Black History Month was established in 1976 for every February to be a time for reflection for the tremendous accomplishments of African-American people. The original event was "Negro History Week" started by historian Carter Woodson in 1926. I have always learned something new every February and this year's moment of learning is in regard to the origin of the observance.
Sports has always been a huge part of Black History Month, with perhaps the biggest single story being Jackie Robinson's breaking the color barrier of Major League Baseball in 1947. Even though I was born four years after Jackie shook up the Baseball establishment by walking on the field and playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, I became aware of his quest for equality when I was a young boy.
It helped that I was a big baseball fan and was familiar with Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and many other African-American players. I knew they were a part of Major League history, but I didn't understand what that truly meant.
In the movie, "42" about Jackie Robinson, the sacrifices made by Jackie opened a lot of eyes. There were the death threats by fans, the racial slurs shouted at him by fans in the stands, as well as the protests by some of his own teammates for having to play beside him and be in the same locker room with him. If you haven't seen "42" yet, rent it or find a channel it's playing on and watch it. You will most definitely be enlightened.
There are many other stories that reflect the same kind of treatment for black athletes. One well known story is the trials of the 1966 Texas Western basketball team that won an NCAA title with mostly an all-black roster, beating powerful Kentucky with an all-white team. About the same time, Vanderbilt broke the SEC's basketball color barrier when Perry Wallace became the first African-American to play in an SEC varsity contest in 1967. Just a few months earlier, Nate Northington had become the first black football player in the SEC at Kentucky. All these athletes went through some of the same trials and tribulations, just to be able to play a sport they loved.
At times, playing the actual game was secondary to just being able to suit up and pave the way for our athletes of today. The book I wrote entitled "Seasons of Change," tells a very similar story. The 1967 Waverly girls basketball team became the first integrated team to ever play in the TSSAA girls state basketball tournament. In 1968, they returned to the state and won the title with a perfect 33-0 record. They were led by Sally Smith who would eventually become the first African-American Women's College All-American player in the early 1970s.
All these stories are similar. The athletes struggled against all odds to play their sport, yet they are all successful in the end. That's what Black History Month is all about. I encourage everyone to read all you can during the month. You might learn something.
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Randy Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org