Gems, Gerald R., ed. Before Jackie Robinson: The Transcendent Role of Black Sporting Pioneers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017. Pp. 324. Notes and index. $35 paperback.
Reviewed by Christopher R. Davis
In popular memory, one of the most significant historical developments in the twentieth-century United States, the civil rights struggle, is often reduced to a simple sequence of iconic events promulgated by a small pantheon of transcendent figures. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery in 1955, four students sat down at a Greensboro lunch counter in 1960, and Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963; while the nation moved triumphantly toward achieving its highest ideals and eliminated racial prejudice from American life. In sports, Jackie Robinson’s integration of the national pastime with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 similarly signaled the emergence of racial democracy and fair play on the fields and in the arenas of American sport. These simplistic heroic narratives ignore many decades of struggle and the tens of thousands of individual Americans whose efforts and sacrifices were critical to the advances achieved. They also absolve the country from looking too deeply at the enduring structures of prejudice and racial discrimination beyond this heroic period. In athletics, the focus on Jackie Robinson likewise obscures the lives and careers of numerous black athletes who overcame great odds to compete at the top levels of American sport during the several decades prior to 1947.
In the interesting and accessible Before Jackie Robinson: The Transcendent Role of Black Sporting Pioneers, editor Gerald R. Gems and his fellow contributors seek to redress this imbalance and shed light on a dozen early African-American athletes who excelled in sports in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Their goal, as Gems states in his introduction, is “to rescue the meaningful lives of a handful of athletic pioneers from the dustbin of history and reclaim their significance” (p. 15). Building on David Wiggins’ Out of the Shadows: A Biographical History of African American Athletes (2006) and other biographical works in the field of race and sport, Gems collects the stories of a group of generally lesser-known figures whose lives highlight many key facets of the black experience in this period. Following his introduction, he organizes the twelve chapters chronologically in order to provide the reader with historical context and a sense of the complex ebb and flow of race relations in the United States.
In total, these informative essays are valuable to even seasoned scholars of race and sport who will learn more about these largely overlooked figures. The collection’s greatest contribution might be in survey courses on American sport history where it can be used to illustrate many broad themes of the African-American experience between the end of Reconstruction and World War II. Facing segregation, severe economic injustice, disenfranchisement, and racial violence, many of the athletes profiled and their families fled the rural South. As part of the Great Migration, they joined hundreds of thousands of other African Americans seeking a better life and greater opportunities in the urban North. The careers of many of these athletes exemplify the fruits of these desires and efforts. At the same time, however, they also vividly show just how limited the new opportunities were. From the collection’s first chapter on jockey Isaac Burns Murphy to its last on golfer Teddy Rhodes, racial prejudice and discrimination limited the lives and careers of all of these elite athletes.
Gems spends more time developing historical context than any other author in his chronicle of the life and career of Sam Ransom. Ransom was born in Chicago where he emerged as a tremendously talented, multi-sport star at Hyde Park High School at the turn of the twentieth century. Ransom played a critical role on some of the most storied teams in the history of high school sports as he starred in baseball, football, basketball, and track at Hyde Park. However, while his teammate Walter Eckersall left Hyde Park for stardom at the University of Chicago, and several other teammates played football at the University of Michigan, prejudice left Ransom to attend the much less prestigious Beloit College in Wisconsin. For Gems, Ransom’s life “demonstrated the liminal status of blacks … at the turn of the twentieth century” (p. 70). Gaining limited access to the mainstream of American life based on their talent and individual circumstances, elite athletes like Ransom, and the others in this collection, still found their larger life opportunities severely restricted.
Sarah Jane Eikleberry finds a similar trajectory in the career of John M. Shippen Jr., an African-American youth who parlayed caddie’s jobs at the emerging country clubs of late-nineteenth century Long Island into a professional golf career. Shippen’s talents on the course allowed him to work at the country clubs of the American elite and compete in five early U.S. Open Championships beginning in 1896. Shippen gained access to the highest levels of American golf at a time when the game was growing rapidly in the United States and the desire to find talented players who could compete with British professionals loosened racial barriers. As American golf advanced, however, so did the elaborate system of law and custom known as Jim Crow segregation. With a growing number of talented white American professionals available, Shippen was pushed out of the elite white clubs by the late-1910s and spent the later part of his career working at segregated African-American institutions.
