Isaac Murphy


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The Rise and Fall of a Black Jockey

Katherine C. Mooney

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The rise and fall of one of America’s first Black sports celebrities
Isaac Murphy, born enslaved in 1861, still reigns as one of the greatest jockeys in American history. Black jockeys like Murphy were at the top of the most popular sport in America at the end of the nineteenth century. They were internationally famous, the first African American superstar athletes—and with wins in three Kentucky Derbies and countless other prestigious races, Murphy was the greatest of them all.
At the same time, he lived through the seismic events of Emancipation and Reconstruction and formative conflicts over freedom and equality in the United States. And inevitably he was drawn into those conflicts, with devastating consequences.
Katherine C. Mooney uncovers the history of Murphy’s troubled life, his death in 1896 at age thirty-five, and his afterlife. In recounting Murphy’s personal story, she also tells two of the great stories of change in nineteenth-century America: the debates over what a multiracial democracy might look like and the battles over who was to hold power in an economy that increasingly resembled the corporate, wealth-polarized world we know today.

Katherine C. Mooney is James P. Jones Associate Professor of History at Florida State University. She is the author of Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack. She lives in Tallahassee, FL.

Isaac Murphy is a concise, yet highly informative, detailed rendering of the world of thoroughbred horses and jockeys, the Black struggle during the Nadir, and the impact of an extraordinary Black athlete.”—Gerald L. Early, author of A Level Playing Field: African American Athletes and the Republic of Sports

“An eloquent, deeply insightful portrait of an extraordinary athlete at a time when this nation hovered between rising above old racial wrongs and plunging back into a racist abyss. Isaac Murphy’s brilliant career and heartbreaking decline embody this era’s great potential and its tragic end. Required reading for anyone who wants to understand the forces shaping sports, race, and national character in the nineteenth century and beyond.”—Pamela Grundy, co-author of Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women’s Basketball

“Mooney deftly contextualizes one of the most significant figures in horseracing history. Anyone interested in how American sports and society reflect and affect each other should read this book.”—James C. Nicholson, author of Racing for America: The Horserace of the Century and the Redemption of a Sport
ISBN: 9780300254426
Publication Date: May 2, 2023
192 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2
10 b/w illus.
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