Strength, pride, and rights: The African American community and sports, 1890–1970

My research project examines the African American experience in sport during the 20th-century United States. This work is primarily focused on the cities of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, even though I use a great deal of national primary sources. I hope to defend my thesis at the beginning of 2012. I would like to begin to write the first chapters of my dissertation within the next four months.

Sport has always represented a highly significant element of African American social life. For example, since the mid-20th century, African Americans have been over-represented in the most popular professional sports in the U.S. Yet, it is almost completely absent from African American history textbooks – not to mention U.S. history textbooks.

The traditional answers to the question of black over-representation in sports consider black athletic success to be determined either by body type (biological thesis of the superiority of the “black phenotype” for sports),  culture (thesis of the “black ethos” saying that blacks have inherited a culture of improvisation and physicality suited to sports), environment (poverty thesis outlining that in the ghetto only sports requiring little space and cheap equipment can be played), or racial discrimination (“institutional racism” thesis stating that the structures of the white society are so racist that they funnel blacks into specific activities like sports). All these explanations consider black people as passive individuals determined by their body, culture, environment or the mainstream society.

In reality, the archives reveal that early in the 20th century the black middle class had willingly used athletics as a means to develop the “character” of the “Negro race” 1. Sports have represented, I believe, a particularly important aspect of the politics of racial uplift fostered by “race leaders” since the end of the Civil War. This uplift ideology has never been only intellectual; it was a moral imperative aimed to forge a sound mind in a sound body at a time when the benefits of a strenuous life were promoted in the American society 2.

Based on these premises, here is an outline of the main topics I would like to study in my proposed dissertation.

Sport, “character,” and racial pride, 1900s–1920s

Contrary to the contemporary opinion saying that all professional African American athletes come from a working-class background, the first half of the 20th century shows the involvement of the black middle class in sports and physical activities. In fact, sports have been used by black middle-class leaders to hasten the “uplift of the race.”

In this chapter I study the place and the role of sport in the African American community between the 1890 and the 1930, i.e., between the “nadir” (Rayford Logan) of the history of African Americans in the U.S. and the New Negro movement. The sources indicate that the black middle class consciously used sport as a means to forge pride, courage, manhood, fair-play, discipline, self-control, self-respect””that is to say, “character”””in their communities. This moral reform was thought to lead to the social integration of blacks in the mainstream society. In the beginning of the 20th century, this position was not new but was typical of the popularity of “strenuous” activities in the overall society (outdoor sports, like fishing, hunting, hiking, baseball, etc.) and particularly on the white universities’ campuses of New England where the related promotion of such ideals as “chivalry,” “gentlemanliness,” and “sportsmanship” was part of the academic formation of future social and political leaders.

Moreover, since the latter half of the 19th century, sporting activities in the U.S. have been considered the concrete representation of the democratic ideals at the core of the “American dream”: In sporting events, all the competitors, whatever their social, ethnic, or religious origins, obey the same rules; and, by dint of courage and, thus, merit, any of them can be victorious. Sporting events offered the striking image of the functioning of a real democracy. This helps explain why sport has been used as the perfect illustration of the “American dream” and has been so important for the African American community (and for immigrant groups) whose aim was to develop the body and the soul of its children in the Victorian and social Darwinist frameworks of the manly promotion of the “strenuous life” preparing “real men” for the “struggle for existence”.

To study these questions, I use the numerous local and national primary sources in my possession: local and national newspapers, YMCA and YWCA archives, boys’ and girls’ clubs archives, etc. I also plan to shed light on these issues thanks to the writings of the three most important African American leaders of the time: Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey. In spite of their differences and bitter arguments, all of them were tireless activists of the uplifting of the African American community. They thought that a character-building education was the most suited tool to reach this goal.

Sport, the feminine body, and womanhood, 1900s–1930s

Feminist historians have seen sports as a means of liberation for women and their bodies within a male-dominated society. As far as African American women are concerned, this vision of the role of sports does not take into account the complexity of the social situation of women at the beginning of the 20th century. Has sport really challenged the masculine social order in the African American community?

Women have also participated in sports. The historians working in this field of research have produced many works, especially focused on white women, deepening our knowledge of the Victorian bodily culture and its ethics of feminine respectability. African American women’s participation in sports has received much less attention – in part because of the scarcity of the sources. This chapter seeks to enlarge our knowledge of African American women’s involvement in sports and to balance men’s discourses on manhood and character.

