Like much of society, professional American sports were segregated in the first part of the 20th Century, preventing black athletes from competing with white athletes. In baseball, there were established ‘Negro’ leagues for non-white players (while these leagues were predominantly African-American, there were also several Latin-Americans playing in the leagues, as well) through the early 1950s. The National Basketball League officially integrated in 1950. While professional football started with integration from 1900s-1930s (still, the percentage of African-American players was negligible), the National Football League was completely segregated from 1934-1945. The degree to which these degrading segregation policies hurt black communities – in and outside of sports – is immense, and not simply in the past. These official policies, explicit at the time, have affected communities in ways which have persisted through generations, and still exist as (generally) more implicit racially segregated policies. Whether it’s due to ‘old boy-esque’ business models among the dominant rich, white men who run professional leagues, or from some other factor like lingering racist stereotypes, there are still today glaring discrepancies in the number of black coaches, officials, and administrators as compared with both players and society in general. Much more work is needed in the fight past these old, yet ever persistent, racist and segregating policies. The NFL’s ‘Rooney Rule,’ established in 2003, requires teams to interview one minority candidate for head coaching and upper-level management positions. The simple fact that a rule like this was needed highlights the level to which sports leagues are still racially divided. With it being acknowledged that today’s sporting world has major hurdles to overcome in terms of racial justice, the rest of this post will simply aim to honor, respect and highlight a few major people and groups in the road through and past the segregation policies in the early and mid 20th Century. While doing this, I think two things are important to keep in mind: these events were not too long ago – we are only a few generations removed from the late 19th Century; and, the fight for racial justice – both within and outside of sport – is not over. And, of course, many more people (of all ethnicities, races, colors, and places), helped break through the devastating color barriers which preoccupied professional sports for so long.
Setting the Stage with Horse Racing
There was a time, in the late 19th Century, when black athletes dominated a sport – horse racing. When horse racing became an organized sport in the early 1900s, many black jockeys were at the top of the stage. When the Kentucky Derby began in 1875, 13 of 15 jockeys were African-American, and 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derbies were won by black athletes. Their success was one of the first times in American sports that black athletes truly dominated the ranks of an entire sport. Isaac Murphy – the first millionaire black athlete – was the first jockey to win three Kentucky Derbies (1884, 1890, and 1891). Jimmy Winkfield, another black jockey, won the Kentucky Derby in 1901 and 1902. There hasn’t been another black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby since. This is due to the Jim Crow laws of the 1880s which segregated blacks and whites, making it increasingly difficult for young black athletes to become engaged in horse racing (or, of course, any other sport). What was once a sport where black athletes could thrive, became a sport desolate of black participants. While this may not seem like a success story to fight against segregation, I believe it is. It serves as a stark example of how devastating the impacts of the entire set of policies of segregation were. These racist policies truly abolished black participation in a sport which was once dominated by that same group. These jockeys – including the likes of Isaac Murphy and Jimmy Winkfield – should be seen as great pioneers, if only for the reason that they show the beginnings, before segregation. Looking back at this remarkable group of athletes serves as a reminder that racial segregation whites was a purely racist institution, with no validity in the arguments of differences in quality, character, or worth between blacks and whites.
A Writer and Fighter
Wendell Smith, a journalist, is perhaps best known for his mentoring and accompanying role with Jackie Robinson as Robinson began his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first black player in Major League Baseball. Smith’s work goes far beyond his help with Robinson, though. Before and after traveling with Robinson, giving him advice and help with life, baseball, and navigating through the tremendous hardships of being the first black player in the MLB, Smith embarked on an incredible journalism career. As a baseball writer at the Pittsburgh Courier, Smith was a strong advocate for integration in professional baseball, attempting to bring black players across the color barrier into the then all white MLB. Through his journalism as well as networking, Smith fought for this vision for social justice in a myriad of ways. He argued for the sake of black communities as well as baseball fans everywhere – claiming that segregation deprived MLB fans of seeing some of the best baseball players in the world. This unique style of advocating crossed the black-white divide, because of its appeal to the game of baseball itself. Smith drew wide audiences, both in the public as well as within baseball. A first semi-successful alliance saw him team up with politician Isadore Muchnick in what ended up as fruitless tryouts for black baseball players for the Boston professional teams. After this is when Smith started working with Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to bring in the first African-American baseball player (already well known to be the great Jackie Robinson) onto his team. Smith was a strong public voice for the integration of professional baseball, even when critics argued vehemently that his goals of ending Negro Leagues were harmful to black communities. He retaliated, “All they cared about was the perpetuation of the slave trade they had developed. They will shout to the high heavens that racial progress comes first and baseball next. But actually the preservation of their shaky, littered, infested, segregated baseball domicile comes first, last and always.” Wendell Smith was much more than the mentor to Jackie Robinson. He was an advocate, a fighter, and an extraordinary journalist – he should be remembered for these wonderful characteristics, and many more which depict his great legacy.
Author: Mitchell Kiefer
Chamberlain, Gaius. “Wendell Smith.” Great Black Heroes. N.p., 19 Dec. 2013. Web.
McKenzie, Sheena. “The Forgotten Godfathers of Black American Sport – CNN.com.” CNN. Cable News Network, 22 Feb. 2013. Web.
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