Champions Indeed: The Emergence of African American Women Athletes in American Society, 1930-1960.

Jennifer Lansbury

Advisor: Suzanne Smith

Research Hall, 161
April 20, 2008, 08:00 PM to 07:00 PM


This project argues that the history of African American women athletes is significant because it introduces a new strain of inquiry into African American womens history. In general, African American women's history has primarily focused on black women's work lives or sociopolitical activism. Yet black women athletes are neither workers nor activists and, as such, do not fall into the existing threads of study. As a result, African American womens history has largely ignored their history. Moreover, the field of sport history, still largely male-focused, has only analyzed the history of African American women athletes sporadically and completely neglected their emergence as a group in American society. Indeed, their stories are compelling on their own merits. But they also reveal how black women used sport in the mid-twentieth century to escape their poor, rural or working-class backgrounds; travel extensively; and secure a college education. In the process, they challenged traditional notions of class, gender, and race. They also, in contrast to their predecessors, earned national and international recognition. However, the sexism, classism, and racism that these athletes confronted put them at odds with American and even African American society. At times, these societies attempted to frame the athletes in more "feminine" terms, question their working-class upbringing, or demand that they devote their post-championship life to civil rights. This study argues that, given the gendered nature of sport and the racial significance of the Jackie Robinson story, it was inevitable that African American womens participation in sport took on gendered and racialized meanings both within the black community and white society. Moreover, these two contexts reinforced one another, influencing the careers of African American women athletes and making it impossible for them to achieve lasting iconic status.