Sports

Leveling the Playing Field

Sports: Leveling the Playing Field explores the contributions of athletes, both on and off the field. Some athletes have been symbolic figures of black ability, while others have taken their activism beyond the court to the courtroom, boardroom and the newsroom.

Damion Thomas, Sports Curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, dives into the significance of African American athletes both on and off the playing field.

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Because sports were among the first, and most high profile spaces to accept African Americans on relative terms of equality, sport has had a unique role within American culture. Within black communities, sports have always been political. From the refusal to allow African Americans an opportunity to compete to the formation of African American segregated sporting teams and leagues; from the hard won battles to compete at the highest levels of the game to the introduction of African American expressive cultural practices within the games, the African American presence in sports has had social and political consequences.

The Negro In Sports by Edwin Bancroft Henderson 1939

The Negro In Sports by Edwin Bancroft Henderson 1939

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Journey Through the Exhibition

Sports Storylines

Sports matter beyond the playing field. This exhibition demonstrates the centrality of African American contributions and challenges to contemporary American culture and politics. African Americans created their own sports institutions, most notably the Negro Leagues, during the era of segregation. The exhibition examines the impact of these institutions as well as the integration of African American sports figures into all-white leagues.

At times, sports leads social change. Other times, sports stymies social change. Sports: Leveling the Playing Field continues the chronological exploration of African American activism and the quest for justice and equality begun in the exhibitions on slavery and segregation through the participation of African Americans in sports. 

Sports are a way to measure racial progress within the United States. The exhibition encourages visitors to think about ways they can help make America a more just and equitable place by providing historical context for honest discussions about race and social justice.

 


A Closer Look 

Legacy of a Moment

John Carlos, Olympic Bronze Medalist and Damion Thomas, Curator of Sports, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture join The Atlantic's Jemele Hill for a conversation looking at the legacy of a moment.

Breaking Barriers: The Mohawk Giants 

Dr. Raymond Doswell, Vice President and Curator of the Negro League's Baseball Museum and President of the Negro League's Baseball Museum, Bob Kendrick note that without the perseverance and fortitude of the Negro League players there would not have been an outlet for Jackie Robinson to become a professional athlete.

Exhibition Luminaries

01/09

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali (1942—2016), born Cassius Marcellus Clay, is frequently identified as the greatest athlete of the 20th century because of his boxing prowess and social impact. His fights frequently had political and social implications because of his social activism, conversion to Islam, and criticism of U.S. foreign policy. In 1967 Muhammad Ali refused induction into the military for religious reasons. His refusal made him an international symbol of the antiwar movement and a champion of anti-imperialism around the world. (Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)
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02/09

Arthur Ashe

Arthur Ashe (1943–1993) won three Grand Slam championships. As the first African American male to win a major tennis tournament, Ashe was a pioneer in professional tennis, one of the most elite, exclusive sports in the world. And he was the rare athlete who was perhaps better known for his social activism than his athletic skills. As an activist, Ashe fought against apartheid, supported domestic educational reform, challenged U.S. immigration policy, and worked towards the eradication of HIV/AIDS. (Photo by John Minihan/Express/Getty Images)
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03/09

Jim Brown

Jim Brown is the rare athlete that has been elected to Halls of Fame in two different sports: the Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1983, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971, and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995. In 1964 he made his acting debut in the film Rio Conchos and became one of the first mainstream black action-film stars. Since the 1960s Brown has worked as an advocate for black economic empowerment, gang-violence prevention, and life-skills training. (Photo by Albert Chau/FilmMagic)
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04/09

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson (1878–1946) was the first African American heavyweight-boxing champion. He won the title in 1908, after years of being denied a shot at the title despite being a top contender. Johnson started fighting as a competitor in battles royale, a brutal form of group boxing designed to suggest that African Americans could not compete at the highest levels of the sport. Johnson disproved those theories and is still considered one of the sport’s greatest heavyweight champions and defensive fighters. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
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05/09

Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan (b. 1963) is one of the greatest athletes in the history of sports. Jordan won the National Basketball Association’s Most Valuable Player Award five times and led his team to six NBA championships. He helped transform the NBA from a niche American game in the 1980s to an international sports and entertainment giant. Off the court, Jordan capitalized on his athletic achievements to start a multifaceted business career. He is also the first former player to become a majority owner of an NBA team—and a billionaire. (Photo by Jordan Brand via Getty Images)
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06/09

