Amira Rose Davis is an assistant professor of history at Penn State and co-host of the Burn it All Down podcast. We discuss groundbreaking research and her forthcoming book, Can’t Eat A Medal: The Lives and Labors of Black Women Athletes in the Age of Jim Crow. To listen to this entire interview, check out the latest Edge of Sports Podcast.
Dave Zirin: Can you speak how you were able to find your source materials and put together this rarely recorded history of black women athletes?
Amira Rose Davis: This is part of doing black women’s history, in general. There’s not going to be one intuitive place, so you have to get really creative. For me, I started looking at [HBCU] college programs. Black colleges have gems in their archives. There, I found scrapbooks and journals, and sometimes you don’t find them in the papers of black women, but you have to look at black men who have daughters or wives and that’s where their papers are actually held. Then, I looked in those papers and you have documents where people are talking about trying to start competitive athletics at Fisk University in the 1920s. All of a sudden, you have all of these documents about college-age women in the 1920s who are saying, “Give us competitive sports. We want to play!”
And then the other biggest thing is black newspapers. They are such a treasure trove. I couldn’t do anything that I’ve done without black newspapers. They were always keeping track of black women athletes; from neighborhood leagues to high schools, to colleges and to some professional players as well. Black newspapers were amazing.
Then I did some oral histories. So I talked to Coach [Ed] Temple down at Tennessee State while he was still alive. Wyomia Tyus, Edith McGuire, a lot of the Tigerbelles [the legendary track team from Tennessee State], and so that has also helped fill in some of the spaces that are gaps in the actual archives.
DZ: Take it back to the turn of the 20th century with the start of organized sports. There’s a lot of scholarship about white women and the way that they had to fight at women’s colleges to have access to basic athletics. What was the situation like for black women at this time?
ARD: It was actually divided. You definitely had obsession over womanhood and femininity, but you have it expressed in different ways. You have black women, physical educators, for instance, who are emerging in this period of time. They are people like Mary Reeves Allen from Howard University, who has this concept of what she called “Beauty Health.” So that idea of tying ideas about femininity, womanhood, and reproduction to a kind of modern athleticism that wasn’t rooted in competition—because that would just be too much for women—but certainly in exercise.
But then you also have a group of folks who are seeing athletics as an avenue for race pride and expression: seeing it as a place where black people can assert their dominance. So especially when black women find themselves in competition with white women… This is the place where we can refute our supposed inferiority.
DZ: Let me ask you about the Cold War propaganda trips involving black women athletes. Obviously, a big part of it was the US State Department trying to project an image to the world that says, “Look, you know, the Soviet Union says we’re a racist, sexist country, but look at these black women! This shows that we’re something else.” Do we have examples of these women thinking critically about these trips?
ARD: Yes, all the time. It expresses itself in a myriad of ways. You have some things as simple as black women being on these dual meet trips and doing a press conference in the Soviet Union, fully aware that the reporters there are going to ask them about the Jim Crow South, and white officials will jump in saying, “No, no, no!” We’re all living in harmony.’ And they’ll remark, “It’s funny, we had to come across the world to become full citizens.” So you have that kind of push back in the moment.
In a more kind of radical turn, you have somebody like [high jumper] Rose Robinson from Chicago, who refuses to go on the [State Department] trips [on pacifist grounds]. Rose is also notable because at the Pan Am Games she refused to stand for the anthem in 1959.
So Rose is hyper-critical of these trips and she’s loud about it. She’s giving interviews to The Defender. She’s giving interviews to Jet and she’s like, “I’m not going to be a pawn. I’m not going to be a tool in this propaganda effort. And I’m not going to use my tax dollars to support this war machine. I’m not doing it. You’re not going to use my body to do that.”
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that within six months of publicly saying no to going on these trips, she’s indicted for tax evasion and thrown in jail over $380. That’s where she stages a hunger strike, and this is what really gains publicity for her refusal to both go on the trip and to eat after she’s been thrown in jail for tax-evasion over $380.