According to the sources, African American women, like their white counterparts, have had to face coexisting and sometimes antagonistic social norms. They have forged ambiguous social values that opposed the male vision of womanhood and at the same time reproduced the patterns of the American patriarchal society. For example, they used sports to create a specific sociability independent from men during a period of progressive political emancipation, but they played sports suited to their “feminine nature” reinforcing the traditional vision of the “weaker sex.” This is also true of white women’s participation in sports. Between the end of the 19th century and the 1930s, sport was never considered a “natural” activity for women. Nevertheless, women played many sports in YWCAs, notably basketball””a sport played, in theory, without any physical contact and with numerous passes between the players. But sportswomen received very little publicity for their engagement in sports. In fact, this chapter could show that the culture of the dominated is never totally independent from, nor opposed to the dominant culture. Agency, in this context, is necessarily ambiguous (Summers, 2004).

Sport, the black ghetto, and urban culture, 1910s–1930s

The work of historians of the Great Migration and the New Negro has shown the new kinds of political protest used by African Americans in the post-World War I period. But sport has hardly been studied in this history although this social activity has been a central part of the new urban and political black culture 3.

In this chapter, I will examine sport within the African American urban culture between 1910 and 1940. I will study sports in the context of the Black Renaissance, the emergence of the New Negro and the development of black capitalism. In that regard, Washington, D.C., is of interest since it has been, alongside Harlem, a famous place of the Back Renaissance.

A primary focus of this chapter will be the study of the role of sport at the university level. I intend to study sports at Howard University, the most prestigious black university in the U.S. I will also study Lincoln University (near Philadelphia) and Baltimore’s Morgan’s College, two of the toughest opponents of Howard on the playing field. This could show the tension between the classical intellectual vision of the uplift of the community defended by W. E. B. Du Bois for example, and the popularity of sports especially among the younger generation to reach this goal. College athletics were used by college students and fraternities to assert a new political vision of themselves, made both of city and race pride. The famous “football classic” between Howard University and Lincoln University played on Thanksgiving Day and drawing people from every corner of black America is an interesting starting point for this chapter.

This study of university sporting culture will be enlarged to the high school sporting culture: Washington, D.C.’s Armstrong, Dunbar, Cardozo, and Phelps High Schools, and Baltimore’s Dunbar and Douglass High Schools.

Sport, youth, and delinquency, 1920s–1960s

Sport has been used by middle-class blacks in both a positive and negative way to build up the “decency” of the “race”: In a positive manner, by using sport as a tool to build the character of the individual; in a negative manner, by using sport as a means to fight juvenile delinquency. These views were largely shared by the larger society.

The 1920s and 1930s, in the context of Prohibition and the Great Depression, were marked by the deepening of the social panic over (black and white) juvenile delinquency (Gilbert, 1986). This panic emerged in the 19th-century industrial cities and culminated in the 1960s with the racial riots in the black ghettos. J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Bureau of Investigation, which later became the F.B.I., was typical of this national concern. His speeches and numerous public statements on this issue have greatly contributed to the reinforcement of this diffuse alarm over the future of American youth and society.

In the U.S., sport was thought to be one of the most effective means to contain and eliminate juvenile delinquency. Sport, organized under the supervision of adults, was supposed to teach the children the rules of social life (to be “decent”) and to build their “character.” This idea originated in the 1890s reformist Playground Movement whose goal was to take the children from the street to rescue them from a harmful and potentially criminal “subculture.”

The federal and local archives show a fear concerning leisure time, i.e., time not devoted to economic production. Free to organize their time outside the workplace, working-class individuals were suspected of the worst possible crimes. The archives clearly present sport as an instrument of control over the body and the mind of people to secure social peace and order. On this point again, middle-class blacks had the same preoccupations as the rest of society. Black leader Mary McLeod Bethune embodied such concerns over sports and black youth when she was involved in public conferences and administrations under presidents Coolidge, Hoover, and Roosevelt.

To complete this analysis, I should study sport and physical activities from the bottom up. I would like to document the “street life” claimed to be absolutely opposed to the “decency” promoted by middle-class blacks and whites. Sport occupied a central place in the so-called street culture. What did working-class people really think about leisure time, street life, the body, and sport?

Sport, tolerance, and democracy, 1920s–1960s

A large part of the American public opinion (and in particular African Americans) used to agree with the idea that sport helped fight what was called until the mid-20th century “racial prejudices.” Because of the exploits of black athletes such as Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, sports were supposed to create tolerance and thus democracy – i.e., “fair play” in society. Sports were explicitly linked to the ideology of the “American dream.”

In this chapter, I will study Edwin B. Henderson, who was a physical educator, a civil rights activist and a historian of African American athletes. His thoughts and activities were characteristic of the different meanings and roles given to sport in the African American middle class between the 1930 and 1970.

For Henderson, as for most of his contemporaries, sports had a double role:

  • Sports had a social role since they helped promote decency, that is to say the building of character and the fight against delinquency. Sport could help build individual respectability.
  • Sports had a political role since they helped promote democracy, that is to say the dignity of the black race and the fight against racial stereotypes. Sports could help promote collective respectability.

