Racism and American Sports from Slavery to the Civil Rights

By Snotti Prince St. Cyr
Slaveowners used games and sports to reduce rebellion—giving outlets
to take out anger, hostility
Frederick Douglass opposed owners’ manipulating slaves via sports, not
sports itself; kept blacks “semi-civilized”
American sports culture a combination of sub-Saharan, non-Muslim
African customs and plantation landscape; synchronizing different
religious beliefs and traditions translated into sports
African tribes’ rituals: wrestling, hunting, running, rudimentary ball
sports with sticks, and jumping/high-jumping were symbolic of phasing
into adulthood to show masculine prowess
African slaves were used as jockeys for quarter-mile racing, after
tending to horses during Revolutionary War
American sports: Besides quarter-mile racing, boxing, wresting,
running, and “Town Ball” (precursor to baseball, originated in MA area)
Sports were forms of entertainment for slave masters as slaves
from neighboring plantations compete against each other
Best performers gained notoriety and social status; involvement
in SOME FORM of communal activity raised pride, self-efficacy
Slave children played sometimes alongside white children, may
form life-long friendships despite overseers’ disapproval
“Caste system” between black and white kids where older blacks
were subservient to whites’ main/leading roles
Black kids more careful to avoid “combative” sports like boxing
and wrestling as often as others (e.g. marbles)
Both hunting and running served not only for survival, but also
the few times joy, curiosity were experienced in slave populace
(coping mechanism for malnutrition and starvation)
Former Virginia slave who fought Englishman Tom
Cribb in first “Fight of the Century”
Trained by former American slave Bill Richmond
Molineaux thought he won, but Cribb’s corner
accused him of cheating; Cribb eventually won
and also won rematch
Major theme 1: the black man’s primitivism and
suspect character vs. the white man’s effort to
preserve, if not improve, civilization
Major theme 2: Sports as a way out, improving
one’s station in life; gaining popularity and
experiences impossible without sports
Overall impact: emergence of Pierce Egan, one of
first modern sports journalists; Molineaux not
covered in America because he was former slave;
asking about role(s) that sports play in nations
and communities
Slave-horse relationships developed
during Revolutionary War and during
 Security issues first raised because all
slaves needed a “pass” to go anywhere or
be captured; slaves not trusted away
from plantation
 Legendary African-American jockeys
Sportsmen and Sportswomen
Floyd Patterson, Sonny
Liston, and Cassius Clay
(Muhammad Ali)
Jesse Owens
Moses Fleetwood Walker
Jack Johnson
Paul Robeson
Althea Gibson
Babe D. Zaharias
Joe Louis
Major Taylor
Wilma Rudolph, TSU Tiger
Events, Institutions, & Court
Plessy v. Ferguson
(SCOTUS, 1890)
Formation of NCAA, NFL,
Harlem Renaissance
Jim Crow laws
World Wars I and II
“Muscular Christianity”
The Negro National
League League (aka
Negro Leagues)
Federal Baseball vs.
National League
(SCOTUS, 1922)
Great Migration and 2nd
Great Migration
Joe Lewis beats
German Max
Schleming to become
world heavyweight
Floyd Patterson to
“Sonny” Liston to
Muhammad Ali—they
fight each other for
heavyweight titles in
late 1950’s and
Ali joins Nation of
Islam; SCOTUS finds
him a “conscientious
objector” to Vietnam
Dominated at University
of San Francisco, leading
Dons to two NCAA Men’s
Titles (1955-56)
11 NBA Titles in 13
seasons as player and, in
1969, as player-coach
for Boston Celtics
Loses lawsuit against Major League
Baseball after refusing trade from St.
Louis Cardinals to Philadelphia Phillies
Challenged MLB’s “reverse clause” in
context of antitrust law (Flood v.
Opened the door for free agency in
1975 (Messersmith-McNally ruling)
Became an alcoholic, then died of
throat cancer at age 59
The inaugural HBCU Classic
7 Grambling, 3 Morgan St. players chosen in
1959 NFL Draft
Until 1948, NFL ignored HBCU players
“Racial stacking”—placing athletes in
certain positions based on stereotypes
 NCAA and the Academic Progress
 “Muscular Christianity”
 “Code of the Streets”
 Using specific words to describe
athletes of white or black origins