Keeneland Library honors racing’s Black pioneers

Keeneland Library's new exhibit, 'The Heart of the Turf: Racing’s Black Pioneers,' employs an engaging mix of interpretive panels, rare photographs, never-before-displayed artifacts, original artwork and video interviews to bring to life the involvement of African-American horsemen in the racing industry.

Keeneland Library in Lexington, Kentucky, highlights the lives and careers of 80 African-American horsemen and women from the mid-1800s to the present in its new exhibit, The Heart of the Turf: Racing’s Black Pioneers. The free exhibit opened Feb. 23 and runs through Aug. 31. It explores the lives of African Americans in racing and their contributions to the Thoroughbred industry.

Sylvia Bishop, the first African-American woman licensed to train horses in the U.S. Public domain

A collaborative effort

“Keeneland is honored to present The Heart of the Turf: Racing’s Black Pioneers, which exemplifies our mission to preserve racing’s rich history and, in this case, documents the life and work of African Americans through more than 150 years of our sport,” said Keeneland President and CEO Shannon Arvin. “We are proud of the research undertaken through a collaboration between Keeneland Library and Lexington historian Yvonne Giles, who consulted on the exhibit, to showcase the significant impact of African Americans on Thoroughbred racing and the history of Lexington. Efforts are already underway to expand the reach of this exhibit beyond our grounds through educational programs in partnership with local schools and grassroots community groups.”

The exhibit employs an engaging mix of interpretive panels, rare photographs, never-before-displayed artifacts, original artwork and video interviews to bring to life the involvement of African-American horsemen in the racing industry. The resulting walk-through experience features more than 100 historical photographs from Keeneland Library collections, commissioned artwork by noted folk artist LaVon Williams and loaned artwork from the Kentucky Derby Museum, International Museum of the Horse and private collections. Other contributors include Phoenix Rising Lexington, Cross Gate Gallery, Catherine Clay Neal, Hank and Mary Brockman, Coleman D. Callaway III and Kirk Hoefling.

Unsung heroes, untold stories

“The Heart of the Turf: Racing’s Black Pioneers showcases select stories from the countless African Americans who forged their way in Kentucky and beyond from the era of slavery to the present, shaping today’s racing industry,” noted Keeneland Library Exhibit Curator Roda Ferraro. “Black grooms, farriers, stable managers, trainers, owners, stewards and jockeys passed their hard-earned knowledge and skills down through the generations. By sharing their personal stories, past and present, we hope to highlight not only their triumphs but also examine their obstacles to continue conversations about diversity in racing.”

The exhibit is rooted in the long history of racing in Lexington. The East End neighborhood near downtown was the site of the Kentucky Association track, which operated from the late 1820s through 1933 and held the first runnings of such Keeneland races as the Blue Grass, later revived at Keeneland. The East End also was home to many Black horsemen and their families. These include jockeys Isaac Burns Murphy and Jimmy Winkfield, trainer Ansel Williamson and trainer/owner Edward Dudley Brown–all members of the Racing Hall of Fame. Hundreds of others bought homes, built businesses and raised families in surrounding neighborhoods.

Multigenerational legacy

In addition to those well-known names in racing lore, the scope of the exhibit spotlights many unsung African-American heroes across the country. Among them: brothers Harry, Joseph and Raleigh Colston Sr., whose multigenerational legacy as jockeys, trainers and owners includes such legendary racehorses as Longfellow, Ten Broeck, Kingfisher and Leonatus; Albert Cooper, who worked his way from stable hand to foreman of the seven-time Preakness Stakes-winning stable of R. Wyndham Walden; and Sylvia Bishop, the first African-American woman licensed to train horses in the U.S.

The exhibit chronicles and connects the contributions of these horsemen and -women of the past to the present generation. Included are jockeys Kendrick Carmouche, DeShawn Parker and Marlon St. Julien; owner Greg Harbut; and Keeneland sales ringmen Ron Hill, Cordell Anderson, Dudley Sidney and Francis Carrol Wilson.

Educational tool

“Visitors will find this exhibit very informative, particularly when it comes to Lexington’s historic East End and the rich culture of the African-American horsemen who lived there,” Keeneland Library Director Becky Ryder said. “We see it as a tremendous educational tool that can be used long after the conclusion of this exhibit in August. Keeneland Library is already making plans to adapt the components into a mobile exhibit designed to travel to schools, libraries and other community and industry organizations. The unique outreach opportunities are very exciting.”

For more information about The Heart of the Turf: Racing’s Black Pioneers, visit Keeneland.com/library.

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