So it is with Isaac Murphy. The portrait that has survived is one of a man who was both a superstar athlete—one who could be called America’s first nationally known sports hero, and a man still regarded by many as the greatest jockey ever to ride in North America—and a paragon of modesty, restraint, and quiet dignity in his public demeanor. He was also Black. That fact passes with bare mention nowadays, yet little is known of how his heritage and experiences as a Black man one generation removed from slavery affected his upbringing, his thinking, and the public demeanor that he chose to adopt. Equally little is known of the Black racing community in which he learned his craft and to which he remained connected throughout his life—a community in which many were respected by whites for their skills but not as fellow human beings and fellow citizens.
Katherine C. Mooney’s biography Isaac Murphy: The Rise and Fall of a Black Jockey (2023, Yale University Press) takes us back into the period he lived in, which spanned the decades following the end of the Civil War up into the Gilded Age. Slavery was officially ended, but in the brave new world of postwar race relations, both Blacks and whites wrestled painfully with what it meant to both races to shape a new political and legal reality from attitudes and patterns of life carried over from a time when the heavy majority of Blacks in the United States were legally owned by whites.
Murphy did not leave personal letters or journals testifying to what he thought regarding these matters, and what he chose to say in public was carefully considered in light of his need to maintain his professional image and his employment. To her credit, Mooney does not presume to speak for him. Instead, she focuses on bringing to light the web of relationships in which he lived and his status as the most iconic member of a Black community that had a degree of prosperity and respectability but at the same time faced ongoing legal disabilities, varying degrees of racism, and the need to maintain at least some degree of goodwill from the wealthy whites on whom their professions depended. Mooney also explores the other difficult reality of Murphy’s life: the burden of being in a profession which placed ever-increasing demands on his health that, in the end, could not be sustained.
Those looking for either a tale of Black triumph against all odds or a polemic against the evils of American racism will be disappointed by Mooney’s work. What the reader will find is a carefully-crafted narrative portraying the life of an intelligent, thoughtful man who was in the difficult position of having influence without power, and who was attempting to navigate complex realities regarding race, community, and personal needs while living in the public eye of a society that demanded conformity to its terms. How well he succeeded, and whether his story raises more questions than answers, is left to the reader.