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Reviewed by:
  • Before Jackie Robinson: The Transcendent Role of Black Sporting Pioneers ed. by Gerald R. Gems
  • Katherine Mooney
Gems, Gerald R., ed. Before Jackie Robinson: The Transcendent Role of Black Sporting Pioneers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017. Pp. 313. Index. $35.00 pb. $35.00, eb.

Editor Gerald Gems's introduction lays out two objectives for this volume of biographical and analytical sketches of black sports stars from emancipation to integration. One is "to recover the stories of individuals who helped to change the course of the nation," since most of the athletes profiled are not widely known (14). The other is to discuss sports in the context of "the factors of race and race politics over a transitional period in American history that eventually transformed the nature of American society" (1). These are both laudable goals, common in the recent literature on race and sports in American history, though, predictably in an edited volume, they are not equally attempted or attained in the various essays. Some pieces are excavation projects, filling in biographical detail previously lost, while others seek to connect their subjects to national and international currents of popular culture and racial discourse. The volume as a whole illuminates most clearly the pervasive impact of racism across many individuals' lives and the transformative power of the Great Migration in opening up opportunities for black Americans.

Some of the volume's entries display admirable archival work, like Robert Pruter's dogged reconstruction of the public and private lives of tennis and basketball pioneer Isadore Channels, whose path-breaking career had largely vanished from sight. Channels, along with many of the athletes profiled, received considerable attention in the Chicago Defender, the organ of Chicago's black community beginning in the Great Migration era. Indeed, the role of Chicago as a destination for black Americans in search of new opportunities and the increasing power of the Defender to assert the talents and articulate the demands of African Americans across the nation are two of the most consistent themes in the volume. The essays likely to have the broadest appeal beyond sports history contextualize the lives of black sports figures within urban communities of entertainers and activists. Particularly compelling are Bieke Gils's essay on aviatrix Bessie Coleman and Murry Nelson's work on Tommy Brookins, a basketball star turned musician. Coleman and Brookins join Teresa Runstedtler's "rebel sojourners," people of color moving across boundaries and carrying with them globally inflected strategies of resistance (Runstedtler, Jack Johnson: Rebel Sojourner [University of California Press, 2012], 9–12).

Inevitably, essays strike the volume's proposed balance between biography and analysis differently. Biography is a difficult enough task for many of the subjects who have left behind fragmentary evidence of their lives. Sam Ransom and Harold "Killer" Johnson present typical challenges to their biographers. Other pieces offer a plenitude of granular detail about the feats of the subjects, to the detriment of explaining their place in the larger context of sports history or African American history. Individual essays sometimes offer wrenching detail that make the book a valuable resource in demonstrating how sport has helped create and uphold forms of racialized power in the United States. In Sarah Jane Eikleberry's discussion of John Shippen Jr. and his career at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, she offers damning evidence of the workings of racism, both subtle and naked. Golf journalists, in patronizing tones, insisted that black players, often working as caddies, were to combine servitude and friendship, to subordinate their expertise and interests to those of [End Page 250] the players they assisted (51). Meanwhile, the course designer cheerfully explained that his staff had used Native American burial areas as sand traps. A stray shot could send up "a bone or two" (48). It is hard to imagine a more literal enactment of the long American history of paying for rich white people's leisure and enjoyment with the pain and degradation of people of color.

These essays, taken together, highlight the importance of incremental change in popular conceptions of African American public figures and the intersections of athletics, entertainment, and politics in the days before Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball. But...


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