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The Little-Known History Behind The Kentucky Derby


Today, 20 horses will step into the gates at Churchill Downs for the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby. There is a long history of horses and jockeys hoping for Triple Crown immortality. Some of that history lies in a neglected cemetery in Lexington, Ky., called African Cemetery No. 2, spread over eight acres. The site was created during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras when blacks and whites were buried in separate cemeteries. Thousands of African Americans are laid to rest there. And among those thousands are some of the early black jockeys and horsemen who were an important part of creating the legacy of the Kentucky Derby.

Kurtis Lee is a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. He visited that cemetery earlier this year and joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

KURTIS LEE: Hey. Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: You described the cemetery in your article as neglected, cracked, chipped, crumbled. How did you find it?

LEE: I was on assignment in January doing a story on tobacco farmers who are growing industrial hemp now. And, you know, just driving through rural Kentucky, staring out at one of these horse farms, I just thought to myself, how many of these are black-owned? And, you know, the history of Kentucky in the South with slavery and Jim Crow - deep down, I knew that the answer was zero. And when I got back to my hotel room, I did a simple Google search. And I found that to be true. But I stumbled upon this cemetery, which was, you know, not far from my hotel - African Cemetery No. 2 where these black race - horseracing legends are laid to rest in this cemetery. And, you know, it's really this forgotten history that not a lot of people know about.

SIMON: Well, tell us about some of the names that you discovered and learned about who are laid to rest there.

LEE: Absolutely. So there's Oliver Lewis. He was the first jockey to win a Kentucky Derby in 1875. And also, you know, James "Soup" Perkins - he was one of the youngest jockeys to win. He won the Derby in 1895 at the age of 15. And, you know, also buried there was the late great Isaac Burns Murphy who rode in 11 Kentucky Derbies. And, you know, he won three. And of the first 28 winning jockeys of the derby, 15 were black men. And there just isn't that much emphasis on it every time the Kentucky Derby comes around, you know, the first Saturday in May.

SIMON: I didn't know it until I read your article. How do we explain that?

LEE: You know, you saw a lot of black jockeys winning the Derby in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And then Jim Crow laws come along. And by 1922, there were no blacks in the Kentucky Derby, no jockeys. And that continued on all the way until 2000 when Marlon St. Julien rode in the Kentucky Derby. And there was another break even until 2013 when Kevin Krigger was the last black man to ride in the Kentucky Derby.

SIMON: You a derby fan?

LEE: I am. Growing up, the Kentucky Derby was always on in May at my house. And, you know, growing up, my father would always talk to us about black firsts. You know, Doug Williams was the first black man to win the Super Bowl, Tiger Woods the first to win the Masters and Thurgood Marshall the first to sit on the Supreme Court. And, you know, I never knew that the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby was a black man. And, you know, I think that just - it just is a testament of just how much - there isn't that much knowledge around this.

SIMON: Kurtis Lee, national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, thanks so much for being with us.

LEE: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.