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.

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.

Main Messages:

  • 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.
1968 Olympic warm-up suit worn by Tommie Smith, 1968

Olympic warm-up suit worn by Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City

Exhibition Experience


Historically Black Colleges and Universities
In the United States, football first flourished at elite colleges and universities because the game was associated with important social traits: leadership, discipline, competition, and toughness. In 1892 Livingston College and Biddle University played in the first game between historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Because of segregation, HBCU football programs were major producers of elite football talent through the 1970s. In addition to developing top-level players, these programs allowed aspects of African American culture to blossom.


Negro Leagues Baseball
The Negro Leagues were among the most important businesses in black America during the first half of the 20th century. Excluded from Major League Baseball, African Americans formed their own teams and demonstrated that they could play the game at the highest level and run large enterprises. Fans admired the teams for their “barnstorming”—playing games in different towns day after day—as well as their daring base running and flashy play.


Racial Uplift
Basketball was created in 1891 by James Naismith, an instructor for the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The YMCA saw the sport as a means to teach mainstream middle-class values. African Americans gravitated to basketball as a way to demonstrate sportsmanship, discipline, and sense of fair play—key aspects of the racial uplift campaign of the time. Since then, many black athletes have acknowledged the lessons they learned in sports as elements in their later successes in politics, business, and other fields.

The Olympics

Tigerettes and Tigerbelles
The Tuskegee Institute Tigerettes and the Tennessee State University Tigerbelles helped establish the mid-20th century domination of African American women in track and field. These two historically black colleges and universities produced many athletes that excelled in Amateur Athletic Union and Olympic track events. In addition to their athletic success, these programs used the achievements of their athletes to challenge racial discrimination and demonstrate feminine ideals, which countered racist stereotypes.


The Color Line
During much of the era of segregation, the color line prevented African American boxers from fighting for the heavyweight championship. In 1908 African American fighter Jack Johnson was finally given a shot at the crown, and he defeated Tommy Burns. Breaking the color line in boxing was one of the most important blows to segregation in the early 1900s, because it challenged the notion that African Americans were inferior.

Game Changers

Game changers are the people, events, and institutions that have forced the sports world and larger society to alter its practices, belief systems, or racial politics. Some of these shifts have led to the mainstreaming of African American cultural practices and the redefinition of gender roles, as well as a change in the racial composition of athletic institutions. The impact of these game changers demonstrates the power of sports to transform the world. 

Michael Jordan's 1996 finals jersey, a Bayou Classic Trophy, Jack Johnson's boxing glove, Althea Gibson's tennis racquet, and Eddie Robinson's game ball are some of the objects represented in the 17 game changers cases. 


  • Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Peter Norman at the 1968 Olympics
  • Jackie Robinson sliding into base
  • Jesse Owens running at the 1936 Olympics
  • Shani Davis speed skating at the Winter Olympics
  • Venus and Serena Williams celebrating a women's doubles championship
  • Michael Jordan's last shot as a member of the Chicago Bulls