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Black history and heritage in Kentucky

From cave exploration to journalism to horse racing, Kentucky African Americans have made their mark

Family members unveil a statue of Allison Dunnigan at the SEEK Museum in Russellville. Photo: Bowling Green Daily News
A guide takes visitors on a tour of Mammoth Cave. Photo: KentuckyTourism.com
Mammoth Cave is only one of dozens of sites where you can explore Kentucky's black history. Photo: Mammoth Cave
Black Horseman of the Kentucky Turf exhibit. Photo: International Museum of the Horse

There’s nothing like a road trip to shake the winter blues, so celebrate Black History Month by traveling to some of the state’s African American heritage sites that shine a light on the achievements of black Kentuckians. The state’s tourism department has made it easy for you by devising new, three- to five-day itineraries in each region of the state, though a day trip to any one of them is still rewarding.

For example, you can giddyup to Lexington to learn about the accomplishments of black horsemen, or head to the state’s southern environs to hear poignant stories of African Americans who struggled against racial oppression so that future generations would have an easier life.

Of course, the best option is to drive the statewide itinerary and see it all. Here are a few highlights.

Mammoth Cave

At Mammoth Dome, an impressive “room” on the Historic Tour of Mammoth Cave, awestruck visitors stand on a platform at the top of a spiral staircase, peering down into a 192-foot shaft that showcases the ongoing erosion of this ancient geological marvel. A guide explains that passageways are being carved by underground water today just as they were a million years ago.   

Visitors from around the world come to central Kentucky to see Mammoth Cave National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s home to 412 miles of subterranean passageways that comprise the world’s longest cave system.

Many marvel at their guide’s depth of knowledge, but few realize that much of what is known about the sprawling limestone labyrinth can be traced back to the courageous explorations of the first Mammoth Cave guide, Stephen Bishop. In 1838, the enslaved 17-year-old was brought to the cave by his owner, who dreamed of turning it into a world-class tourist attraction. He tasked Bishop with not only guiding visitors, but with discovering what lay beyond the 8 miles of then-known passages. 

Mammoth Dome is widely considered one of Bishop’s greatest discoveries. He was the first to cross the 105-foot Bottomless Pit, traditionally a frustrating impediment to cave exploration, by crawling across the yawning abyss on a horizontal ladder, a lamp held in his teeth. Mammoth Dome was what he found on the other side.

Cave exploration was arduous and dangerous in the 19th century, and had Bishop gotten lost, the cave would likely have been his tomb.

“Remember that these men (Bishop and other enslaved guides) were not exploring with modern-day conveniences, such as headlamps, soft knee pads and caving helmets,” says Molly Schroer, a spokeswoman at Mammoth Cave. “They would have been using oil lanterns to find their way through the rocks and tiny crawl spaces.”

Despite living in an era when blacks were erroneously considered intellectually inferior, Bishop’s reputation as an exceptional guide and spelunker gained him respect far and wide.

By the time of his death at age 37, Bishop had expanded known cave passages by 3 miles. The National Park Service notes on its Mammoth Cave National Park webpages, “While we will never experience a firsthand tour from Stephen, he can still be visited at the Old Guide’s Cemetery at Mammoth Cave National Park.”

Lexington

Oliver Lewis, the winner of the inaugural 1875 Kentucky Derby, thundered to victory on a horse named Aristides, receiving well-deserved accolades from an adoring crowd. Lewis, like 13 of the 15 jockeys, was black. Black jockeys were the norm for many years, but fast-forward to the modern Kentucky Derby, and they are as rare Triple Crown winners. 

Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf, the newest permanent exhibition at the International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, unearths the forgotten stories of black jockeys, trainers and owners who were the backbone of the early thoroughbred industry. It also explores how the advent of Jim Crow segregation laws eventually eliminated their opportunities and erased their accomplishments.

The career of Isaac Murphy (1861-1896), one of the greatest jockeys of all time, is meticulously chronicled. A three-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, he was the first jockey inducted into the hall of fame at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York.

The Lexington exhibit also features lesser known horsemen who made notable contributions to Kentucky’s racing industry. 

Bring the kids: little riders love playing dress up in colorful jockey silks provided just for them.

Russellville

Russellville is a must see on your journey through Kentucky’s African-American history. In August 2019, a new 6-foot-tall bronze statue of Russellville native Alice Allison Dunnigan (1906-1983), an award-winning black journalist, was erected on the grounds of the SEEK (Struggles for Emancipation and Equality in Kentucky) Museum, formerly called the West Kentucky African American Heritage Center. The statue was originally unveiled in 2018 at the Newseum, a now-shuttered Washington, D.C., museum dedicated to the press, but now Alice is home.

The adjacent Payne-Dunnigan House honors Dunnigan’s legacy and tells her inspiring story.

Born the daughter of Logan County sharecroppers, Dunnigan was a trailblazer who overcame poverty and the dual barriers of race 

and gender to become the first black woman credentialed to cover the White House. When she joined Harry Truman’s Whistle Stop campaign, she became the first black woman to travel with and report on a presidential tour.

On view are some of Dunnigan’s newspaper articles and historical photos of her with the famous political figures she covered. A multimedia exhibit about the making of the statue opens soon. 

“She was a strong African-American woman in a time when African Americans and women were denied so many rights. She was a living example of what can be accomplished through hard work and faith,” Executive Director Michael Morrow says.

Visit the Notable Kentucky African Americans Database for more information.


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