- The Strange Career of the Black Athlete: African Americans in Sport
Russell T. Wigginton’s short 106-page five-chapter book, The Strange Career of the Black Athlete: African Americans in Sport, is a basic introductory primer for readers unfamiliar with the historical accomplishments of African Americans in American sport, before and after the era of segregated sport. Wigginton uses an interesting structure to examine African-American participation in a variety of sports by choosing trios (whether sports or athletes) for each chapter to illustrate familiar themes. In Chapter 1, “Can They Really Play? African American Participation in ‘White’ Sports,” the three sports of horse racing, golf, and tennis serve to examine both the exclusion and singular success of African-American athletes in each during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chapter 2, “Heroes or Villains? The Categorization of African American Star Athletes, 1892–1946,” uses the careers of William Henry Lewis, Paul Robeson, and Jack Johnson to examine this issue.While many readers might be familiar with Robeson and Johnson, Lewis has received much less attention in the analysis of African Americans in football and the efforts to integrate college sport. Readers are reminded of the heroic civil rights activism and athletic success of three of the most popular black athletes of the 1960s, National Basketball Association star Bill Russell, National Football League (NFL) running back Jim Brown, and heavyweight champion of the world, boxer Muhammad Ali in Chapter 3, “When the Rooster Crows: African American Athletes in the Struggle for Civil Rights, 1954–1968.” Any chapter on the Civil Rights Era would be required to include these three athletes; Wigginton’s chapter does not offer anything new to the topic. Chapter 4, “The Rules Have Changed but the Game Is Still the Same: Black Athletes’ Achievements in the Civil Rights Era and Beyond,” focuses on baseball player Curt Flood, who fought baseball’s rules of servitude, Major League Baseball’s first African-American manager Frank Robinson, and NFL Doug Williams, the first African-American quarterback to win the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award. It examines historic firsts and examples of integration. In the final chapter, and one that many authors employ to avoid criticism for overlooking the accomplishments of black female athletes, Wigginton uses a quotation from former Tennessee State Tigerbelle track coach Ed Temple, “‘She’s Done More For Her Country Than What the US Could Have Paid Her For’: African American Women and Sports.” The exploits of track sensation Wilma Rudolph, basketball player Luisa Harris, and tennis sisters, Venus and Serena Williams, are used to examine the participation of African-American women in a few sports. Wigginton tends to focus more on the experiences of professional and individual sport athletes, both of which factor into the ways that each was able to succeed in integrated sport.
Wigginton’s strength is his knowledge and use of American history and African-American history as he places the actions and accomplishments of black athletes in their respective historical contexts. It is a brief introduction to the topic, a review of other’s works in [End Page 174] summary fashion, with an emphasis on familiar names and events. The book’s brevity lends itself to a reader unfamiliar with the field of African-American sport history, though it does little to introduce new materials, including primary sources or additional readings in the area. Wigginton uses historian C. Vann Woodward’s 1955 title The Strange Career of Jim Crow, which may lead readers to believe there is going to be some effort to link Wigginton’s current work with Woodward’s book. While Wigginton does contextualize the participation of black athletes using American history throughout, as well as making connections to contemporary society and popular culture, this is the extent of the connections between the two books. Wigginton’s strength is social history of the times, not sport history.