, in December 1776, Jocko held a lantern and a horse in freezing weather on the banks of the Delaware River so the general could find his way across and have something to ride when he got there.
"Jocko froze to death holding the lantern and the horse," Long said. "General Washington was so moved by his devotion that he had Jocko statues commissioned and gave them to his generals. Later, that caught on, and that's why you have these small lawn statues of an African-American boy holding a lantern and a ring for a horse.
"Just a little bit of history there," he added.