Saturday, May 4, 2019

John Malveaux: African descent history of Kentucky Derby

John Malveaux of 

African descent history of Kentucky Derby 

National Public Radio

The Little-Known History Behind The Kentucky Derby

May 4, 2019 7:52 AM ET

Saturday marks the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. NPR's Scott Simon talks to Los Angeles Times reporter Kurtis Lee about some of the unknown history behind the legendary race.

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.

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