Sports and Race in 20th-Century America

AHA Session 293
Sunday, January 8, 2017: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Mile High Ballroom 4B (Colorado Convention Center, Ballroom Level)
Leah Wright Rigueur, Harvard University
Leah Wright Rigueur, Harvard University

Session Abstract

Sports in America have offered a unique arena for participants and spectators to embrace and challenge key dynamics of racial politics, from integration and assimilation to separatism and radicalism. Most scholarship on race and sports has focused on major athletic figures: Jackie Robinson, Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith. This panel “Race and Sports in Twentieth Century,” looks at three new topics that investigate the role sports have played in American racial discourse from 1920 to 1970.

David Weinfeld, lecturer in history at the University of Toronto, looks at how sportswriters portrayed diverse athletes in the interwar period. His paper, “Race, Ethnicity, and Assimilation on the Sports Page,” focuses on baseball and boxing coverage in the mainstream and African American press in five cities: New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Weinfeld shows how sportswriters communicated all three dominant paradigms of American thought towards white immigrants: prejudice, the assimilationist melting pot, or more progressive ideal of cultural pluralism. In doing so, however, these sportswriters crystalized the American ideal of whiteness, further reinforcing the color barrier in sports.

Joshua K. Wright, assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES), contributes a paper titled “Unsung: Jim Crow The Rise and Fall of UMES Football.” Located in an era associated with horrific lynching and plantation slavery, UMES was one of the most successful collegiate football teams in history, and especially in the history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. From 1946 to 1970 the UMES Hawks football team won over 75 percent of their games. Nonetheless, UMES cancelled the football program in 1970. In this paper, Wright charts the history UMES football in the Jim Crow era and beyond, looks at the role integration had on the dissolution of the program as well as modern attempts to reinstate it.

Jamal Ratchford, assistant professor of history at Colorado College, provides a new perspective on a controversial episode in American sports history. His paper, “The Most Misunderstood Person in American Sport History: Adolph Rupp and the Complicated Politics of Integration,” looks at the 1966 NCAA championship basketball game when Texas Western College, a team with five Black starters, defeated Rupp’s all-white squad from the University of Kentucky. First, Ratchford argues that the game in fact served to reinforce segregation in the NCAA, which continued to ban competition between HBCU’s and majority white schools. Second, focus on this game overlooks the earlier success of all-Black teams in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), including Tennessee State University’s three consecutive basketball titles against all-white competition. Finally, Ratchford revisits the legacy of Coach Rupp, long regarded as an overt racist, who in fact had coached Black players and assisted efforts in integrating the game of basketball. 

Leah Wright Rigueur, assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and a historian by training, is an expert on Black politics, African American Republicans, and Jackie Robinson, will offer commentary.

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