The museum is one of many sights around the state that recognize and celebrate the achievements of black Kentuckians. A statewide African-American heritage itinerary debuted last year, and there’s no better time than Black History Month to check out the impressive line-up of attractions.
In Mammoth Dome, a room on the historic tour of Mammoth Cave, visitors stand on a platform at the top of a spiral staircase, peering down into a 192-foot-high shaft that illustrates the ongoing erosion of this ancient geological marvel. A guide explains that passageways are being carved by underground water today just as they were a million years ago.
Mammoth Cave National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in central Kentucky, is home to 412 miles of subterranean passageways that comprise the world’s longest cave system.
Much of what is known today about the sprawling limestone labyrinth, a wonderland of icicle-like stalactites, waterways and gypsum “flowers,” can be traced back to the courageous explorations of the first modern Mammoth Cave guide, Stephen Bishop, who described it as a “grand, gloomy and peculiar place.”
In 1838, the enslaved 17-year-old was brought to the cave by his owner who dreamed of turning the site into a tourist attraction. Bishop was tasked not only with guiding visitors, but with discovering what lay beyond the eight miles of known passages.
Mammoth Dome is widely considered one of Bishop’s greatest discoveries. He was the first to cross the 105-foot Bottomless Pit, crawling across the yawning abyss on a horizontal ladder with a lamp held in his teeth. Mammoth Dome was what he found on the other side.
Cave exploration was arduous and dangerous in the 19th century. A burned-out lantern meant absolute darkness, a terrifying prospect. Had Bishop gotten lost, the cave would likely have been his tomb. To illustrate the point, guides briefly turn out the lights on cave tours.
Bishop’s reputation as an exceptional guide and spelunker gained him respect far and wide. By the time of his death at age 37, Bishop had mapped many additional miles of the cave system. His grave site can be viewed in the Old Guide’s Cemetery.
Oliver Lewis, the winner of the inaugural 1875 Kentucky Derby, thundered to victory on a horse named Aristides, receiving well-deserved accolades from an adoring crowd. Lewis, like 13 of the 15 jockeys who competed that day, was black. Black jockeys were the norm for many years, but fast forward to the modern Kentucky Derby, and they are as rare as Triple Crown winners.
“Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf,” the newest permanent exhibition at the Kentucky Horse Park’s International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, unearths the forgotten stories of black jockeys and trainers, the backbone of the early thoroughbred industry. And it explores how the advent of Jim Crow segregation laws eliminated their opportunities and erased their accomplishments.
The career of Isaac Murphy (1861-1896), one of the greatest jockeys of all time, is meticulously chronicled. A three-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, he was the first jockey inducted into the hall of fame at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fall in Saratoga Springs, New York.
The exhibit also features lesser known black horsemen who made notable contributions to Kentucky’s racing industry.
Bring the kids. Little riders love playing dress up in colorful jockey silks.
A new 6-foot-tall bronze statue of Russellville native Alice Allison Dunnigan (1906-1983), a trailblazing black journalist, stands as a tribute to a woman who refused to let poverty and the dual barriers of race and gender prevent her from reaching her career goals. It was erected on the grounds of the West Kentucky African American Heritage Center in Russellville in August. Originally it was unveiled in 2018 at the Newseum, a now-shuttered museum in Washington, D.C., that was dedicated to the press.
Alice was just visiting the capital, but now she’s home.
The adjacent Payne-Dunnigan House honors Dunnigan’s legacy and tells her inspiring story.
Dunnigan was the first black woman accredited to cover the White House, and when she joined Harry Truman’s Whistle Stop campaign, she became the first black woman to travel with and report on a presidential tour.
On view are some of Dunnigan’s newspaper articles and historical photos of her with the famous political figures she covered.
To learn more about Kentucky's African-American itineraries, visit www.unforgettableky.com
IF YOU GO
Muhammad Ali Center.
$10-$14. 144 N. Sixth St., Louisville, Kentucky. 502-584-9254, www.alicenter.org.
$17, historic tour. $8-$18, additional tours. 1 Mammoth Cave Parkway, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. 270-758-2180, www.nps.gov/maca/index.htm
International Museum of the Horse.
Free with Kentucky Horse Park admission, $12-$20, depending on the season. 4089 Iron Works Parkway, Lexington, Kentucky. 859-259-4232, www.imh.org
West Kentucky African American Heritage Museum.
Free. 252 Morgan St., Russellville, Kentucky. 270-893-9128, www.kentuckytourism.com/west-ky-african-american-heritage-museum
Where to Stay
21 C Museum Hotel. An art hotel in the heart of downtown Louisville. $169-$235. 700 W. Main St. Louisville, Kentucky. 502-217-6300, www.21cmuseumhotels.com/louisville
Kentucky Grand Hotel and Spa. A suite-only hotel about 25 minutes from Russellville. $195-$325. 635 College St., Russellville, Kentucky. 270-779-8988, www.thekygrand.com
The Lodge at Mammoth Cave. $136. 171 Hotel Road, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. 844-760-2283, www.mammothcavelodge.com
The Kentucky Castle. A luxury hotel nestled among Lexington's picturesque horse farms. $269-$869. 230 Pisgah Pike, Versailles, Kentucky. 859-256-0322, www.thekentuckycastle.com
Where to Eat
Butchertown Grocery. An upscale restaurant serving steaks and seafood. Entrees $16-$75. 1076 E. Washington St., Louisville, Kentucky. 502-742-8315, www.butchertowngrocery.com
Ariella. Serves classic Italian food. Entrees $12.95-$28.95. 183 S. Main Street, Russellville, Kentucky. 270-731-0004, www.ariellarestaurant.com
Green River Grill at Mammoth Cave Lodge. Serves Southern favorites such as fried catfish and barbecue. Currently serving breakfast and lunch only. Dinner service resumes for the season in March. Entrees $12-$27. 171 Hotel Road, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. 844-760-2283, www.mammothcavelodge.com/green-river-grill/
Honeywood. Classic Southern cuisine with a contemporary flair. Entrees $13-$28. 110 Summit at Fritz Farm, Suite 140, Lexington, Kentucky. 859-469-8234, www.honeywoodrestaurant.com