Archdeacon: UD women’s team celebrating Black history

Warm-up shirts worn by basketball players, coaches give added texture to Black Lives Matter theme.

Since the year began, Shauna Green, the Dayton Flyers women’s basketball coach, has found herself focusing on some important names that she’ll see close up this afternoon when her team closes out its regular season at Davidson.

Names like: Ruby Bridges, Ruth Simmons, Toni Stone, C. J. Walker and Fannie Lou Hamer.

But they aren’t the Wildcats starting five.

They’re just a few of some 115 names of African American trailblazers and newsmakers, many of them embraceable heroes, displayed in the large, stylized D logo on the front of the long-sleeved, black warm-up shirts that are worn by the Flyers players, assistant coaches and even Green herself.

The shirts give added texture to Black Lives Matter theme.

While some of the victims killed by certain factions of law enforcement are among the names, the shirts mostly celebrate African Americans who lived, blossomed and often set an example that made the rest of us better in the process.

For instance:

> Bridges was the lone Black child who endured the daily taunts and threats of a white mob as she’d walk into the previously segregated William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960. Her plight was captured in a famous Norman Rockwell painting that became one of the iconic images of the Civil Rights movement.

> Simmons, a sharecropper’s daughter who was educated at Harvard, became the first African American president of an Ivy League school when she began a long, successful leadership at Brown University. After retiring in Texas, she was lured back to take over the helm of Prairie View A&M, where she remains today.

> Stone is one of three women baseball players who broke gender barriers to play several years in the Negro Leagues. She endured spikes-high slides that left her scarred and an initial dismissal by Indianapolis Clowns’ manger Bunny Downs who told her to “stick to knitting and home cooking,” words he soon tossed aside when he saw her play and made her an everyday starter.

> Madam C.J. Walker, an entrepreneur, philanthropist and activist, launched a line of cosmetics and hair products for African American women and became the first female, self-made millionaire in America.

> Hamer, who grew up picking cotton in Mississippi, was given a hysterectomy without her consent by a white doctor, a practice back then to reduce the black population. Later, as an outspoken and passionate voting rights activist, she endured police beatings in jail. Again she refused to cower and eventually became a powerful speaker on human rights around the nation.

As the social justice protests unfolded across the nation over the past eighth moths – triggered by the deaths of unarmed African Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and others – the UD women wanted to do something to draw attention to the problem and the false narratives that often feed it.

“Our players knew they wanted to do something to bring that to the forefront,” Green said. “They came up with ideas and then AB took it and ran with it.”

AB is redshirt senior guard Araion Bradshaw, a civil engineering student from Boston who has a strong social conscious, developed in part by the added dimension that her father, Eric, was a respected Boston area cop for over three decades.

In the fall she formed the group, Athletes Driving Change, a minority female, student-run organization dedicated to racial and social injustice on A-10 campuses and the communities they are in.

Bradshaw also serves on the A-10 Commission on Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.

“This year I knew a lot of people would be doing things with shirts, especially after watching what the WNBA players and teams had done,” she said.

The WNBA had dedicated its season to Taylor and the Say Her Name campaign, a remembrance of the 26-year-old Louisville woman shot and killed while she slept by police who were conducting a no-knock raid on the wrong residence.

Throughout the season, WNBA players not only wore warmups with reference to Taylor, but some had shirts with seven bullet holes in the back, a testament to the fate that befell Jacob Blake when he was shot by a policeman in Wisconsin last August.

“We wanted to do something more than just highlight black lives that were lost,” Bradshaw said. “My idea was to celebrate the great things African Americans have done for this country that often get overlooked.

“We wanted to highlight people from all walks of life – not just athletes, but poets, educators, social activists, politicians, entrepreneurs, entertainers – black people who changed America for the better.”

After much research, she compiled a list of names and then ran it by her teammates, who were receptive.

“Some were people you may have heard of, but didn’t really know who they were,” said junior forward Kyla Whitehead. “A lot of my teammates are younger and they just don’t know some of the things upperclassmen know, even things like Maya Angelou was a poet and Jesse Owens was one of the greatest athletes of all time.”

With her list of names, Bradshaw sought the help of Angie Petrovic, UD’s senior associate athletics director, to hone the message the team wanted to share.

“We wanted to show support for the movement,” said Destiny Bohanon, a redshirt freshman from Wayne High. “As a team we also wanted to be an influence to others and take that extra step.”

Thanks to Photoshop, Bradshaw arranged the names in varying fonts inside the logo, added the initials BLM to the back and the team got its new shirts just after the first game.

“I think the shirts are awesome,” said Green. “As the head coach, I’m fully in support of them.”

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

Bradshaw said her teammates “couldn’t wait” to wear them, which they have before almost every game this season.

