I learned quite a few things in just an hour the other morning:
• There was a little publicized football team of black soldiers at West Point in the mid-1920s, some 40 years before Army football officially broke the color barrier and integrated its team in 1966.
• The Cleveland Summit of 1967 — which featured a gathering of well-known athletes including Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, and Lew Alcindor, who soon would be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — was a precursor to the activism of black athletes of today. And yet it had considerable behind-closed-doors debate on whether the group would support Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.
• That every golfer in the land should thank George P. Grant, a Harvard-educated black dentist from Boston. He invented the golf tee in 1899.
• Some 25 percent of all cowboys in the American West between 1860 and 1880 were black.
• The Reverend Martin Luther King was a pool shark.
Wednesday I stopped by Room 001 above the library in Building 7 at Sinclair Community College. That’s where Michael Carter, the Chief Diversity Officer at the school and former Trotwood Madison and Springfield South basketball coach, was setting up an exhibit called “Our American Journey: The Black Experience in America.”
As he stood there between a recently found Ku Klux Klan robe and hood and a 1946 photo of Albert Einstein talking to students at Lincoln University, an HBCU in Pennsylvania, Carter explained the exhibit which opens to Sinclair students, faculty, staff and the general public Monday and runs through Friday (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) After that it can be viewed by appointment.
“This is a small exhibit that by no means is professional,” he said. “But we want people to see these images, look at some of these books and some of these artifacts and hopefully they’ll remember and reflect and then react.
“It’s about what you do once you gain this knowledge, what you do in your daily life to be an anti-racist, to be someone who believes in the underdog, someone who supports and appreciates others.”
There are various themes in the exhibit, including slavery, emancipation, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, World War II, segregation, civil rights ... and sports.
Three of the exhibit items I found most fascinating dealt with Black soldiers: Henry Johnson; Isaac Woodard; and our own Charity Adams Earley, who was the highest-ranking woman in the Army at the end of World War II.
Stories that move you
“Sometimes in America we get the notion that people of color are receivers of their benefits,” Carter said. “In truth, we have been fully invested in our liberation — from the American Revolution to the Civil War and every other war our nation has fought in.
“Crispus Attucks was the first person to die in the American Revolution.
“All 160,000 black soldiers in the Civil War saw combat. Every one of them. A lot of people don’t recognize that.”
Carter led the way to a part of the exhibit dedicated to soldiers from World Wars I and II.
“This is one of my favorite stories,” he said pointing to a picture of Sgt. Henry Johnson. “He was the first American to receive the Croix de guerre, the French medal of honor. He received it in 1918. Here at home he didn’t receive the Congressional Medal of Honor until 97 years later.”
And that was 86 years after Johnson died poor and mostly unknown.
But the French knew him and so did the Germans.
In the Battle of the Argonne Forest — on May 14, 1918 — Johnson was on patrol when at least 36 German 36 soldiers descended upon him and a few others. He used the butt of his rifle, grenades and finally his bare fists — all while suffering 21 wounds — to ward off the German attack party.
He killed four Germans, wounded several others and saved a fellow U.S. soldier from being taken prisoner
It wasn’t until 2015 that President Barak Obama finally give him the thanks of our nation and honored him posthumously at the White House.
Another figure in the “American Experience” is Lieutenant Colonel Earley, who graduated from Wilberforce University in 1938, joined the Army and became the commanding officer of the first battalion of African American women to serve overseas in World War II.
After the war Early got her master’s degree from Ohio State and settled in Dayton with husband Stanley. They had two children, and she became a board member of Dayton Power and Light, the Dayton Metro Housing Authority, the Dayton Opera and Sinclair Community College. She died in 2002.
The personal story in the exhibit that moved me the most was the plight of Isaac Woodard, the decorated Word War II vet, who was attacked in 1946 — while in uniform, riding a Greyhound bus back home — by a South Carolina sheriff and his deputies.
They beat him with nightsticks in an alley and later in the jail — in part because he answered a question “yes,” instead of “yes, sir.” He was left totally blind. For two days, he lay unattended in the jail.
The sheriff and deputies were not held accountable until President Harry Truman pressured authorities to intercede. A farce of a trial was held. The defense lawyer used racial slurs to address Johnson and the all-white jury needed just 15 minutes of deliberation to acquit the sheriff, who admitted blinding Woodard.
Stories that need told
Of the many sports-related items in the exhibit — including a photo of a barnstorming Babe Ruth with black fans in 1927, posters from a pair of Joe Louis’ fights and two quilted commemorations of the Negro Leagues by Kettering’s Carroll Schleppi — I was most drawn to the images of the Cleveland Summit, Rev. King leaning into a pool shot and the classic photo of a seven down linemen and four backs standing behind them — all of them black — from West Point in 1925.
Coming into the Summit, there was an effort by some to get Ali to put on exhibitions around the country and avoid his three-year suspension from boxing. Orchestrated by a group headed by fight promoter Bob Arum and a few Browns players — most notably Jim Brown — it would appease authorities and make money.
According to Ali biographer Jonathan Eig, there was a push by some at the Summit for Ali to take the deal, but he stood firm and finally Brown and the others backed him.
As for Dr. King, he learned to shoot pool while attending the Crozier Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania in the late 1940s. There was little to do there, but there was a pool table in a rec room below the chapel and he’s said to have often played eight ball there into the wee hours while smoking cigarettes and talking though his ideas of social justice.
The photo in the exhibit was taken in Albany, Ga., in 1962 after a protest in the city turned violent. King went to the local pool hall. While running the table, he drew the crowd into his views on the power of nonviolent dissent.
Finally, that football team at West Point turned out to be some of the fabled Buffalo Soldiers who were brought into the academy in 1907 to teach horsemanship to the white cadets.
The tale was recounted wonderfully in a Washington Post story by Michael E. Ruane earlier this year.
The Buffalo Soldiers were a rugged cavalry unit who served the Army in the American West, as well as the Spanish-American War and other conflicts.
As Ruane wrote, a previous detachment of white cavalrymen had performed so poorly at the Academy and had such lousy morale that they were replaced by the black unit.
But the Academy was segregated and the Buffalo Soldiers were not allowed to socialize in the white cadet areas and not allowed in the swimming pools. They lived in barracks next to the stables, which they had to clean. There were daily fights with taunting field artillery soldiers who bunked nearby.
Needless to say when it came to football, the black soldiers had to form their own team, though it’s unclear who they played back then.
The black cavalrymen remained at West Point until 1947 and the following year the Army was desegregated.
“Stories like this need to be told,” Carter said. “That way, people get an appreciation and an understanding of the true value of all Americans.”
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