Arthur Ashe Remembers the Forgotten Men of Sport—America's Early Black Athletes

updated 03/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Willie Mays. Jimmy Brown. Wilt Chamberlain. In the latter half of the 20th century, the accomplishments of black American athletes are as well-documented as those of whites. But what of Isaac Murphy, Josh Gibson and George Poage? History has all but ignored the feats of these and other black athletes of an earlier day, a fact that former tennis champion Arthur Ashe finds appalling. "Chroniclers of America's early sports heroes simply left out most of their darker brothers and sisters," says Ashe, 45, "except when they participated in white-controlled events." Once Ashe decided to fill in the blanks left by historians, it took a four-person research staff six years to pull together the information that Ashe has distilled into a monumental three-volume work entitled A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete. Ashe discussed the project with senior writer Susan Reed at his home in Mount Kisco, N.Y.

What made you undertake this project?

In 1983 I was asked to teach a course at Florida Memorial College in Miami called the Black Athlete in Contemporary Society. I went to the library to dig up some historical material about black athletes' successes, and all I could find was one book, Negro Firsts in Sports, written 20 years ago. There have been scores of marvelous black athletes in America, but their stories had never been collected, organized, analyzed and interpreted.

Where did you get your information?

Primary sources didn't really exist. We looked through college yearbooks for pictures of blacks on varsity teams. There were few of them, but they invariably turned out to be the stars. Black newspapers gave about a third of their space to sports coverage. We interviewed people about their parents and grandparents and relatives. We appealed for information through the black media. We asked people to look for medals and personal mementos that families might have saved.

Did you discover many black athletes you hadn't heard of before?

Hundreds of them. I had never heard of Josh Gibson, the baseball player who might have been the greatest long-ball hitter ever. Or Marshall Taylor, who was world cycling champion in 1899. Or Isaac Murphy, the top jockey in the late 19th century. Or George Poage, the first black to win an Olympic medal. These people inspired idolatry bordering on deification in their lifetimes. They were better known by most people than such noted blacks as Booker T. Washington and William E.B. Du Bois.

Were black Americans' ancestors athletic?

Athletic participation was part of every African's upbringing. Running was a distinct survival skill. Africans also loved races—horses, boats, swimming and climbing. When the slave traders arrived, it made undeniable sense to capture the fittest people they could find. Highly developed athletic skills were brought to the New World by enslaved Africans.

Were sports popular among slaves?

Tremendously. For instance, black slaves were among the country's best horse trainers, and when the state of Virginia passed a law in 1705 permitting owners to list people as property, black horse trainers were among the first to be listed. The most famous black sportsmen south of the Mason-Dixon line before the Civil War were jockeys and trainers.

Were there many successful black jockeys?

There were, but racism virtually wiped them out. When the first Kentucky Derby was run on May 17, 1875, 14 of the 15 jockeys were black. On that day, Isaac Murphy, the greatest black athlete of the 19th century, made his major race debut. He won three Kentucky Derbies during his career, a record that wasn't broken until 1948, by Eddie Arcaro.

What happened to the black jockeys?

In 1894 the Jockey Club was founded. One of its duties was to license and relicense jockeys. Because black jockeys were so successful, there was a lot of resentment from whites. As black licenses came up for renewal, the Jockey Club turned them all down. The last year that a black jockey rode in the Kentucky Derby was 1911. Within 36 years, racism completely eradicated blacks from a sport they had practically dominated.

What was the prevailing attitude toward black athletes?

Until Jack Johnson won the heavyweight boxing title in 1908, black athletes were a curiosity and a conversation piece. Despite the physical evidence, whites had usually portrayed blacks as inferior in mind and body. After the Civil War, the English philosopher Herbert Spencer made use of various statistics to "prove" that blacks were mentally inferior to whites because their brains were smaller.

How did this attitude affect sports?

Well, whites certainly didn't want to compete against blacks. In 1888 major-league baseball barred blacks from their teams. Black cyclists were literally run out of the velodromes. College football teams had quotas for blacks. Black tennis players were not accepted on the grass courts of Newport, R.I. The 1920s have been called the Golden Decade of Sports because of the prevalence of such stars as Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones and Bill Tilden. It would be more appropriate to call it the Golden Decade of White Sports, because black athletes were shut out.

How did black athletes respond?

They formed their own clubs, teams and leagues. The Negro National League in baseball was formed and filled with talented athletes. The United Golfers' Association was formed to encourage opportunities for blacks on the links, and two of the most famous basketball teams ever formed, the New York Renaissance and the Harlem Globetrotters, were also created.

When did race barriers begin to fall?

The years between 1925 to 1950 will always be remembered for the great exploits of Jesse, Joe and Jackie: Owens was the fastest, Louis the strongest and Robinson the bravest. Each in his own way forced the country to see the folly of erecting barriers between the races in athletics, and each was an example of what an individual could do, given a chance.

When were these gains cemented?

The years between 1946 and 1950 were probably the most important for black athletes. Professional football became integrated again in 1946 [blacks had played between 1920 and 1933]. In 1947, Jackie Robinson reintegrated baseball's major leagues. Also during that five-year span, Althea Gibson became the first black player in the national tennis championships, and Harry Truman ordered the integration of the Armed Forces in 1948. Following the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 abolishing the "separate but equal" doctrine in the schools, all sports became integrated, at least in theory.

Do you think blacks may in fact be better at certain sports than whites?

It's an extremely hot topic, but my answer is an equivocal yes. They may be better at somethings, and I'm referring here to two physical factors in particular: foot speed and vertical leap. These abilities definitely translate into success in certain sports. Bill Russell revolutionized the position of center in basketball because he blocked shots with his leaping ability. Blacks haven't been beaten by whites in the sprints in quite some time. That's not to say they never will be beaten, but it seems that white America believes they can't sprint as fast. Today you find junior-high coaches steering white kids away from even trying.

Do you think Americans look at their sports heroes as black or white anymore?

No, I don't. If you have players with the star appeal of a Michael Jordan, kids don't really look at him as black in a conventional sense. He is the athletic counterpart to Prince or to Michael Jackson.

What do you hope your book achieves?

I want two things: I'd like to see the so-called history of American sports rewritten. If you're going to talk about the history of basketball, you're going to have to include black teams like the Harlem Globetrotters. Second, I'd like to see a fuller appreciation of the contribution of certain black athletes to black American history. Heavyweight champions Jack Johnson and Joe Louis were, in their prime, the most famous black persons on earth, and their success stories should be recorded alongside those of politicians and civil rights leaders.

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