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The Heart of the Turf: Racing’s Black Pioneers

The Heart of the Turf: Racing’s Black Pioneers

The Keeneland Library launched The Heart of the Turf: Racing’s Black Pioneers in the Library from February 23 to December 8, 2023, before traveling the exhibit. In its first year, 70,000 youth and adults from 26 countries have freely engaged with the exhibit and its educational programs.

The groundbreaking exhibit that follows the lives and contributions of Black horsemen and women from enslavement to today engaged visitors with exhibited interpretive panels and never-before-displayed photographs, artwork, artifacts, and video interviews. More than 100 photographs from Keeneland Library collections captured 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 honored 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.  

Traveling Exhibit

In September 2023, the Library launched 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]

Traveling Exhibit Schedule

Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center
300 E Third St, Lexington, KY 40508
Exhibit Hosting Dates: September 7 to November 5, 2023

Lexington Public Library - Central Branch
140 E Main St, Lexington, KY 40507
Exhibit Hosting Dates: October 11 to December 3, 2023

University of Kentucky William T. Young Library
401 Hilltop Ave, Lexington, KY 40506
Exhibit Hosting Dates: January 3 to February 29, 2024

Bryan Station High School
201 Eastin Rd, Lexington, KY 40505
Exhibit Hosting Dates: February 1-15, 2024

Sayre Christian Village & Friendship Towers
580 Greenfield Drive, Lexington, KY 40517
Exhibit Hosting Dates: February 12-26, 2024

Lexington History Museum
210 N Broadway, Lexington, KY 40507
Exhibit Hosting Dates: February 29 to May 5, 2024

Locust Trace AgriScience Center
242 Locust Farm Road, Lexington, KY 40511
Exhibit Hosting Dates: March 4-18, 2024

Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives
300 Coffee Tree Rd, Frankfort, KY 40601
Exhibit Hosting Dates: March 26 to May 31, 2024

Black Sports Business Symposium 
Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, GA
Exhibit Hosting Dates: May 29 to June 1, 2024

Woodford Library
115 N Main St, Versailles, KY 40383
Exhibit Hosting Dates: May 29 to July 28, 2024

Rose Mary C. Brooks Place
200 Rosemary Dr, Winchester, KY 40391
Exhibit Hosting Dates: August 1-15, 2024

Gateway Regional Arts Center
101 E. Main St, Mt. Sterling, KY 40353
Exhibit Hosting Dates: August 13 to September 27, 2024

Henry County Public Library
280 E. Broadway, Eminence, KY 40019
Exhibit Hosting Dates: August 22 to September 25, 2024

Old Friends
1841 Paynes Depot Rd, Georgetown, KY 40324
Exhibit Hosting Dates: October 1-31, 2024

Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame & Museum
135 Dupree Pl, Aiken, SC 29801
Exhibit Hosting Dates: December 4, 2024 to January 17, 2025

Maryland Horse Library & Education Center
321 Main St, Reisterstown, MD 21136
Exhibit Hosting Dates: February 1-28, 2025

Paul Sawyier Public Library
319 Wapping St, Frankfort, KY 40601
Exhibit Hosting Dates: February 1 to March 31, 2025

Boone Country Public Library
1786 Burlington Pk, Burlington, KY 41005
Exhibit Hosting Dates: April 1-30, 2025

Marion County Public Library
201 E. Main St, Lebanon, KY 40033
Exhibit Hosting Dates: April 4-27, 2025

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

Video Interviews

Keeneland Library created video interviews as part of The Heart of the Turf: Racing’s Black Pioneers to enhance the exhibit’s educational efforts and to build oral history resources for future researchers. The first set of ten interviews was produced by Ed Brown Society Associate Timothy Campbell during his 2023 appointment with the Library. All interviews were conducted in May and June 2023.

Campbell describes his associateship with the Library as “a once in a lifetime experience I won’t forget. During my time with Keeneland Library I learned a great deal about theindustry. Working with Roda Ferraro on the exhibit and video interviews was especially memorable, as I start my career blending history, film, and museology. The oral histories we captured are significant. Far too often, we have to infer how historical subjects felt. But through interviews like these, we have a better sense of the experience of African American horsemen and women.”

Traveling Exhibit Curatorial Team

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

Traveling Exhibit Sponsor

Keeneland Association