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

I

SPORT AND COMMUNITY IN THE ERA OF JIM CROW

"AT A TIME WHEN black Americans were denied basic fairness across the board, the theory that hard work could trump racism was both noble and patently false." (Brent Staples in the New York Times, February 1, 2003). Indeed, before the middle of the twentieth century, when mainstream institutions-major colleges and universities, law firms, corporate offices, the U.S. military, and civil service-made their first tentative but significant efforts to include black Americans, positions of leadership and responsibility were filled principally within the African-American community. The walls of segregation were built thick and high during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth, and racism manifested itself not only in exclusionary practices, which pervaded the sporting world as well, but also in the myriad indignities and the outright violence regularly confronted by blacks.

No one narrative captures the ambition and despair, the frustration and striving that characterized the experience of Jim Crow for the mass of black Americans. Although there was no Mason-Dixon Line demarking the boundaries of racism in America, the Great Migration of millions of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North did suggest that greater opportunity and freedom in cities like Pittsburgh possessed substantial appeal. There, black Americans faced continued hardship, but their impressive energy in (re)creating their churches and benevolent associations, in founding business enterprises, and establishing community centers-including sporting clubs, parks, and local YMCAs-spoke to a newfound spirit and sense of hope for the future. In many ways athletic achievement, even when displayed behind the veil of segregation, informed the concept of the "New Negro"-increasingly proud and assertive.

The emerging black press captured the vitality of northern communities when discussing politics, education, the African-American social swirl of the big cities, and the mounting number of achievements in the athletic arena. Occasional opportunities for

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