On both an individual and collective level, sport aimed to create equality with whites, that is to say equal opportunities, sportsmanship, and fair play.

Edwin Henderson’s activism against racial segregation in sport and leisure venues like Washington, D.C. segregated Uline arena is typical of what was believed at that time: To fight segregation in sports (which allow promoting democracy) is to fight doubly for the American political ideals of liberty and equality at the basis of the “American dream,” since blacks would gain access to the stands and a racially mixed crowd would learn to admire and respect black performers and blacks in general. The representation of the professional black athletes in journals’ and magazines’ advertisements of the 1940s and 1950s showed the respectability of these true “race men.” We have forgotten that in mid-century black America Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays had a role as important for the African American community as singer Marian Anderson’s and actor Sidney Poitier’s in terms of racial respectability and uplift.

Finally, for Edwin Henderson, who has always been close to the NAACP’s positions on social integration and opposed to Marcus Garvey’s and the Black Power movement’s nationalism, the radicalization of the Civil Rights movement was a grave mistake. In his many letters to newspapers, he used to fiercely attack the young leaders of the Black Power movement for example. According to him, the true Black Power originated from African Americans who had proved their value in mainstream society, and above all African American athletes.

Yet, Henderson’s faith in the social value of sport for the African American community was not totally shared in the 1960s. Henderson’s position was largely criticized at this time. Not only radical thinkers like sociologists Harry Edwards considered sports as a means of oppression of the black community, but middle-class blacks began to find new ways of social integration, and even began to distrust sports as a means of social uplift. The study of this point is the purpose of the last chapter.

Sport, urban crisis, and suburbanization, 1940s–1960s

I argue that the meaning of sport in the African American community has shifted in the mid-20th century: Sport was perceived as a solution for the problems of the African American community at the beginning of the 20th century, and as a problem from the 1960s on. The movement toward the suburbs of the white and black middle classes has changed the meaning of certain sports like basketball, football, and boxing for African Americans. These sports have come to be viewed as activities typical of the deindustrializing and impoverishing black ghetto.

In this chapter, I intend to undertake a study of the culture of the body in the 1940s–1960s American suburbs. This period was marked by the end of the European immigrants’ traditional street culture. This street culture, I believe, has never been reproduced in the single-family house suburbs.

Moreover, this period marked the end of the classical black ghetto (“a city within a city”) described by Drake and Cayton in Black Metropolis, since a great part of the middle-class blacks left the city to settle into the suburbs (Wiese, 2004). The suburbs came to be defined by what I propose to name a “culture of decency” as opposed to the “culture of the street” typical of the cities and in particular of the black ghettos (Anderson, 2000); (Landry, 1987).

In this period of dazzling economic growth and federal civil rights programs, middle-class blacks were less and less likely to see sport as a means of social ascension and respectability. They still were interested in sports like baseball, basketball, football, but mostly as a leisure activity in an era of rising TV spectatorship, and not as an important facet of African American social uplift. More and more, to play sports for an upward mobility was thought to be typical of ghetto youth searching to escape poverty by going to big time colleges. I think that this process explains the striking scarcity of historical works on sport done by African American historians. Indeed, they belonged mostly to the middle class and were logically more interested in what was viewed at the time as positive elements of the African American history: African American agency and resistance in a white-dominated world (slave rebellions, the abolitionist movement, slave culture and resistance on the plantations, the Civil Rights movement, etc.); African American inventions and contributions to world culture (jazz, blues, literature, etc.).

Finally, the deindustrialization of U.S. cities and the collapse of the traditional institutions of the black metropolis have reinforced the role of sport for the social integration of a huge part of African American youth. Contrary to the analysis of sport as a quasi-pathological “fixation” (Hoberman, 1997) of African Americans, I think that the involvement of working-class blacks in sports has been a rational adaptation to the life conditions of the disintegrating ghetto.

This chapter seeks to reevaluate the history of the American suburb which has largely been focused on urbanistic and institutional issues. I wish to study the “culture of the suburbs” and, in particular, its culture of the active body. What was the meaning of the travel from the city center to the periphery for middle-class whites and blacks in terms of social aspirations and bodily dispositions? Does it explain why some professional sports has come to be dominated by black players? Does it explain the silence of the African American history textbooks on that topic, most of the time written by members of what E. Franklin Frazier has called the “black bourgeoisie”?


  1. Pamela Grundy has studied this topic in her book: Learning to Win: Sport, Education, and Social Change in Twentieth-century America (Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 2001, esp. chap. 6).
  2. For a history of the racial uplift ideology from an intellectual point of view, see Kevin Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century, Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
  3. One exception is the last chapter of Davarian L. Baldwin’s Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life, Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.