Sport and the Color Line: Black Athletes and Race Relations in Twentieth-Century America

By Patrick B. Miller; David K. Wiggins | Go to book overview

5

"WE WERE LADIES, WE JUST PLAYED LIKE BOYS"

African-American Womanhood and Competitive Basketball at Bennett College, 1928-1942

Rita Liberti

THROUGH THE EFFORTS OF a handful of sport history scholars, in recent years our knowledge and understanding of the collegiate athletic experiences of African-American women has grown significantly. Although in its infancy, this scholarship has moved beyond the analytic categories of race and gender to engage the complexities of class, helping to bring about an end to the mythical notion of a monolithic black female sport history. The conclusions drawn in these studies suggest that among elite black colleges and universities the tendency throughout the 1920s and 1930s was to abandon an earlier commitment to women's intercollegiate basketball. 1 School leaders at Howard, Fisk, Morgan, and Hampton believed that women's participation in competitive intercollegiate basketball ran counter to a middle-class feminine ideal grounded in refinement and respectability. Thus, support once given to intercollegiate basketball was channeled to less competitive structures, such as intramurals and play-days, with emphasis placed on activities that were deemed more suitable for female involvement including badminton, archery, and table tennis. 2

While some African- American schools actively sought to dismantle their female basketball programs through the late 1920s and early 1930s, others were just beginning to invest institutional resources. Reflecting on this rise in involvement, in 1927, the Chicago Defender concluded that "women [sic] athletics are booming among dixie institutions." 3 To varying degrees, many public and private black colleges and universities across the South participated in women's basketball competition. 4 In Arkansas, for example, the Philander Smith College women's team, after having defeated all of the competition, declared themselves state champions in 1918. 5 Beginning in 1926 the Georgia-South Carolina Athletic Association, which represented seven schools in the two states, announced that the conference title and trophy was to be awarded to the women's team that played at least seven games with at least four different teams in the schedule. 6 In North Carolina several private black institutions initiated women's intercollegiate basketball teams in the 1920s, including Shaw University, Livingstone College, Barber-Scotia College, Immanuel Lutheran College, and Bennett College in Greensboro. 7 The wide range of institutional support of women's basketball by black colleges and universities reflects a spectrum of responses and attitudes concerning female participation in sport during the 1920s-1940s.

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