This is a story about how history isn’t just the sum of textbooks. Sometimes the past gets erased or forgotten and needs to be restored. In 2003, a basketball player for small Division III Manhattanville College named Toni Smith created a media uproar when she turned her back on the American flag during the national anthem. She was “Kaepernick before Kaepernick” and, like the former NFL quarterback, her reasons for protesting during the anthem were immediately distorted. The press painted Smith’s actions as strictly a statement against George W. Bush’s wars in the Middle East. But the reality was more complicated.
As Toni Smith, now Toni Smith-Thompson, remembers: “It was a combination of me growing into my own activism during my years at Manhattanville College, when I was taking courses on the prison-industrial complex, gender studies, media studies, and making connections between my own lived experiences and our societal structures…. Especially after 9/11, the anthem had really taken on a different meaning with a culture of obedience that was really opposed to dissent. All that fed into me looking at that practice differently by my senior year and saying, ‘Why do we have to do this? This is not a benign ritual.’”
For a moment, the protest was a top story, and then the media, as it does, moved on. The story went up like a rocket, yet its memory dissipated like the smoke from the afterburners. But more importantly, Manhattanville College moved on. It was as if Smith-Thompson’s protest had never happened, even as her actions and motivations looked ever more prophetic and predictive over the past decade. But this history was rescued in May 2022, and now, at Manhattanville at least, its place in the grand narrative of athlete-activism has been restored in spectacular fashion. The commencement speaker at this year’s Manhattanville College graduation was none other than Toni Smith-Thompson. She also was awarded an honorary doctorate. This is a triumph for not only Smith-Thompson but also the school itself. Yet it did not happen because the administration believed it was time to welcome her back in the fold. This is instead a story about how students can take the knowledge learned in the classroom and use it to recover their own history.
It starts in the classroom of Manhattanville professor Amy Bass. She was teaching a class called “Sports and Social Change,” one of several popular courses she teaches as part of the school’s rapidly growing sports studies major. Bass taught students about many of the critical figures at the intersection of sports and politics and integrated into her lessons Manhattanville’s own Toni Smith-Thompson. Bass put an article Smith-Thompson wrote on the syllabus and then had the class listen to an interview that Smith-Thompson did with the Burn It All Down podcast.
Bass said, “That was the ‘aha’ moment for the students. Many of them were like, ‘That happened here? At Kennedy Gymnasium?’ I thought it was really important for us all to know that this stuff takes place really close to where we live, within our own communities. It’s not just in the NBA and WNBA. There are high school and college students just like them making these statements.”
The students could not believe that at their small school an important story in the narrative of athlete-activism was written. They also felt that Smith-Thompson’s saga, in the memory of the campus, had either been forgotten or deliberately untold. They then set out to reclaim history.
“It was quite shocking actually that she was a student at our school, let alone did something that we promote on campus: principles like social justice and equity and diversity,” recalled student Melchi Agyapong. “This is our history, and it wasn’t something that was taught to us during our time at Manhattanville College. It was around my junior year when I discovered Toni Smith-Thompson’s story and from there, it motivated me to take action to get involved.”
Maddy Tuck, a 2021 Manhattanville graduate, also took Bass’s class on sports and social change, where she learned about Toni Smith-Thompson. “Once I heard her story,” she said, “I was like, ‘That’s crazy. That’s what we’re going through now! She needs to come back and feel comfortable being here, because we need to hear more.’”
This initial excitement impelled Bass and students like Melchi and Maddy to arrange for Smith-Thompson to speak to their class remotely, followed by a campus-wide Zoom event. This led to a small group of students’ taking on the enormous task of getting the school to recognize Smith-Thompson with a commencement speech and a degree.
Agyapong was central to this student push. He recalled widespread conversations, letter writing, and more to coax the administration to recognize Smith-Thompson. “We decided to host meetings with our president, the board, and other members of the administration, on our campus. We led DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] talks, which are regular events hosted on campus with students, faculty, and administration. We held conversations that allowed us to open the floor and expose the reality of the issues we were facing on campus and things we wanted to do to make a change. These conversations were critical to bringing us to a place where Toni was able to get her honorary degree and also speak at our graduation.”
But it started back in the classroom. As Tuck said, “I think if it wasn’t for Professor Bass knowing Toni’s story, none of us students would have been so excited and passionate about helping. And for Toni, since she didn’t have a great memory of Manhattanville, the fact that she was willing to put her trust in strangers and a professor she barely knew says a lot about the two of them as women and adults and professionals.”
The speech itself centered on Smith-Thompson’s experience at Manhattanville and the invaluable lessons she learned going through the sports media fires of two decades ago. Her overarching theme was that “you should never take for granted that you will be able to access your own history.” For Toni Smith-Thompson, being able to give this commencement address in front of the 2022 graduating class and finally being re-embraced by her school was unforgettable. She said, “I felt 100 percent welcomed back. The president did say that he got some messages from people who weren’t thrilled that I was invited, and he said they had made arrangements for a contingency plan just in case there was a disruption or anything. But there wasn’t. There was a dinner the night before with different faculty members and the students, which was wonderful, and the commencement the next day was lovely. It was peaceful, and I felt that my remarks were well-received and then it was over. I didn’t feel like the event was about me, so it was just a privilege to be part of it.”
It also became a moment to reinscribe the history of Toni Smith-Thompson within the narrative of the school in permanent ink. But this story is bigger than Manhattanville. Tuck said she has learned an unforgettable lesson, “throughout all my education and life, that history is never really history, never really past. I think that having something that seems so small like having Toni come back to Manhattanville is going to help the history, so that five or ten years from now, Toni is going to inspire next kid who doesn’t stand or turns their back to the flag or decides to protest. I don’t think history is ever put to rest. I think history is always circling back.”