Glory Bound: Black Athletes in a White America

By David K. Wiggins | Go to book overview

2
Isaac Murphy Black Hero in Nineteenth-Century American Sport, 1861-1896

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, African Americans participated regularly in several sports at various levels of competition. They hunted and fished, established baseball teams, played golf and tennis, handled gamecocks, fought in the boxing ring, and rode horses at various racetracks around the country. Black athletes usually played among themselves, but they also competed with whites. Black pugilists boxed white fighters, black baseball players frequently competed against white athletes, and blacks rode against white jockeys. White athletes held stereotypical notions about their black counterparts, but it was apparent that the majority of whites were not threatened by interracial competitions, until the last decade of the century.1

Riding horses became a means of social and economic mobility for members of disadvantaged social groups. Diminutive young black men, first as slaves and then later as freemen, rode regularly at various racetrucks in the United States. Fourteen of the fifteen jockeys in the first Kentucky Derby in 1875 were black. The most outstanding of the late nineteenth-century black jockeys was Isaac Murphy, who achieved a national and even international reputation. Indeed, many turf experts believed that Murphy was the finest jockey in the country between 1880 and 1890. Contemporary writers referred to Murphy as "The Colored Archer," after the famous English jockey Fred Archer.2 Many people believed it would have been more appropriate, in view of their comparative achievements, to refer to Archer as the "White Murphy."3

Throughout his brief career, Murphy rode nearly every famous horse in the land, and won every major race except the Futurity, which always eluded him. He was the first jockey ever to win three Kentucky Derbies, was victorious in four American Derbies, and won the famous Latonia

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