- Sport and the Talented Tenth: African American Athletes in the Colleges and Universities of the Northeast, 1879–1920 by Robert E Wells
Over the past two decades, popular and professional scholars have written significantly about the African-American sporting experience. They have uncovered the trials and triumphs of these athletes of color as they confronted racist America. Robert Wells contributed to these voluminous works on the sporting experiences of African Americans. He focused primarily on the early African-American athletes who competed in the Northeastern states of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Combining the oral interviews of star athletes like Fritz Pollard and Willis Cummings and sifting through both newspapers and the archives of these Northeastern college and universities, Wells paints a portrayal of African-American athletes and the obstacles they confronted.
Wells began his study by asking a fundamental question: “Who came first?” According to Wells, William White played one game for the National League Providence Grays in 1879; this occurred five years before Moses Fleetwood Walker entered the major leagues as a member of the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association. That same year, White played for Brown University at a time when eligibility rules were unclear. He played first base and collected five hits in six at-bats in Brown’s opening game against Harvard.
There were, however, several drawbacks to Wells’s work. By his own admission, Wells admits the majority of these African-American athletes were of mulatto status, and at times he chronicles their experiences once their athletic careers were over. To be sure race in the U.S. is a complex topic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but the work suffers from a lack of context. Mulattoes made up a significant degree of the African-American middle class and would eventually become the biggest agitators for civil rights. Yet they also felt privileged over their unmixed brothers and sisters and developed their own separate lifestyles. There was a private world for mulattoes that darker skinned African Americans never entered. [End Page 190]
Throughout the work, there were no indications that these African-American athletes considered sport less important than academic success and educational achievement. Most of these scholar athletes came from upper-class African-American families who placed an extraordinary emphasis on education and culture. Their parents saw to it that music, books, and art formed an integral part of everyday life. They prepared for careers in law, medicine, and any number of other professions. After this stage of their education was complete, they matriculated to one of the more racially liberal institutions in the northern half of the United States where they could participate in intercollegiate sport while receiving a quality education.
Popular scholars will find Wells’s work interesting to read. However, professional scholars will bemoan the fact that it is poorly contextualized.