walkLEX: Soup Perkins Alley and the Last “Old-Time Southern Negro Jockey”

Soup Perkins Alley - Lexington, Ky.
The new “Soup Perkins Aly” in Lexington, Ky.

There is a good reason why I’ve never noticed Soup Perkins Alley before. It’s because it didn’t exist a month ago. On May 5, 2011, Mayor Gray signed Res. 152-2011 which, in part, renamed a portion of Morris Alley to Soup Perkins Alley. But who is Soup Perkins?


James “Soup” Perkins was a jockey who began racing at age 11 at a northern Kentucky race track situated in Latonia (near Covington and Newport) [*]. In 1895, he rode Halma to a win in the Kentucky Derby. After the race, the 90-pound African-American was asked his age; he replied, “going on sixteen.” At 15, Soup Perkins and Alonzo Clayton share distinction of being the youngest jockeys to win the Kentucky Derby.

Perkins got his nickname because he was known to love a bowl of soup. And he could afford to feed his small frame; his riding contract paid $5,000 annually. This is equal to an annual income of over $600,000 today!

In 1880, James Perkins was born in Lexington to former slaves of Major Flournoy. On the opening day of races at the old Kentucky Association track, October 16, 1893, Perkins rode five horses to victory before “a large crowd.” [Lexington Morning Transcript, p. 1. 10/17/1893]. The morning paper reported again on Perkins’ victories a few days later: “James “Soup” Perkins rode 5 winners yesterday and finished second on another mount. He is a 13-year-old colored boy.” [Lexington Morning Transcript, p. 1. 10/21/1893].

After his derby win in 1895, however, things began to unravel for Perkins. In 1897, Newport (Ky.) racing officials disqualified him from taking any mounts. [Lexington Leader, p. 2. 5/2/1897]. Later that year, his brother, Frank Perkins, “became suddenly insane” while lodging in Cincinnati. [Lexington Leader, p. 5. 10/9/1897].

By 1899, James “Soup” Perkins’ racing career was over and was described in the past tense: “at one time one of the most prominent jockeys in the West.” [Lexington Leader, p. 4. 8/25/1899]. His death was reported by the Lexington Leader in a section entitled Colored Notes: “James S. Perkins, the famous jockey, better known as “Soup” Perkins, departed this life Wednesday, August 10, 71 York street, Hamilton, Canada, at the Daniel Hotel. He was aged 33 years, five months, 12 days. The immediate cause of his death was heart failure.” [Lexington Leader, p.7. 8/21/1911]. His body was brought back to Lexington for burial at what is now the African Cemetery No. 2.

With his death, it was pronounced that “the last of the old-time Southern Negro jockeys passed away.” [Lexington Leader, p. 10. 9/12/1911.].