The Heart of the Turf: Racing’s Black Pioneers

The Heart of the Turf: Racing’s Black Pioneers

Exhibit Dates: February 23 to December 8, 2023

The Heart of the Turf: Racing’s Black Pioneers highlights the lives and careers of 80 African American horsemen and -women from the mid-1800s to the present through exhibited interpretive panels, photographs, artwork, and video interviews. More than 100 photographs from Keeneland Library collections capture moments across their varied careers, while commissioned artwork by LaVon Williams and loaned artwork from the Kentucky Derby Museum, the International Museum of the Horse, and private collections honor their lasting legacies.

Lexington’s East End, home to the Kentucky Association track from the late 1820s through 1933, also was home to many Black horsemen and their families. 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 others bought their homes, built their businesses, and raised their families in surrounding neighborhoods.    

Oscar Dishman, Jr. (right) and Robert Turner (left), circa 1965
Keeneland Library Collection

That many of the city’s leading horsemen were African American and living near the Kentucky Association track shaped the East End’s heritage as a historic industry hub for pioneering Black horsemen. The economy of the Bluegrass and viability of the Thoroughbred industry as a whole are rooted in their skill, hard work, knowledge, and tenacity. 

From race track superstars to behind-the-scenes caretakers, The Heart of the Turf: Racing’s Black Pioneers showcases select stories of the countless African Americans who forged their way in Kentucky and beyond from the era of slavery to the present, making the racing industry what it is today.  

Exhibit Guided Tours and Educational Programs

To book an exhibit guided tour for adults or an exhibit educational program for 5th to 12th grade students in the Library through December 8, 2023, email Roda Ferraro at [email protected].

Traveling Exhibit

In September 2023, the Library will launch The Heart of the Turf: Racing's Black Pioneers traveling exhibit as an extension of our education and outreach initiatives in the community. To host The Heart of the Turf: Racing’s Black Pioneers traveling exhibit in your schools, community centers, or gallery space, contact Roda Ferraro at [email protected].   

Community Youth and Adult Educational Programs

Want to learn more about the contributions of African Americans in the horse industry or dig deeper into the East End’s heritage as a historic hub for racing’s Black pioneers? To book an in-classroom educational program for students or an onsite educational program for community and corporate groups, contact the Keeneland Library at 859-288-4223.

Jimmy Lee in 1908
Keeneland Library Hemment Collection

Exhibit Companion Book

This online book was published to enhance The Heart of Turf: Racing’s Black Pioneers education and outreach initiative. Spanning nearly 200 years of history with compelling stories and images, this resource was developed for middle and high school classrooms, equine industry students, community and industry organizations, and learners of all ages. 

For physical copies of the book, contact Roda Ferraro at [email protected] or place your order online while supplies last. All book proceeds benefit the Keeneland Library Foundation which supports the Library’s preservation, education, and outreach mission and funds projects to expand access to its collections.

heart of the turf book cover

Traveling Exhibit Curatorial Team

Curator: Roda Ferraro 
Historical Consultant: Yvonne Giles 
Exhibit Panel Designer: Jessica Downey 

Exhibit Sponsor

Keeneland Association

Exhibit Contributors

Hank and Mary Brockman
Coleman D. Callaway III
Kirk Hoefling
Catherine Clay Neal
Cross Gate Gallery
The International Museum of the Horse
The Kentucky Derby Museum
Phoenix Rising Lex