Most of the book’s contributors address their subject’s entire lives, but Michael E. Lomax chose to focus on one part of the long and influential career of Andrew “Rube” Foster, the great pitcher and architect of the first Negro major league. Lomax traces Foster’s efforts, in the 1910s, to build connections with white ballpark owners and teams and make himself the central booking agent in Midwestern black baseball. At the end of the decade, Foster also campaigned to advance the African-American game through a series of newspaper articles calling on black team owners to organize at the major-league level. Foster’s struggles to accomplish these goals while navigating the complex biracial business world of Chicago may entice readers to explore Lomax’s larger work Black Baseball Entrepreneurs 1902-1931: The Negro National and Eastern Colored Leagues (2014). In a similar vein, Pellom McDaniels III provides an excellent condensed summary of his monograph, The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy (2013), in this anthology. Murphy capitalized on opportunities that arose in the late-1870s, when African Americans (like their slave forbearers) played a key role in caring for and handling the race horses of the Southern elite, to become one of horse racing’s greatest jockeys. A combination of age, the growing prestige of horse racing, and the advance of Jim Crow segregation, however, pushed Murphy out of the sport in the early-1890s. Unfortunately, McDaniels does not address the careers of other important African-American jockeys in this period, such as Oliver Lewis and Jimmy Winkfield. Situating Murphy’s career alongside the experiences of these other black jockeys would help develop a clearer picture of the role of race in the history of horse racing.
The collection also highlights the centrality of Chicago and the critical role the Chicago Defender played in the black experience during this period. Athletes like sprinter Tidye Pickett, profiled by Robert Pruter, began participating in sports in the city’s extensive playground and parks system. Pickett used her sprinting talent to earn a spot on the 1932 U. S. Olympic team and became the first African-American female to compete in the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936. Following the Olympics, Pickett returned home to complete her college degree, but eventually dropped out of school due to financial hardship. Eventually, she earned money playing for a professional women’s basketball team, raised a family while returning to school, and became an esteemed professional educator, all in her hometown of Chicago. Much of the record of Pickett’s (and the other athletes in this collection’s) accomplishments comes from the pages of the Defender (and to a lesser extent other African-American newspapers) whose reporters saw sports as a means to showcase black accomplishments and push for greater inclusion.
Some of the athletes described in the collection even worked for the Defender, as did Olympic long jumper Sol Butler, a football and basketball star at the University of Dubuque profiled by James E. Odenkirk. Butler played twenty-one games in the NFL in the 1920s, but saw his opportunities limited by the prevailing prejudices of the era. In 1926, the New York Giants refused to play his Canton Bulldogs until Butler agreed to withdraw just before the game. Butler continued playing high-level football into the early-1930s, but after 1926 never made another NFL roster. He left the Defender after his athletic career ended, but lived in Chicago for the remainder of his life. The Windy City plays such a prominent role in the collection, in fact, that one wonders if black athletes from other parts of the country are not underrepresented. Gems and his fellow contributors have added a great deal to our knowledge of early black athletes, but the stories of African Americans in other destination cities of the Great Migration and the extensive black population of the Jim Crow South still remain largely untold.
In the early twentieth century, African-American basketball grew alongside the urban black entertainment industry and several of these biographies illustrate the connections between the two worlds. Black basketball’s greatest early team, the New York Renaissance Five, played their games at Harlem’s Renaissance Ballroom where they typically shared the bill with other entertainment attractions. Susan Rayl’s chapter on Robert L. “Bob” Douglas, a Caribbean immigrant and basketball star who owned and managed the team for nearly thirty years, reveals an influential and innovative basketball mind and shrewd business operator. Douglas scheduled games with top African-American and white teams (including their biggest rival, the Original Celtics) as well as tours across the country to keep the team going through the good times of the 1920s and the hard times of the Great Depression. Rayl describes Douglas as a Marcus Garvey-inspired leader who refused to allow his team to play to black stereotypes in an effort to draw fans (like their contemporaries and rivals, the Harlem Globetrotters) and who spent his life dedicated to helping build Harlem’s African-American community. The Rens, as they were called, played at the highest level of professional basketball for over two decades and won the first world professional basketball championship in Chicago in 1939. They continued as a top team until the late-1940s when the desegregation of professional basketball brought an end to the celebrated segregated team.