Joe Louis

Joe Louis (1914–1981) was a greater hero to African Americans than any other boxer of his time. His 12-year reign as heavyweight boxing champion remains the longest in the sport’s history. Louis became the public face of African American attempts to integrate into the American mainstream during the 1930s and 1940s. By being humble and tolerant of racial customs, he exemplified the idea that African Americans could change white attitudes through good behavior and deference. (Photo by Getty Images)
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07/09

Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens (1912–1980) won four gold medals in track and field in a historic performance at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. After the Olympics, Owens refused to take part in a tour organized by the U.S. Olympic Committee and was barred from competition. High-paying endorsement deals were rare for African American athletes at the time, and Owens struggled to make a living. Still, for most of his life, he extolled the virtue of sports as a path toward social change. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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08/09

Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph (1940–1994) won three gold medals as a sprinter at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Her achievement is even more remarkable given the obstacles that she had to overcome: infantile paralysis, segregated medical treatment, and teenaged pregnancy. Rudolph’s success made her one of the most celebrated female athletes in history and helped raise the profile of women’s track and field in the United States. (Photo via Bettman/Getty Images)
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09/09

Serena and Venus Williams

Serena (left) and Venus (right) Williams are among the most dominant women’s tennis players in history. The sisters did not hone their skills at exclusive tennis academies; they learned the game on public courts in Compton, California. Their aggressive and intimidating style of play made the tennis establishment uncomfortable. Their rejection of the game’s insular and exclusionary culture has extended their fan base far beyond the tennis court. Combined Venus and Serena Williams won over 40 grand slam singles and doubles titles. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
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Exhibition Objects

Bronze participation medal for the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Bronze participation medal for the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Olympic swim suit and bag used by Simone Manuel at the 2016 Olympics

Olympic swim suit and bag used by Simone Manuel at the 2016 Olympics

Wightman Cup blazer worn by Althea Gibson, 1957

Wightman Cup blazer worn by Althea Gibson, 1957

Seat from Perry Stadium, 1931

Seat from Perry Stadium, 1931

Sign about the integration of the Detroit Tigers, 1958

Sign about the integration of the Detroit Tigers, 1958

Track shoes worn by Carl Lewis, ca. 1994

Track shoes worn by Carl Lewis, ca. 1994

Training boxing glove signed by Cassius Clay, 1964

Training boxing glove signed by Cassius Clay, 1964

Baseball card for rookie Leroy "Satchel" Paige, 1949

Baseball card for rookie Leroy "Satchel" Paige, 1949

Pinback button for the New York Black Yankees, 1932-48

Pinback button for the New York Black Yankees, 1932-48

Track shoes worn by Jackie Joyner-Kersee at the 1984 Olympic trials

Track shoes worn by Jackie Joyner-Kersee at the 1984 Olympic trials

Ohio State Buckeyes football helmet worn by Archie Griffin, 1972-75

Ohio State Buckeyes football helmet worn by Archie Griffin, 1972-75

Warm up jacket worn by Jerry Armstrong for Texas Western, 1965-66

Membership card to the American Tennis Association for Althea Gibson, 1995

Membership card to the American Tennis Association for Althea Gibson, 1995

Shaq Attaq sneaker worn by Shaquille O'Neal, 1992-93

Shaq Attaq sneaker worn by Shaquille O'Neal, 1992-93

Program for World Heavyweight Championship, Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay, February 25, 1964

Program for World Heavyweight Championship, Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay, February 25, 1964

Bronze participation medal for the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Olympic swim suit and bag used by Simone Manuel at the 2016 Olympics
Wightman Cup blazer worn by Althea Gibson, 1957
Seat from Perry Stadium, 1931
Sign about the integration of the Detroit Tigers, 1958
Track shoes worn by Carl Lewis, ca. 1994
Training boxing glove signed by Cassius Clay, 1964
Baseball card for rookie Leroy "Satchel" Paige, 1949
Pinback button for the New York Black Yankees, 1932-48
Track shoes worn by Jackie Joyner-Kersee at the 1984 Olympic trials
Ohio State Buckeyes football helmet worn by Archie Griffin, 1972-75
Membership card to the American Tennis Association for Althea Gibson, 1995
Shaq Attaq sneaker worn by Shaquille O'Neal, 1992-93
Program for World Heavyweight Championship, Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay, February 25, 1964