Archdeacon: Basketball to politics, a bond of strong black women

Kamala Harris brought the rich history of resolute black womanhood to the national stage four days ago when she accepted the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nomination and became the first woman of color to run on national presidential ticket.

Her story resonated with a trio of African American women who are prominent in college athletics here. They said they were “proud” of her and “inspired,” and they were familiar with her narrative because parts of it mirrored their own:

  • Tara Owens’ mother was a trailblazer.

“She was involved in criminal justice her whole life,” the Central State athletics director said. “She is one of the first African American women to be the warden of an all-male penitentiary or prison.”

Patricia Terrangi was a warden at several different prisons in Virginia, including Greenville Correctional Center, the Virginia State Penitentiary, Indian Creek Correctional Center and the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women.

“I’d go to work with her sometimes and I’d be as scared as ever,” Owens once told me. “But I’d stick close to her and watch. She rarely raised her voice, but when something had to get done, her tone was enough to make it happen.

“I ended up thinking, if she can do all this, then I can do things, too.”

  • Katrina Merriweather, the successful Wright State women’s basketball coach, said her mother, Roxanne, is her hero:

“She was just 17 when she had me. My great grandmother, my grandmother and my mom all helped raise me. For me, it really was a case of the village raising a child.”

Although the odds were against her mother, she persevered. And this December, at age 59, she will be getting her college degree in the hospitality field – Tourism, Convention and Event Management – from IUPUI.

  • DeUnna Hendrix, who is going into her second season as Miami’s women’s basketball coach, said her role model in life has been her mom.

Robin Hendrix was named the NJCAA (national junior college) Player of the Year when she led Truett-McConnell College basketball team to a 36-2 record and the 1980 national title. She went on to star at Middle Tennessee State, setting an Ohio Valley Conference rebounding record that still stands.

And after she gave up basketball her senior season to have a child – DeUnna’s sister, Mica – she showed she was great rebounder.

“She became a fireman for 20 years,” Hendrix said. “She started out on the back of the truck – she’d be one of the first going into the fires –and she ended up driving the truck. She’s my hero.”

When the three women listened to Harris tell her story, they all felt some kind of unique connection to her.

Hendrix, like her mom, is biracial and so is Harris.

Owens, like Harris, was educated at an HBCU. While the vice presidential candidate went to Howard, Owens played basketball at Virginia State University and then coached at historically black schools – Cheyney University, Elizabeth City State University, Norfolk State – as well as at Baltimore City Community College, where she compiled a 104-56 record.

Merriweather is a sorority sister of Harris’ and while playing basketball at the University of Cincinnati, she joined Alpha Kappa Alpha, which is part of the Divine Nine, as the nine African American, Greek-letter sororities and fraternities are called.

And during her acceptance speech Wednesday night, Harris gave a shout out to HBCUs, her sorority and the Divine Nine.

Yet the real connection for the trio is in how strong women had shaped their lives and hers.

Harris has told how her late mother – an Indian immigrant who came to the University of California Berkley for her doctoral studies in endocrinology and nutrition -- married a fellow student from Jamaica, had two daughters, divorced and, in raising the girls on her own, taught them to be “proud, strong Black women.”

She called her mother “the greatest influence in my life.”

Three generations of women

Merriweather was influenced by three generations of women, starting with her great grandmother, Pearl Posey, who she called Nana.

“We lived with her until she passed when I was nine,” Merriweather said. “I slept with her. I watched the Price Is Right with her and she was the one who braided my hair. I spent a lot of time with her.

“I was surrounded by so many powerful and strong women and some amazing men, too. They didn’t try to suppress the women’s strength and power.”

Her grandfather, Willie Merriweather, starred with Oscar Robertson at famed Crispus Attucks High in Indianapolis and he then became a Hall of Fame basketball player at Purdue.

Her dad, Kevin, played at Purdue, as well, and his Indianapolis-based AAU team, The Family, has a national reputation.

After her playing days, Merriweather was a grad assistant at Cincinnati and an assistant at Illinois Chicago and Purdue before joining Mike Bradbury’s staff at Wright State in 2010.

When he left for New Mexico in 2016, she took over the program and in four seasons her WSU teams have gone 94-39 and gotten three postseason invites, including an NCAA Tournament berth in 2019.

Owens was raised, in part, on her grandparents’ tobacco farm outside Lawrenceville, Georgia. By age 12 she knew how to pull, top and treat tobacco and drive a tractor.

What began as barnyard basketball for her became a lifetime pursuit. In 2018 she came to Central State and took over for Jahan Culbreath as the school’s athletics director.

