By LINDA BLACKFORD, editor of the Lexington Herald
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — When the Benevolent Society of Lexington decided to open a cemetery in 1869, it was deep in the country outside the city limits of Lexington. The society – formed by free blacks to bury the dead and care for the poor – maintained the cemetery for decades, until the benevolent societies fell out of favor. As Lexington grew around it, the eight-acre cemetery slowly fell into disrepair, overgrown with trees and weeds, with broken and missing headstones.
In the 1990s, several residents of Lexington began cutting weeds and discovered the wealth of history buried there. Today, African Cemetery No. 2 is a non-profit organization dedicated to keeping the cemetery in good physical condition so it can highlight the important black history within.
As researchers Anne Butler and Yvonne Giles first discovered, the cemetery holds the remains of some of history’s most famous Black Horsemen, those who ruled the early years. But as the research continues, more and more is being discovered about other sectors of society represented in it. As Board Chairman Mark Coyne has noted, it is one of the only cemeteries enhanced by the occupations of those buried there.
The late Anne Butler, a Kentucky State University professor and first volunteer, “brought to us the idea of recognizing particular groups of individuals and unique people in this place,” Coyne said.
Local historian Yvonne Giles continued the work with military veterans. Next, she says, she will focus on the women buried there.
Some of the most famous people buried there include:
— Isaac Burns Murphy: Winner of three Kentucky Derbies, including two in a row, and the first African-American inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1955. His 44% winning percentage is still unbroken, according to the Notable Kentucky Base of data on African Americans at the University of Kentucky.
– Oliver Lewis: the jockey who won the first Kentucky Derby in 1875. Other riders buried there include Abraham Perry, trainer of Joe Cotton, winner of Kentucky, Tennessee, Coney Island and five others derby races in 1885 and James “Soup” Perkins, who tied a record as the youngest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby in 1895.
— Robert Charles O’Hara Benjamin: Journalist, author, civil rights lawyer. In 1900, Benjamin was shot in the back and killed at the Irishtown compound in Lexington by a white Democratic compound worker because Benjamin opposed the harassment of black voters as they attempted to register to vote. The shooter, Michael Moynahan claimed self-defense and his case was dismissed.
– George Prosser: He joined the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Division, featured in the movie “Glory”, and fought in the Battle of Fort Wagner in South Carolina. He had been missing in action, but survived to become an African Methodist minister, which eventually led him to Lexington.
– Nathan Caulder: At 18, Caulder joined the Army and later served in K Troop of the 9th Cavalry, deployed to protect federal employees removing illegal fences in Wyoming and other western states. He served in the Philippines and then in France during the First World War. Although he returned to the United States, later in the war he returned to France as a volunteer, where he died of illness. In 1920, his remains were buried in African Cemetery No. 2.
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