African-American Discrimination in Sports: 1865-1940

1902 Basketball Considered as the first man to integrate professional basketball, Harry “Haskell” Lew came in to the sports scene early November in 1902.  It was by chance he was even given a shot. The local team suffered several injuries in the weeks before hand. People from around town were persuading the coach to give the negro from around the corner a shot. He was left with no other choice and took Harry in. It was predetermined that he would just be a bench warmer until an injury to one of the key players. So almost by force, the manager had to let Harry play. Harry went on to later say, “I went in there and you know… all those things you read about Jackie Robinson, the abuse, the name-calling, extra effort to put him down … they’re all true. I got the same treatment and even worse … I took the bumps, the elbows in the gut, knees here and everything else that went with it.” (MassMoments) Lew ended up staying with the team for a year before it disbanded. When it was all said and done, he was the one who paved the way for the first African-American to be drafted in 1950.


Picture from (IBHOF)

1910 Boxing In 1910, one of the most historic boxing matches of all time took place. Jack Johnson, an African-American boxer, challenged former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries. Johnson was not a fan favorite at the time. Whites vilified him immediately when the former title winner returned to America in 1908. Johnson did not help his cause. He frequently drove fast cars and courted white women. So to put an end to his reign, Jeffries was named the man that could take him down. In a long 14 round bout, Johnson put down Jeffries in dramatic fashion. Riots ensued soon after and 20 people were reported dead because of the racial violence. Johnson, however, did not get the last triumph. In the months that followed the match, he was targeted by government agencies for carrying women across state lines. Even though most people would have gotten away with something like that, he was relentlessly pursued because of “who and what he was, not for what he had done.” (IBHOF)

1920 Baseball At the turn of the century, blacks were still culturally banned from competing in most professional sports. To compensate for blacks who were interested in baseball, Andrew Foster created the first American Negro League. This allowed African-American ball players a safe haven to play without discrimination and many were thrilled with the opportunity. It stimulated economic growth in black communities and brought a sense of pride for blacks. Just to keep the league afloat, Foster would donate his best players to hurting teams to keep it competitive and afloat. The league was considered a success until it folded in 1930 due to the Great Depression. Foster would go down as a true pioneer of the sport and a factor in the eventual integration of baseball.

1923 Football All long with some huge milestones, there were plenty of examples of misfortunate and abuse in this time period. In 1923, Jack Trice had successfully integrated the Iowa State football team. When he finally made the varsity team, they traveled out to play Minnesota in the second week of the season. Jack had to stay in a hotel away from the rest of his teammates. He didn’t seem to mind and just wanted to do his best regardless of how he was treated. The opponents had other plans on game day. Right at the end of his second play, he was gang tackled, causing him to break his collarbone. The coaches carelessly kept him in. Two days later, Jack died from internal bleeding and lung hemorrhage. This shook the school and 4,000 students reportedly attended his funeral. His story eventually led to the school naming the football stadium, making Jack Trice the only African-American to have a Division I stadium named after.


Picture from (Alabama)

1936 Track and Field In 1936, the German’s had the prestigious honor of hosting the Summer Olympics. This was right in the middle of some extreme issues for the European nation. In previous few years, Adolf Hitler had taken control of the nation along with the Nazi party. Great change was ongoing. Hitler was rounding up every person that he did not believe fit his perfect people, also known as the Aryan race. Thousands of men, women, and children with minority backgrounds (particularly the Jewish) were forced from their homes and faced extreme labor or even death. Because of this great discrimination going on, the Americans were hesitant of even competing in Berlin that summer. But nevertheless, they did. Meanwhile, Hitler was convinced this was a perfect opportunity to showcase how his Aryan race was the best in the world. To compete against Hitler’s Aryans, the U.S. called up some of the best athletes in the nation including African-American track star Jesse Owens. In his first event, Owens did not disappoint the large crowd that had assembled inside the Olympic Stadium. He equaled the previous world record in the 100m dash on the way to his first victory. The Aryans could not simply keep up. After the ceremony, it is custom for the leader of the hosting nation to shake hands and congratulate the winner. Hitler refused, asking “Do you really think I will allow myself to be photographed shaking hands with a Negro?” (PBS) But Jesse Owens seemed to not mind, going on to win several more gold medals including the long jump pictured above. It was an enormous victory against discrimination and African-American athletes back at home. Jesse Owens, dark skinned and proud of it, had dominated what Germany viewed as the master race.  He became a powerful symbol of greatness for the black community back at home and even went down as one of the greatest track athletes ever.

Conclusion: The early 1900’s showed the signs of eventual good things to come. Still, the era was the hardest an African-American could endure. These amazing athletes were able to overcome battles during the “Jim Crow” times that feature brutal violence and harsh racial language. Even though many did not fair well, their small contributions symbolically were larger than life.

Works Cited


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