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A confluence of racing and Black history

Hearing the stilled voices of Lexington’s African Cemetery No. 2

To get a feel for the history of the first Kentucky Derby 150 years ago, take a trip to African Cemetery No. 2, on Seventh Street in an old neighborhood not far from downtown Lexington.

This is the final resting place of Oliver Lewis, the jockey on inaugural Derby winner Aristides on May 17, 1875. The more than 7,500 documented African Americans buried on the 8 acres include James “Soup” Perkins, the 15-year-old winning Derby rider aboard Halma in 1895; and Abraham Perry, trainer of 1885 Derby winner Joe Cotton.

Homage also is paid to Isaac Murphy, the son of slaves who became one of the greatest jockeys ever and a three-time Derby winner (on Buchanan, 1884; Riley, 1890; and Kingman, 1891). Murphy died in 1896 at age 35 and was buried in African Cemetery No. 2. Years after the cemetery fell into disrepair, his remains, under court order, were reinterred at the old Man o’ War burial site, with both the legendary jockey and legendary horse moved to the Kentucky Horse Park prior to its 1978 opening. 

Thanks to a dedicated band of volunteers, the cemetery has gone from being declared abandoned in 1973 to being placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004, a publicly accessible treasure trove of history.

“Among other things, African Cemetery No. 2 is unique in the commonwealth, the region, the nation and probably the world for its emphasis on preserving the graves and stories of men active in a singular industry—the equine industry and thoroughbred racing—in particular, the role of the African American community in developing that industry in the Bluegrass,” says Mark Coyne, who serves as the cemetery’s chief landscaper in charge of routine maintenance and coordinator of volunteer activities, and chairs the nonprofit African Cemetery No. 2 Inc., which owns and maintains the site.

Markers tell the long-ago stories of the cemetery’s influential residents in various endeavors. Its website details self-guided walking tours that spotlight the graves of horse-industry notables, as well as African American women and military members from the Civil War to World War II.

African Cemetery No. 2 Inc. Treasurer Allan Hetzel maintains a database with the death certificates of 7,618 burials in the cemetery between 1894 and 1963, even as the painstaking research continues. Much of the initial research—including hunting down Oliver Lewis—was conducted by the late Anne Butler, who was the director of Kentucky State University’s Center of Excellence of Kentucky African Americans.

“We need to always honor those whose shoulders we are standing on. Literally,” says the cemetery’s education coordinator and archivist Yvonne Giles, author of the book Stilled Voices Yet Speak about African Cemetery No. 2 (and whose research uncovered that she has 42 maternal relatives buried there). “If not for these Black jockeys, who were the go-to guys in the early period of racing, there would be no racing industry. None. And while everybody thinks about the jockeys, but there must be at least six other professions, professionals who took care of those horses.”

The cemetery’s own history

The cemetery is the earliest recorded cemetery in Lexington to be organized, owned and managed by African Americans. It originally was 1.5 miles outside of Lexington before the city’s expansion. 

In the mid-1900s, the property had become overgrown and an urban wasteland, culminating in being declared abandoned and condemned on April 17, 1973. Plans for potential redevelopment were scrapped when more than 5,000 graves were discovered.

After a major landscaping and realignment of the markers, the property was deeded to African Cemetery No. 2 Inc. in 1981 and officially closed for future burials. The prodigious restoration and historical documentation began when the nonprofit reorganized in 1995, Coyne says. 

The cemetery acreage includes 96 unique tree species, 74 of which are native to Kentucky, and 15 species of shrubs and bushes. Coyne, who is the University of Kentucky emeritus professor chair of Plant and Soil Science, says the plan is for the acreage to become an accredited Level 1 arboretum in the near future. 


African Cemetery No. 2’s education coordinator and archivist Yvonne Giles says a first-person account of Isaac Murphy’s 1967 disinterment, published in the Thoroughbred Record, reports that the site contained only “a few pine splinters and a casket handle.” 

Furthering the mystery is that Murphy’s casket was reported to have been steel with purple velvet, like that of President Ulysses S. Grant. Giles believes Murphy could still be buried somewhere else in African Cemetery No. 2 or possibly was the victim of a grave robber, with instead the remains of one of Murphy’s family members perhaps relocated.


African Cemetery No. 2: 419 E. Seventh St., Lexington

For information, email

A confluence of African-American history and horseracing

Learn more about Lexington’s African Cemetery by watching these three videos.

Kentucky Tourism’s video: African Cemetery No. 2: Untold to the Unforgettable (2020)

The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s deTour of African Cemetery No. 2 (2020)

Lexington Public Library’s documentary: Eight Acres of History: Lexington’s African Cemetery No. 2 (2012)

ANOTHER LEARNING SITE: Louisville’s Black Jockeys Lounge

Black Jockeys Lounge, 630 S. 4th St., is an upscale and unique restaurant/bar/museum located 4 miles north of Churchill Downs in downtown Louisville. 

The restaurant celebrates the 11 African American jockeys who won 15 of the first 28 runnings of the Derby. Visit the website or call (502) 587-0526 for more information.

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