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Two men look at an exhibit display from Keeneland's Heart of the Turf exhibit

From Jan. 3 to Feb. 29, 2024, William T. Young Library will host The Heart of the Turf: Racing’s Black Pioneers, a traveling exhibit developed by the Keeneland Library. 

A corresponding lecture by Roda Ferraro, Director of the Keeneland Library and curator of the exhibit, will be held on Feb. 22 at 12:30 pm in the Young Library Auditorium. 

The exhibit highlights the lives and careers of 80 Black horsemen and -women from the mid-1800s to the present through one-of-a-kind photographs from Keeneland Library collections and biographical vignettes that tell their stories and honor their legacies.

The exhibit draws special attention to Lexington’s East End neighborhood, a historic industry hub for pioneering Black horsemen and home to the Kentucky Association track from the late 1820s through 1933. By the late 1800s, four future Racing Hall of Famers lived in Lexington’s East End: jockeys Isaac Burns Murphy and Jimmy Winkfield, trainer Ansel Williamson, and trainer/owner Edward Dudley Brown. Hundreds of other Black horsemen and their families bought their homes, built their businesses, and raised their families in surrounding neighborhoods.

The exhibit ties into collections across UK Libraries that preserve the history of Kentucky’s Black horsemen and -women and the equine industry more broadly, including information and resources held in the Notable Kentucky African Americans (NKAA) Database and several oral history collections from the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History.

A free online resource, the NKAA brings together biographical information, descriptions of pertinent places and events, and links to source materials about African Americans in or from Kentucky from the 1700s to the present. Users can find nearly 130 items categorized under Jockeys, Horsemen, Horse Breeders, Trainers, Betting, and The Derby, together with individual entries for the Racing Hall of Famers featured in the exhibit.

Internationally recognized for its work collecting and preserving oral histories, the Nunn Center holds over 18,000 oral history interviews in its online repository, SPOKEdb.

The Nunn Center’s Chronicle of African Americans in the Horse Industry Oral History Project is made up of 16 oral history interviews with Black equine professionals or their family members, ranging from jockeys and breeders to trainers and grooms. The oral history project stems from a partnership with the International Museum of the Horse, whose Chronicle of African Americans in the Horse Industry is an online, interactive archive of photos, documents, and artifacts.

112 interviews in the Horse Industry in Kentucky Oral History Project, spanning the 1970s-2010s, provide a broad overview of the industry across the state, including women and Black equine professionals, racing organizations and tracks, breeding, farm management, equine medicine, and industry laws and legislation.

Life’s Work: Reflections on Life in the Equine Industry Oral History Project – a partnership with the Keeneland Association, the Keeneland Library and Museum Foundation, and the Thoroughbred Daily News in 2019 – has yielded a series of interviews that reflect on breeding, foaling, racing, farm management, history, and after care amidst the ups and downs of economics, success, and luck.

The Nunn Center’s newest equine industry project, Making Strides: Women in the Equine Industry, contains the stories of women breaking barriers in the male-dominated industry. 

UK Libraries is thrilled to begin 2024 with an exhibit that showcases select stories of the countless Black horsemen and -women who forged their way in Kentucky’s equine industry, from race track superstars to behind-the-scenes equine professionals. The economy of the Bluegrass and the viability of the Thoroughbred industry are rooted in their knowledge, skill, hard work, and resilience in the face of centuries of enslavement, subjugation, and oppression.

The Heart of the Turf is curated by Keeneland Library Director Roda Ferraro. Yvonne Giles served as Historical Consultant, and Jessica Downey served as Exhibit Panel Designer. The exhibit is sponsored by the Keeneland Association.