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Sports, African Americans

Struggle and achievement, prejudice and recognition are the themes that characterize the history of black athletes in American sports. That history parallels and illuminates the arduous course of black Americans in our nation's society from colonial times to the present. The end of slavery did not provide blacks with unblemished opportunities to succeed, even in sports and entertainment, fields of work where individual skill, talent, and character would seem the essential quality for success. Only a relatively few black Americans were able to become visible in these activities dominated by the prevailing majority of whites. But sports opportunities offered the talented blacks more opportunities for stardom than most other channels of work. Despite exclusion and unbridled hostility, blacks gradually enlarged their toehold and earned prominence strictly--and mainly quietly--by perfecting their talents and pursuing their goals with unrelenting determination. Success for contemporary black athletes in America is not without problems, however, for there is little room "at the top" for uncounted millions of black youths who emulate their sports heroes and dream of high salaries or stardom in the big leagues.

 


Sports, Boxing, African Americans

Boxing provided black American athletes with initial success in sports. Both Tom Molineaux (an ex-slave) and Bill Richmond, for example, were professional fights in the 1700s. Opportunities for success continued in the 1800s, with George Dixon becoming bantamweight champion in 1890. But John L. Sullivan added to racial barriers by refusing to box with blacks. Not until 1908 did a black, Jack Johnson, win the heavyweight title and a chance for big money. However, prejudice against Johnson (and other black fighters) assumed ugly proportions. Joe Louis, the new black heavyweight champion (1937-49), through outstanding accomplishments and attractive personal qualities, diminished white intolerance at least to a noticeable degree. Weathering rampant bigotry from the 1880s until discrimination lessened in more recent years, blacks persevered as professional fighters. The sport is generally as regarded as an upward avenue for most minorities.

 


Sports, Baseball, African Americans

Baseball history bears highly visible and well-known scars of racial prejudice. The major leagues of the "National Game" were lily-white for many decades. Blacks were explicitly banned from the National Association in 1867 and professional organizations thereafter. Nevertheless, discrimination was not consistent until 1892, and a number of black players were active in minor and major league baseball in the 1880s. By 1900, blacks were organizing their own professional teams, and in 1920 they started the first Negro League that lasted until the Depression. A second league survived until 1948. When Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby began playing in the major leagues in 1947, the integration of professional baseball ended the all-black leagues.

 


Sports, Football, African Americans

Blacks have played collegiate football since the 1890s and were ranked as All-Americans on a number of occasions. While professional football teams included blacks in the early years, black players disappeared from the rosters from 1933 until 1946. Some apologists suggest that the Depression prevented most blacks from attending college, but possible implicit understanding among professional football executives may have been more the reason. It was not until 1946 that Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns hired Bill Wills and Marion Motley, and the Los Angeles Rams signed Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, that blacks were again admitted to the ranks of pro football. ß Sports, Track and Field, African Americans-Track has been basically an amateur sport and less subjected to prejudicial pressures from commercial interests. There were few strong organizing groups that effectively discriminated against blacks. While blacks such as George C. Poage won second place in the 400-meter hurdles in the St. Louis Olympics of 1904, and other blacks established records, the general atmosphere of intimidation probably accounts for the lack of a more prominent showing in the early years. The great achiever who influenced the course of black stars on field and cinders was Jesse Owens, who set five world records on May 25, 1935, and won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Owens' accomplishment, in contrast to Hitler's ideas on white supremacy, has become a legendary and constant reminder that talent and achievement respect no color line. Since Owns, both black men and black women, such as Wilma Rudolph-winner of three gold medals in the 1960 Olympics-have earned international recognition at all levels of the sport.

 



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