Although few people were allowed to attend Flyers games this season due to COVID restrictions, fans – thanks social media – know about the shirts and many want to buy one.

As of now they can’t, but there are some people working other angles.

“My mom always asks me for gear,” Whitehead laughed. “And when she saw my shirt, she loved it and said, ‘Oh my gosh! Can I pleeeease have that shirt?’

“I was like: “No!”

Mathematicians, athletes, politicians

As Bradshaw did her research, she began immersing herself in some people’s stories and was fascinated.

“One person that really sticks out in my mind, because I can relate to her so much is Dr. Gladys West,” she said. “She’s a mathematician and for me that’s super cool because, with me being an engineer, there’s not a ton of black female engineers either. And the more I got into her story, the more I was like Wow!’

West, now 91, is a mathematician like those in the movie Hidden Figures.

Her computing work on satellite geodesy models helped create GPS (Geographical Positioning System.) Three years ago she was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the Pentagon.

The shirts also contain several well-known African American figures, including former President Barack Obama, Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Shirley Chisholm.

There’s also Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Moms Mobley, Richard Pryor and Jimi Hendrix.

Among the athletes are Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and Michael Jordan.

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

And sadly, there also are those who died in exchanges with the police, people like Floyd, Taylor, McClain and Freddie Gray.

As we talked, Bradshaw recalled some other African Americans from the front of the shirt whose stories captured her imagination:

Famed dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, poet, novelist and essayist James Baldwin; Dorothy Irene Height, the women’s rights activist who was the president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years; Madam C.J. Walker and Ruby Bridges.

Bridges’ story fascinates me, as well.

She was just 6 years old when she was asked to desegregate the New Orleans elementary school. Five other Black children were supposed to join her, but none showed up.

Bridges was escorted daily by U.S. Marshals past tormenting whites, including one woman who would hold up a black baby doll in a coffin and another woman who regularly threatened to poison the little girl’s food.

White parents pulled their children from the school, so she initially was the only child in her classroom. All the teachers at the school but one refused to teach if a Black child was in the school.

The lone teacher who opened her classroom and her heart was Barbara Henry, who was originally from Boston, like Bradshaw.

The 66-year-old Bridges now heads the Ruby Bridges Foundation which she formed to promote tolerance, respect and an appreciation of all that is different.

“Racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it,” she once said.

In 2011, President Obama hung the Rockwell painting – entitled “The Problem We All Live With” – in a hallway just outside the Oval Office.

When Bridges visited the White House and viewed the painting with him, Obama told her:

“I think it’s fair to say, if it hadn’t been for you guys, I might not be here and we wouldn’t be looking at this together.”

Becoming more aware

Coming out of Tabor Academy in Boston, the 5-foot-6 Bradshaw was tabbed the No. 32 recruit in the nation. She went to powerhouse South Carolina, which won the national title her freshman season.

She played in 24 games, including the national title game, and won a bulky championship ring, but then chose to come to UD, where she felt she could make more of an impact on and off the court.

After sitting out a season to meet transfer rules, she has now started 77 of 78 games over the past three seasons.

She leads this season’s 12-2 team in minutes played, assists and steals. She’s third in rebounds (5.3) and fourth in scoring (7.3).

Some of her biggest contributions though have come away from the game, especially with the shirts and way they’ve helped educate her entire team.

“Kind of unintentionally, we’d get together at the end of practice and we’d start talking about names on the shirt,” Whitehead said.

Green said she knew some of the names, but “it really helped me become aware, too. You found yourself researching some of the names. It made everyone learn and grow and get out of their comfort zone a little more.”

She said discussions of the shirts and especially the issues of the day benefitted the team on the court, too:

“With many of these real life issues that are going on in the world, the more you talk – the more you get your thoughts and feelings out and understand we all were raised differently and come from different backgrounds – the more you can unify as a team.”

Bradshaw said the Flyers also plan to do virtual talks with different classrooms at Wright Brothers Elementary:

“But they want us to do 30 minutes at each one, so we’re going to have to wait until the season ends so we can find time.”

That could be awhile.

The Flyers have positioned themselves to win their fourth A-10 regular season title in Green’s five seasons as the head coach. And with a decent showing in the upcoming conference tournament, they should qualify for their fourth NCAA Tournament in Green’s tenure, as well.

First though comes today’s game at Davidson and that means Green will be seeing the likes of Katie Turner, Sarah Konstans, Cassidy Gould, Adelaide Fuller and Cameron Tabor.

More names from those shirts?

Nope, they are the Davidson starters.

And now it’s up to Bradshaw and her mates to make sure they remain hidden figures – on the court and in the final box score.

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

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