Considered by many to be the greatest jockey of all time, Isaac Burns Murphy set numerous racing records throughout his illustrious [End Page 93] career in the late nineteenth century. He also happened to be an African American rider. While African Americans had dominated at least the piloting of fast thoroughbreds around racetracks during most of the nineteenth century, they were increasingly being pushed out of the industry by the turn of the twentieth century. Murphy, who passed away after an illness in 1896, rode at the nadir of African American participation in what was then one of the most popular spectator sports in the country. A figure whose historical stature far surpasses his physical stature, Murphy sat at the crossroads of evolving American race relations and the professionalization of American sports.
Yet, Pellom McDaniels’s biography of Murphy is proof positive that great historical significance does not necessarily lead to a large archival presence. Although the subject of numerous newspaper interviews and journalistic exposés, the literate Murphy did not leave a cache of documents to gage his inner thoughts and most newspaper accounts focused on his racing career. Simply, we know more of what the man thought about the conditions of the dirt racetrack at Churchill Downs than we do of what he thought of the colored rail-car he was forced to use following the implementation of Kentucky’s separate coach bill in 1892. To his great credit, McDaniels creatively tackles this challenge by constructing a tapestry of social, political, and economic relations surrounding Murphy’s life. The contextualization McDaniels provides is deep and expansive; it is not until page 175 when a thirteen-year-old Murphy climbs into the saddle for the first time. If a reviewer is allowed to propose a modest change to a published work’s title, I would suggest a more accurate subtitle to the book would be “The Life and Times of Isaac Burns Murphy.”
McDaniels is at his best when working Murphy into the broader history of sports and American race relations. Throughout the book, he makes fruitful comparisons between the careers of Murphy and other black athletes, especially boxers and baseball players, struggling to adapt to shrinking career opportunities in Jim Crow America. In conducting himself professionally with great integrity, Murphy provided [End Page 94] a challenge to white stereotypes of black masculinity while his astounding success on the track guaranteed an ever-growing salary. However, it was that growing salary and Murphy’s fame that fostered white jealousies. By constructing a positive image of successful black masculinity and actively working to propel his occupation into the ranks of well-paid professionals, Murphy sparked an aggressive white backlash against African American participation in horse racing. Here, McDaniels makes important contributions to our understanding of black masculinity, white supremacy, and the professionalization of sports at the turn of the twentieth century.
With a book that casts such a large net, scholars and specialists will find many of McDaniels’s arguments and claims suspect. Historians will undoubtedly challenge McDaniels’s assertion that, “By the mid-1830s, the [domestic slave trade] was more widespread than historians are willing to admit,” given the scholarship of Walter Johnson, Steven Deyle, Edward E. Baptist, and Robert H. Gudmestad (p. 39). Genealogists will find some of the guesses regarding Murphy’s family history perplexing. Based upon a pension application from Murphy’s mother, McDaniels points to an enslaved man named Jerry Skillman as Murphy’s father. During the Civil War, Skillman had enlisted with the United States Colored Troops at Camp Nelson, Kentucky, and McDaniels dedicates much of his third chapter to the possible relocation of the entire Murphy clan to Camp Nelson and Skillman’s military service in the war before dying of disease in Camp Nelson’s hospital in July 1865. Although one document in Skillman’s service records lists an 1865 death date, a quick perusal of the remainder of his file suggests he died in the fall of...