Of the athletes included in this anthology, none achieved more success as an entertainer than basketball star Tommy Brookins, who is profiled by Murry Nelson. Born in Missouri, Brookins migrated with his family to Chicago where he emerged as a top high school player in the 1920s. After high school, Brookins played for several professional teams and organized a team of his own, the Tommy Brookins Globe Trotters in 1928. Following a dispute with white booking agent Abe Saperstein, Brookins left the club and turned it over to Saperstein who soon changed the name to Harlem Globetrotters and built the most famous barnstorming team in the game’s history. Brookins left basketball afterwards because, as an accomplished singer and jazz musician, he made more money in nightclubs than on the court. He eventually toured the United States and Europe and, like many African-American entertainers, found his greatest success on the European continent where race was less of a limiting factor. According to Nelson, black athletes in the United States encountered more white resistance than their counterparts in entertainment because sports “required a direct confrontation of physical prowess” while music “posed no threat to white notions of superiority” (p. 211). As the life of Brookins indicates, entertainers also enjoyed much longer careers.
The collection’s biggest limitation has more to do with its genre than with the skills or scholarship of its contributors. At its best, biography takes the reader inside the mind of its protagonist, studying their psychological make-up, intellectual development, and decision-making processes while engaging in educated speculation regarding their inner-most thoughts and deepest motivations. To do so, however, requires that the biographer have access to a rich and voluminous collection of sources, preferably spanning long periods of their subject’s life. And therein lies the greatest challenge with studying historical athletes, especially African-American athletes prior to World War II. All but the most famous athletes typically leave little written record of the thoughts and motivations that guided them. Too often biographies of major sports figures read like a synopsis of the press coverage they received during their careers: extensive, but only surface deep in terms of revealing underlying beliefs, judgements, and aspirations.
Robert Pruter’s other contribution to the collection, a chronicle of the life and career of Isadore Channels, a female tennis and basketball star in 1920s Chicago, highlights this limitation. Through extensive research, Pruter has constructed the most complete narrative of Channels’ life to date (and corrected some of the errors that plagued earlier accounts). Still readers are left with more questions than answers about this intriguing figure. How did Channels, a four-time national African-American singles champion, feel as she lived a life of obscurity and watched Althea Gibson desegregate and dominate women’s tennis in the 1950s? What was the experience of being an elite player and founding member of Chicago’s famous Roamer Girls basketball team like in the 1920s? How did Channels perceive the team’s decision to play by men’s rules? What was Channels’ sexual orientation? Rumors suggest she may have lived her life as a closeted lesbian, but these are questions that Pruter and the reader are left to ponder and that the historical record can probably never reveal.
Even an account of one of the collection’s most intriguing figures, female aviator Bessie Coleman, in the hands of one of its most capable scholars, Bieke Gils, is limited by the silence of its protagonist’s voice. Coleman’s life exemplifies many of the same themes echoed throughout the collection. Born in Texas, she migrated to Chicago by 1915 where she worked as a manicurist in male barbershops and gained access to the social circles of Chicago’s black elite. Funded by wealthy black business leaders such as Jesse Binga and Robert Abbott, publishers of the Chicago Defender, Coleman traveled to France and became the first African-American woman to earn an international pilot’s license. After impressing European audiences with her bravery and skills in the cockpit, Coleman organized flying exhibitions that attracted both black and white audiences in the United States in the mid-1920s. Still, she never received the same level of mainstream press coverage or financial backing as celebrated white female pilot Amelia Earhart. Forced to operate with inferior equipment, she was thrown from her plane and died while preparing for a show in 1926. Coleman’s fascinating life suggests the rich history potentially available at the intersections of race, class, and gender in the burgeoning popular culture of 1920s America. An attractive woman, she capitalized on sex appeal to overcome humble origins and became an African-American celebrity with crossover appeal to white audiences. She succeeded in a man’s world on terms overwhelmingly defined as masculine and white by her contemporaries. Due to her role in aviation history, Coleman has been written about more than most of the other individuals in this collection. Because she left no record of her own thoughts, however, much of her rich history is left untold and we can only guess at the motivations and desires that guided her assault on the boundaries of both flight and culture.
