Childhood and Family
Cunningham Graves was born to George and Betty Graves.1 They lived in Lexington, where he worked odd jobs. In the 1930’s, they returned to Maddoxtown.2 He grew up in Lexington, Kentucky in Maddoxtown. Maddoxtown, established in 1871, is located along Huffman Mill Pike. It was one of the many freetowns in central Kentucky. The town continued to grow and within a few years, several families lived there and worked on farms in the area.3 Graves’ family and friends called him “Bub.”
In 1917, Cunningham married Lou Willie Williams and they had five children.4
While working as a groom at Faraway Farm, Cunningham took care of War Admiral and War Relic, the offspring of Man o’ War. 5 Man o’ War is known to be the greatest racehorse ever.6 The horse had a long career of breaking records and he won twenty out of twenty-one races.7 During a typical day at the farm, War Admiral severely injured Graves. The horse kicked Graves in the mouth knocking out his front teeth while he was loading him in the van.8 War Admiral, a 1937 American Triple Crown winner, was known to have a bad temper and be difficult to handle.9 Cunningham recovered and continued to work with horses.
During the winter months, Graves traveled with the horses. They went to racetracks in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Hialeah, Florida. In the spring of 1946, he began taking care of Man o‘ War when Will Harbut, Man o’ War’s second stud groom, became ill. Harbut suffered a stroke and he could no longer care for the horse. Cunningham often referred to the chestnut stallion as “The Boss.”10
Legacy and Death
Graves’ legacy is that he has the distinction of holding the reins of Man o’ War in one of the horse’s last few photographs.11 The image above was captured on October 29, 1947, the day of Man o ’ War’s thirtieth birthday celebration at the farm. It was just three days before the horse’s death.12 After the photo was taken, Man o’ War backed up and went down on one knee. Graves remarked that the horse was tired and that he had better take “The Boss” back into the stall. Man o’ War laid down once he got into the stall and he never got up again.13 Graves was one of only three people that were present at the time of Man o’ War’s death. Patrick O’Neill, the farm manager, and veterinarian, Dr. William McGee, were also there.14
The image of Graves with Man o’ War is a great example of the role that he played in the history of the horse industry. Many African Americans were great horsemen. The photograph allows you to visualize such relationships and their skills. Graves' story will never be forgotten as it earned him a place in the archives of the racing industry. He was buried at the Maddoxtown Cemetery.15
“Lexington’s Phoenix Festival Honors Man O’ War, Grooms Harbut and Graves.” Paulick Report, October 2, 2017. https://www.paulickreport.com/news/the-biz/lexingtons-phoenix-festival-honors-man-o-war-grooms-harbut-graves/
Drager, M.. " War Admiral." Encyclopedia Britannica, March 16, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/War-Admiral.
Drager, M.. "Man o' War." Encyclopedia Britannica, March 16, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Man-o-War.
“Cunningham Graves (1898-1963) Grave Memorial.” Accessed February 14, 2021. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/32582428/cunningham-graves.
“Kentucky Death Records, 1899–1963,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : downloaded 24 February 2021), imaged certificate #11707,Cunningham Graves, died Fayette County, 24 April 1963; citing “Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives; Frankfort, Kentucky.”
Fayette County Clerk. 1917. “Marriage Record of Cunningham Graves and Lou Willie Williams.” Book 14, page 286. County Colored Marriage Records.
Notable Kentucky African Americans Database. “Maddoxtown (Fayette County, KY).” UKY, March 11, 2021. https://nkaa.uky.edu/nkaa/items/show/328.
Shulman, Lenny. “Worth a Thousand Words: A Photograph of His Grandfather with Man o’ War Sparks Local Historian.” BloodHorse.com, March 25, 2017.
Anderson, Abigail. “A Living Flame: Will Harbut And Man O’war,” The Vault: Horse racing past and present. August 23, 2011. https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/a-living-flame-will-harbut-and-man-owar/.
United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1930. T626, 2,667 rolls.
Talbott, Tim. “Man-O-War,” ExploreKYHistory, accessed March 6, 2021 https://explorekyhistory.ky.gov/items/show/325
When citing this article in Chicago Manual of Style use this format: Last name, first name of Author. Chronicle of African Americans in the Horse Industry. n.d. “Title of Profile or Story.” International Museum of the Horse. Accessed date. URL of page cited.
- 1. Death Certificate
- 2. 1930 Census
- 3. NKAA Database
- 4. Fayette County Marriage Record
- 5. Shulman
- 6. Talbott (“Man o’ War”)
- 7. Encyclopedia Britannica (“Man o’ War”)
- 8. Shulman
- 9. Encyclopedia Britannica (“War Admiral”)
- 10. Livingston
- 11. Paulick Report
- 12. Shulman
- 13. The Vault
- 14. Shulman
- 15. Find-a-grave memorial #32582428