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.