But beyond somebody like Rose, you even have well-known people like Wilma Rudolph, who’s sent to Senegal for three weeks, as part of this kind of propaganda effort and while she’s there, ditches her chaperone, ditches her handler. She’s hanging out with folks, like the Young Pioneers, which is Kwame Nkrumah’s Nationalist Youth Group, and she’s getting in touch with the people and she’s saying, “I feel welcomed by them.” You can see how it affects her, too. So she’s taking something from the trips and when she gets back from that trip that she did to West Africa, within three weeks, she’s on the front lines of direct-action protests to integrate a local restaurant in Clarksville, Tennessee.
So she’s getting inspiration from these trips as well as pushing back in subtle ways. You have people like Rose Robinson who are really quite vocal about it, and you have people like Wilma who are maneuvering in a little bit of a different way.
DZ: Rose Robinson is a remarkable figure. Can you tell her story?
ARD: Like I said, Rose Robinson goes to jail. And then when she’s in jail, she decides that she’s going to do a hunger strike. This is what starts getting a lot of coverage. If you look at some pictures of her, she literally has to be carried into the courtroom, carried to her jail cell, because she’s become so frail. At first, as I mentioned, The Defender and folks were reporting her as a local athlete, high jumper, and Olympic hopeful. But very soon some pacifist groups—American Friends, some of the anti-war groups—start picketing on her behalf, in front of the courthouse, amplifying her hunger strike. So certainly, a lot of the times, as she’s remembered, is as a pacifist.
So, she’s essentially in jail for a long time because every time they bring her in front of the judge, they say, “OK, stop your hunger strike, pay your fine, go home.” And she refuses to capitulate at all, which is why she keeps ending up in the jail cell. And when she finally gets released from jail, she doesn’t stop being vocal and active, but definitely her athletic career wanes. Part of it is that she physically is greatly diminished from her protest, and so you have her on the AAU scene, after that, but not really to the level that she was. And then she steps away from sport. Then, how she’s remembered, is as a pacifist; we actually kind of lose all sense of her athletic career, at all.
DZ: Now, 1959, refusing to stand for the anthem, is there an earlier precedent for an athlete doing that or is Rose Robinson the first?
ARD: Not that I have found.
DZ: When we think of black women and athletic resistance, who else should be at the forefront of our minds?
ARD: Definitely Wilma Rudolph. She is somebody who we remember in a very particular way. She steals our hearts in 1960 with her triple-gold performance and she has a winning smile and is described as “dainty with long legs.” But we don’t really see that, as her life continues over the decade, she’s getting more and more militant.
She ends up working in UCLA’s newly formed African American Studies Department and she’s really outspoken and hyper-critical about her use as propagandist in the Cold War, about pay equality for women athletes, about a whole host of things. Obviously about integration.
And then certainly, Wyomia Tyus, whose book is coming out. Tyus has a really compelling narrative that situates her actions not only in 1968, but in 1964, and her career. But with Tyus, you really get a viewpoint into what black women were doing and proposed boycotts leading up to the ’68 Games and what they did once they got to the Games; including wearing black protest shorts, including raising their fists as they crossed the finish line, including dedicating their medals, of course, to Tommie and John. And all of the ways they also engaged in protests that was left uncovered.
I think that it’s really important for Wyomia’s story to be out there, because she’s saying, “Look, as black women, we had a particular stance on not only the boycott, but of these issues. When we heard the OPHR say human rights, we understood that human rights to be about eradicating racism, but also eradicating patriarchy.”
And that resonated with her. So not only is she going out of her way to protest and dedicate medals in ’68, but after ’68, she’s going to become one of the athletes on the front lines, pushing for pay equality, pushing for professional opportunities for women after Title IX and also really vocal about the way Title IX disproportionally benefits white women athletes. She’s been in the shadow of someone like Billie Jean King. They cofounded of the Women in Sports Foundation, but we tend to understand it as Billie Jean King started the Women in Sports Foundation. Tyus’s story does that kind of intersectional work that says, “No, black women were in ’68, and they were also post-’72 at the front lines of pushing for the women’s sporting revolution. If we understand them to be in both spaces, we can look at how power works and how all these kind of intersecting systems work.” And so that’s why I think Tyus’s story is particularly important.