August 30, 2011

African Americans played a major role in Kentucky’s early equine history as jockeys, trainers and groomsmen. A University of Kentucky soil scientist is working to make sure their stories, and others, are not forgotten.

For the past few years, Mark Coyne, who works in the UK College of Agriculture, has led several efforts to introduce UK students to this rich history while they help maintain and improve Lexington’s African Cemetery No. 2.

Located on East Seventh Street, the cemetery was built in 1869 by former slaves, who were members of the Union Benevolent Society, No. 2. It is the final resting place of at least 80 individuals who were well known in early thoroughbred racing. Some of the notable people interred there include Oliver Lewis, winning jockey of the first Kentucky Derby; James "Soup" Perkins, the youngest winning jockey of the Kentucky Derby, and Abraham "Abe" Perry, trainer of the winner of the 1885 Kentucky, Tennessee and Coney Island derbies. Isaac Murphy, who rode three Kentucky Derby winners, was originally buried there, but his remains are now at the Kentucky Horse Park.

In June, Coyne and several UK students finished their work with the UK Commonwealth Collaborative called the Young Equine Scholars Initiative. Commonwealth Collaboratives were started by former UK President Lee T. Todd, Jr. in 2006 and use UK’s resources to address problems that are holding back the state’s cultural and economic progress.

Through the Young Equine Scholars, students researched the history of about 80 individuals interred in the cemetery. The information they gathered was placed on signs that now hang throughout the cemetery at some of the notable individuals’ gravesites and in three brochures that are available at the cemetery.

“As we’ve done the research, what we’ve found is that a lot of these individuals that were involved with the equine industry moved away but came back here to be buried,” said Coyne, who is also a member of the cemetery’s board of directors.

They also researched the history of the Kentucky Association Race Track, and now have information posted at the track’s former site near William Wells Brown Elementary School in Lexington.

Yvonne Giles is a cemetery board member, who became involved with the cemetery while searching her families’ genealogy. She has 46 members of her family buried there and has done extensive genealogical searches on just about every gravestone in the cemetery. She helped teach the students involved with the Young Equine Scholars Initiative about genealogical research.

“We look at it (the cemetery) as a modern-day laboratory to find your roots, conduct research and learn how to maintain a historical site,” said Giles, who is a UK food sciences alumna. “If we didn’t have cemeteries we wouldn’t have much of a history, particularly African American history, because a lot of our heritage is not written down.”

As part of the initiative, a student designed a landscape plan to draw interest to and improve the physical aesthetics of the cemetery. UK’s Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity helped install the main bulletin board in the cemetery that includes some historical information as well as the brochures.

For the past two years, Coyne has had a group of students from UK For Unity and Service In Our Neighborhoods (FUSION) volunteer their services for the day. FUSION is a chance for students, faculty and staff to donate three hours of their time doing one of several community service projects. This event occurs as students return to school in August. In 2010, FUSION students installed posts for signage for the historical information and weeded throughout the cemetery. With a grant from the UK Ag and HES Alumni Association, FUSION students this year mulched and weeded around trees and shrubs in the cemetery, per the recommendation of the landscaping plan.

Sarah Jones, a junior from Louisville, was the Fusion site leader for the students who volunteered their time at the cemetery this year.

“I wanted to do a project that would allow me to do outside work and get my hands dirty,” she said. “The cemetery has so much history and is well maintained but needed a little work. Plus, it is such an important part of this area and Lexington.”

The UK Ag and HES Alumni grant will also provide money for tree removal and tree planting at the cemetery that will occur this fall and next spring.

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