"It is Hard to be What You Have not Seen": Brenda Hughes and the Black and White of the Zebra Shirt—Race and Gender in Kentucky High School Basketball
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"It is Hard to be What You Have not Seen":
Brenda Hughes and the Black and White of the Zebra Shirt—Race and Gender in Kentucky High School Basketball

Prejudice does not have only one way of hurting and limiting people. Stereotyping is one of its many weapons. Shutting the doors of opportunity is another. And one of the most powerful is denying access to positions of power and authority. All of these weapons have been used against black women in sports. And for decades, these athletes had nothing to fight back with except their skills and their determination—Darlene Clark Hine1

In the midst of the 1973 basketball season, Gary Yunt, a Lexington Leader sportswriter, commodified an African American female basketball official in his automotive portrayal of her as "a new model appearing on the local market" with the "standard equipment" of the referee uniform. He added that the "unique options that come with this ref are female and black."2 That "new model," twenty-four-year-old Brenda Lee Garner Hughes, became the only African American woman to officiate in the Kentucky Girls' High School [End Page 433] State Basketball Tournament in the twentieth century, and she was also the 1995 Dawahares-Kentucky High School Athletic Association Sports Hall of Fame inductee.3 In her numerous roles as daughter, sister, wife, mother, postal employee, part-time recreational leader, and basketball referee, Hughes encompassed womanhood, community involvement, athletics, and racial uplift.

Historians of gender, race, and sports have neglected the black woman sports official.4 This essay seeks to correct that oversight and, in a sense, the black female referee becomes, indeed, historiographically "a new model." Through cultural analysis of Hughes's officiating career and her contributions to the community, this essay examines the construction and deconstruction of Brenda Hughes as seen through the eyes of the local sports world, the media, and herself. As a referee, she wore the black and white official's shirt and as a black woman, she constructed her own place within the predominantly white man's world of basketball officiating.

This focus on African American women's sports research uses interviews with members of the sports world. Based on the work of historian Earl Lewis, this distinctive exploration encompasses "the memory, the self, and the power of place in African American urban history" with the realization that "all memory is autobiographical."5 Understanding that memories of precise events may be inaccurate, [End Page 434] this study applies this method when interpreting the role of basketball official Brenda Hughes and her connection with the community.

The second child of Mathew and Alice Garner, Brenda Lee, born on November 4, 1947, grew up at 503 East North Aspendale Drive in Lexington, Kentucky. She graduated from Dunbar High School and attended the University of Kentucky. Her athletic opportunities in the school system included only high school cheerleading. Later, this divorced mother of two daughters worked full-time for the U.S. Post Office and as a seasonal employee for the Lexington Division of Parks and Recreation.6

Sports as a cultural mirror reflects the social values of the times.7 To fully appreciate Hughes's contributions to Kentucky basketball officiating, one must see her accomplishments in the broader context of Kentucky basketball history. In Kentucky, basketball rates as a religion. Raised on this religion, many aspiring athletes dream of their opportunity to play basketball. In 1917, the all-white male Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) was formed to govern white high school athletic participation, which included the responsibility of presenting the boys' state high school basketball tournament, known as the "Sweet Sixteen" because the association divided the state into sixteen regions.8 In 1921, with the inclusion of white females, Paul Blazer High School in Ashland won the first Kentucky Girls' High School Basketball Tournament. Eleven years later, this tournament discontinued without an official reason but allegedly under the excuse of girls' health concerns, primarily based on female biological reproductive capacity.9 [End Page 435]

However, Kentucky sports journalist Dave Kindred identified another possible reason: male coaches engaged in "hanky-panky" with the players.10 Others blamed the male coaches...


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