I wrote this post for the Blue Grass Community Foundation’s website:
The Blue Grass Community Foundation and the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden Board of Directors hosted the final performance of Frank X. Walker’s new play: “I Dedicate This Ride: The Making of Isaac Murphy” at the Lexington Children’s Theatre. This play traces the foundations and life of the first superstar African American Athlete in the United States. Isaac Murphy was the first jockey – of any race – to be inducted into the Thoroughbred Jockey Hall of Fame. He is the only human buried at the Kentucky Horse Park. His winning percentage of 44% will never be equaled.
Isaac was born into slavery right before the Civil War. His parents were proud and strong people who instilled in young Isaac the importance of character and virtue. During the war Isaac’s father responded to Lincoln’s call for Colored troops. He walked to Camp Nelson, along the Kentucky River a few miles south of Lexington. There he died of disease. Later Isaac asks if his father’s death had meaning, since it wasn’t in battle. He’s told that anyone who risks and dares for freedom has led a life of meaning.
Isaac grows, but not too big or tall. He discovers he has an affinity for horses, and they for him. He is trained by Eli Jordan and he learns all the facets of the Thoroughbred ways. And then he rides: “…faster and faster, until it feels like God takes over….”
We see the arc of his triumphs – the fame, and the love of his life, his wife Lucy. We see his struggles with his body weight as well as the dark forces that desired his demise, simply because he was black.
The play touches on the relationship between whites and blacks in the country generally, and Lexington specifically. It offers insight into how African Americans saw their various roles, and the way they adjusted to them throughout daily life. I was reminded of the powerful poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask”: “We wear the mask that grins and lies….”
In the end, we witness classic Greek drama – triumph and tragedy in one man. Isaac wins, but grows arrogant. Isaac leads, but suffers greatly. Finally, it all takes its toll on the small man who could catch the wind: he dies of pneumonia at 35.
Isaac was initially buried in the African Cemetery on Seventh Street in Lexington. In the late 1960s, his body was exhumed and moved to the Kentucky Horse Park. The grave of his wife Lucy has never been discovered.
After the final performance of the play, the Community Foundation hosted a reception for supporters and the cast. Frank X. Walker attended, and gave insight to his vision of the play’s conception: to remind ourselves of the values we have in Lexington, and to show the possibilities of building something better.
Work on the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden is progressing. Located on land owned by Isaac, and where his large house stood until the mid 1930s, the park will honor Isaac as well as all the other African American Jockeys who had a hand in helping to make the Bluegrass the Horse Capital of the World. The park is the beginning of the Legacy Trail, which leads to the Kentucky Horse Park, where Isaac is buried. The Art Garden, the Trail, and the Play will all combine over the years to add deep layers of meaning to Lexington’s culture. This is precisely the result desired by the Knight Foundation, when the Blue Grass Community Foundation was chosen to lead the World Equestrian Game Legacy Projects.