Sports History Files: The backroads of Jim Crow sports

The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, coming up next Wednesday, hasn’t been lost on sports historians and those who recall and preserve the legacy of segregated sports in America.

Jackie Robinson had integrated Major League Baseball only 16 years before Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Washington Monument, setting off the political momentum that led to the Civil Rights Act the following year and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

The history of and remnants from the most iconic sporting institution of segregated America are lovingly collected and curated at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, which is a must-stop for anyone interested in the rich cultural heritage of African-Americans in American history.

For example, the American Jazz Museum is in part a salute to Kansas City musical legends Charlie Parker and Count Basie.

On the black baseball diamonds, the Kansas City Monarchs stood regally, sending more players from the Negro Leagues to the majors than any other team.

soul of baseballOne of those players was not Buck O’Neill, but after his famous appearance on Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary he became the storyteller of a time that present-day Americans cannot comprehend.

A year before his death in 2006, O’Neill took former Kansas City Star sports columnist Joe Posnanski on a tour through the country for the book, “The Soul of Baseball.” While the story was about O’Neill’s unquenchable love for baseball, it is rooted in his very segregated upbringing in rural Florida between the wars, and how he, like many Southern blacks, had to leave home to have a better life.

These stories are important to keep in mind as another milestone date in the long struggle for civil rights in America is observed.

But efforts to collect the histories of African-American athletes in various states and communities, especially where Jim Crow laws were hard and brutal, have been painstakingly put together without the national media fanfare.

Last week The Birmingham News reported how the Alabama-based United States Sports Academy is conducting an oral history project to collect the stories of African-American athletes in time from Mobile. It is a city with a black sports heritage that goes far beyond the many major league Hall of Famers it has produced, although they certainly are a part of the project.

The focal point is preserving the memories of those who played in the Turkey Day Classic, an all-black high school football rivalry renewed every Thanksgiving between Mobile County Training School and Central. The game was played from 1952 to the mid-1960s, when the city’s schools finally were integrated. Says Larry Shears, who played for MCTS and later in the NFL:

“Even before I played in it, it was a big day for us, because it was a day you’d get dressed up and you’d go to the game. I mean, people went to that game like it was a rock ‘n’ roll show. They put their best stuff on. Some people bought stuff specifically for the game. It was a big day. That was a reason I wanted to play football. I wanted to play in that game. …

“Once you’d gone to a game, you’d see how big of a deal it was. The stadium was packed. People were everywhere from all different parts of town. Not only people from downtown and Magazine (Point) and Plateau, but people from most of the other schools wanted to go to that game. … It was a gala. It really was. And no only that, it was good competition and good football being played that day.”

You can hear Shears just lighting up, just like O’Neill often did, despite the indignity of segregation. But Shears recalls how the Turkey Day Classic drew white fans, and the larger scope of the USSA project illustrates the proud history of sports in Mobile, whose most notable native son, Henry Aaron, also went the Negro Leagues route before becoming baseball’s home run king.

(Another famous MCTS graduate, Albert Murray, who was a three-star sport there, earned his plaudits in the world of letters. A writer, essayist, cultural critic, and of fierce foe of black separatism, Murray died over the weekend at the age of 97.)

In my state of Georgia, integrated high school sports weren’t officially dissolved until 1970, just a few years after most school districts finally became integrated. Georgia Public Broadcasting continues fundraising for “As If We Were Ghosts,” a documentary chronicling the stories of youth athletes that even include Walt “Clyde” Frazier, a high school basketball star in Atlanta at the dawn of integration.

I haven’t even mentioned the pre-Civil Rights-era Southern female athletes who starred on the world stage before the women’s sports movement. Alice Coachman, now 89, who competed at Tuskegee Institute, was the first black American woman to earn Olympic gold, in the high jump, in London in 1948.

In the following decade and a half, well before women’s college athletics began developing, the dynastic Tennessee State Tigerbelles track team produced even more Olympians, including the marvelous Wilma Rudolph.

Like many of their sporting brothers, she traveled through the South’s unforgiving dark backroads, but on the journey out created an improbable, unforgettable legacy. These are sporting pioneers whose stories deserve to be retold regardless of anniversaries.

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