Through it all she said she’s drawn on the lessons of her mom:

“Most people thought my mother was an elementary school teacher because she looks like one. But when she went through those (prison) doors, she turned into a totally different person. She could navigate any scenario, any experience. She commanded respect, but she did it by treating people how they wanted to be treated.

“She’s the most loving, caring, providing woman in my life. She’s a soft-spoken, beautiful black woman.”

Through the lessons she learned from her mother, she feels another connection to Harris, who was the first black woman elected as San Francisco’s district attorney and California’s attorney general and is only the second black woman elected to the U.S. Senate.

“I also know what it’s like to be in a career that’s considered a man’s world,” Owens said.

When she started playing basketball Hendrix said she only hoped “I could be half the player my mother was. I mean, she’s pretty impressive.”

Hendrix was, too.

After being coached by her mom as an eighth grader, she went on to Kokomo High in Indiana, won All State honors and led her 26-0 team to the state title as a senior. She finished her career with 1,210 points and then played at the University of Richmond.

In 2015 she was inducted into the Howard County Sports Hall of Fame. With her mother enshrined five years earlier, they became the first mother-daughter duo to be so honored.

One of the reasons she said she took the Miami job a year ago was to be closer to Kokomo.

“My mom made it to almost every one of our home games last season,” she said.

So does that old eighth grade coach still hold some influence with her today?

Hendrix started to laugh:

“Depending on how you look at it, when it comes to life, I’d say she’s still coaching me now.”

‘Historical moment'

After presidential candidate Joe Biden announced Harris as his running mate, he said:

“This morning, all across the nation, little girls woke up, especially little black and brown girls who so often feel overlooked and undervalued in their communities. But today, today just maybe they’re seeing themselves for the first time in a new way, as the stuff of presidents and vice presidents.”

Former First Lady Michelle Obama continued on that theme via social media:

“You get used to it, even as a little girl, opening the newspaper, turning on a TV and hardly ever seeing anyone who looks like you.

“You train yourself not to get your hopes up. And sometimes it’s a battle just to tell yourself that you deserve more. Because no matter how much you prepare, no matter what grade you get or even how high you rise at work, it always feels like someone is waiting to tell you that you’re not qualified. That there’s something about you…you’re just not quite the right fit.

“I’ve been thinking about all those girls growing up today who will be able to take it for granted that someone who looks like them can grow up and lead a nation like ours.”

Owens, Merriweather and Hendrix were all moved by the moment.

“It was a historical moment, a rejuvenating moment,” Owens said quietly. “I had tears in my eyes. "

Hendrix said Harris’ ascension was both “motivational” and inspirational.”

But young girls of color often look at this trio the same way.

“I think we can be a role model to them,” Hendrix said. “They watch how you move more than the listen to what you are telling them. It’s just that you look like them and because of it you give them hope and something to dream.”

Owens has found a similar reaction on the CSU campus:

“I have students come into my office and they want to know how I got here. They’re interested in coaching, in athletic administration, and they want to know what the next step for them should be.”

Each of the women is using her platform on her campus.

With Hendrix guiding them, the women’s basketball players are spearheading Miami athletics’ Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Fund and hope to use the money collected to help affect positive change in the department, around campus and then in the Oxford community.

She said she thinks athletics could be fertile ground:

“We can play a bigger role on campus. Athletics has a natural ability to connect people. The way we operate is already inclusive. Some of the things we do as athletes and as a department are things never heard of in some parts of the campus.”

At Wright State, Merriweather is trying to educate her players to life beyond the polished court.

“Life is more than just knowing how to guard and set a screen,” she said.

“We do our best to make sure they understand various issues, everything from the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor situations to the struggles women have had. There’s just so much teaching we have to do. It’s literally putting together a crash course on being a citizen.

“We’re really emphasizing voting right now. We’re trying to make sure, whatever their political views are, that they are registered to vote. That’s how they can be heard.

“They need to understand history, whether it with their sport and what people like Coach (Vivian) Stringer and Pat Summitt did or what people have done for them to be able to vote.”

While it was exactly 100 years ago this month that the 19th Amendment finally gave women the right to vote, it didn’t ensure all women that right. Jim Crow laws denied black women below the Mason-Dixon line the right for another 45 years.

Merriweather said athletes who learn some of that better understand the historic significance of Harris on the presidential ticket. In the process they will also better appreciate the emergence of women like Merriweather, Owens and Hendrix.

Their stories, too, come with a rich history of resolute black womanhood.

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