One of the collection’s most compelling yet obscure figures, Harold “Killer” Johnson also left little record of his life, in part because his activities veered into the shady underworld of Chicago policy operators and organized crime. Born in 1912, Johnson left the Louisiana sugar plantation of his birth and migrated to Chicago at the age of eight. Living with an older sister, he experienced the richness of black life in the city when he attended the popular Olivet Baptist Church and later starred as a high school and church league basketball and baseball player. Foregoing college to help support his family at the beginning of the Great Depression, Johnson played basketball for several barnstorming professional basketball teams. He also began associating with numbers operators and gamblers and, in the early-1940s, “began his long career as an upper-crust entertainment baron” (p. 274). Johnson capitalized on his diverse background to move into the music industry as a Chess Records investor and, later, into boxing promotion where he joined Sugar Ray Robinson’s management team. Late in life, the “Killer” further connected his life to the main currents of African-American history when he participated in the Civil Rights Movement as an officer of the NAACP.
The book’s final chapter moves chronologically beyond 1947 and points to the “persistence of discrimination (in American sports) after Robinson” (p.279). Golfer Teddy Rhodes, profiled by Raymond Schmidt, achieved great success on the segregated United Golfers Association tour in the 1940s and 1950s. Born and raised in Nashville, Rhodes dropped out of school to work as a caddie at age eight. Barred by law and custom from playing on any of the city’s private or public courses, he taught himself the game with homemade clubs in public parks. His big break came in 1941 when he traveled to a tournament in Detroit and met heavyweight champion and passionate golfer Joe Louis. Rhodes eventually became Louis’s golf coach and Louis bought Rhodes his first real golf clubs and shoes. As one of the top African-American golfers in the country following World War II, Rhodes participated in attempts to integrate the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) tour. In the late-1940s, only a handful of PGA tournaments allowed African Americans to participate and the organization itself maintained a “Caucasian-only” rule and pressured local tournament sponsors to uphold similar bans. Thanks to the growing momentum of the Civil Rights Movement and the protests of black golfers the situation slowly improved. By the mid-1950s, Rhodes and other top black golfers could enter roughly a dozen events each year in locales which accepted integration. The PGA eliminated its whites-only rule at the end of Rhodes’ career in 1961 and made Charlie Sifford its first African-American member in 1965. Schmidt’s account of Rhodes’ career clearly demonstrates the hazards of assigning too much importance to Robinson’s watershed accomplishment. In the decades after 1947, black athletes continued to face exclusion and discrimination. Barred from professional golf, Southern college sports, and many other playing fields, they found their opportunities severely restricted even where desegregation had taken place.
As with any edited collection, readers will no doubt gravitate to those contributions that most align with their interests. There is some unevenness in the quality of writing between the chapters and in each author’s dexterity at connecting their subject to broader aspects of the African-American experience. As with much writing on race and civil rights, there is also, at times, a tendency toward moral hyperbole and inflated claims of historical significance. Still, there is much to offer here. Gems and his fellow contributors have brought new attention to these largely forgotten figures and helped complicate the too often heroic telling of the racial history of American sport. While these dozen athletes might not be quite as transcendent as the book’s subtitle suggests, they are certainly an important (and now reclaimed) part of the story of the African-American athlete.
Christopher R. Davis received his PhD in history from the University of Oklahoma. His research focuses on the desegregation of college football in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas between the end of World War II and the late-1970s. He is currently working on a book project entitled Black Power on the Football Field: Race, Rivalry, and Manhood in Oklahoma and Texas. Chris lives in McAllen, Texas, where he teaches courses on U.S. history, African-American history, and sport history at South Texas College.