Here are the facts: In the first Kentucky Derby run in 1875, thirteen of the fifteen jockeys were black, including the winner, Oliver Lewis on Aristides. Black jockeys won fifteen of the first twenty-eight derbies. Isaac Murphy, whose winnings built a mansion in Lexington near the old Kentucky Association racetrack, won the derby three times and had an overall win record of 34.5 percent. Jimmy Winkfield, who was born in 1882, won the derby twice. He went to Russia to race and then fled the Bolshevik Revolution, leading a band of Thoroughbreds to Poland. Winkfield lived the high life as a trainer on the tracks outside Paris, France, but when he returned to Kentucky in 1961 at the invitation of racing journalists, he was turned away at the door of the Brown Hotel because he was black.
He was a modernist scholar, one of the earliest, and for decades a leading translator of ancient Greek poetry; but he also wrote with authority on the social history of the pear, Mother Ann Lee and Shaker aesthetics, Dogon cosmogony, the anthropology of table manners, 2 Timothy and the Pauline doctrine, Louis Agassiz, Eudora Welty, geodesic domes, the paintings of Balthus, and the behavior of wasps—which he fed in his home from a saucer of sugar water. He himself subsisted on fried bologna sandwiches and Marlboros.
In “A Town Under Trial,” from our Spring 2017 issue, reporter Nick Tabor relates how an unsolved 1994 double murder continues to haunt a small town in southwest Kentucky. To capture Oak Grove and its trailer parks and “commercial strips of liquor stores, topless bars, and cash-advance shops” familiar to military towns across the country, we enlisted Nashville-based photographer Tamara Reynolds, who was already familiar with the area. Her images convey the tenuous, transitory nature of habitation and commerce in Oak Grove and the unavoidable influence of the military-industrial complex on life there.
In the early 1990s, New Life Fitness & Massage kept its lights on twenty hours a day, closing at five every morning and reopening at nine. Everyone in Oak Grove knew it was a brothel. Fort Campbell, one of the nation’s largest Army posts, sits on top of the Kentucky-Tennessee border, and New Life stood right outside its northern gates next to Interstate 24. Many of its clients were Screaming Eagles: paratroopers from the famous 101st Airborne Division. Most of the others were truckers off the highway and locals of all stripes; some say judges and other dignitaries would come up from Nashville, an hour down the highway, to be ushered in and out covertly.
When Prince sang “Soft and Wet” from a 45 on my record player, the lyrics were hidden beneath the funky beat. My grandparents never knew what I was listening to. Prince and his doe eyes and big Afro and glistening lean body stared back at me from the pages of Right On! magazine. We lived far out into the woods, on a gravel road. My grandparents were farmers. Books and magazines and television told me that normal black girls did not live like this. But I did. Prince was the sex I knew nothing about. Prince sealed my fantasies about a larger world.
The 2016 news cycle published many articles and images of Eastern Kentucky as both white and poor. However, the town of Lynch, an historically African American community in Harlan County that was established in 1917 by the U.S. Coal and Coke Company, stands strong.
Atget, Modotti, Weston, Stieglitz, Avedon, Karsh, Brassaï, Bresson, Ulmann. Jim would hand the books to me with no explanation, no bias of who was who and why and what the world already thought of the work. He told me only to put paper clips on the pages holding photographs that “found something in me.”