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In many ways, modern sports showcase humanity at its most multicultural. Athletics is a venue where skin color, nationality, religion and politics often take a backseat to the performances unfolding before us. During the Olympics or World Cup, the whole world seems to (at least symbolically) set aside differences to celebrate the spectacle of elite competition. However, this hasn’t always been the case. During the early 20th century, color barriers kept sports — like most other aspects of American society — segregated. Until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, professional baseball relegated African Americans to a separate and unequal league. When Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record in 1974, he’d been receiving death threats for over a year.
Despite our state banning slavery as early as 1844, Oregon has a particularly sordid racial history of its own. Prior to the Civil War, voters passed an Exclusion Law that forbade African Americans from residing here. Though it was rendered moot by the 14th amendment, the Exclusion Law shamefully remained embedded in the state constitution until its official repeal in 1926. Still, the KKK held a strong presence in Oregon in the early 20th century, one that kept institutionalized racism in place. Formal segregation within sport was still one more hurdle that black athletes were forced to overcome in order to realize their dreams. As local historian and author Herman Brame puts it, nowadays “African American involvement in sports is taken for granted. Many young people don’t realize the long and arduous road it was.”
At the turn of the 20th century, the sporting world was much different than it is today — baseball hadn’t yet hit its stride, football was still in the process of inventing the forward pass and basketball wasn’t too far removed from James Naismith’s peach baskets. While boxing was rising in popularity, prizefighting was largely considered a sport of dubious legitimacy in the early 1900s. However, rodeo sports thrived, especially in the West.
Bronco rider George Fletcher (referred to in the local paper with the N-word preceding his first name) stood out as an early rodeo star at the famed Pendleton Round-Up, making him one of Oregon’s first celebrated African American athletes. In 1911, he was controversially awarded second place behind a white rider whom he had clearly bested in the competition. Even in that less-enlightened era, the crowd of rodeo spectators was incensed by the clear racism in the judge’s decision. The local sheriff took up a collection to provide Fletcher with the equivalent of the first place prize money and declared him the “People’s Champion.” He went on to serve his country in World War I, and was forced to retire from rodeo due to the wounds he sustained in combat.
Around the same time, baseball was gaining in popularity throughout the country. The color line (an unwritten but universal rule in the sport) prevented African Americans from participating in organized professional baseball. Black baseball players were left with the only option of forming their own leagues, and our city was home to the Portland Giants, an all-African American team. The Giants played anyone willing to take them on from 1910 to 1915. During that same period, Walter McCredie, the white manager of the minor league Portland Beavers, pushed back against the color line during his 17-year tenure. McCredie famously set up exhibition contests against Negro league teams, including a 1913 series against the Chicago American Giants, a skilled team that was often denied basic services as it toured the country.
Other sports (especially at the collegiate level) didn’t have the entrenched discriminatory rules of baseball. College football saw African American athletes participate as early as the late 19th century, when football was still a fledgling enterprise. The University of Oregon welcomed its first two black players in 1926, the same year the state officially repealed its odious Exclusion Law. Charles Williams and Robert Robinson, both star football players at Portland high schools, were awarded athletic scholarships, making them not only the state’s first black college football players but Oregon’s first African American collegiate athletes in any sport.
Williams and Robinson rose to prominence on the gridiron during the same period that both Oregon’s governor and Portland’s mayor were honoring the KKK’s Grand Dragon at a “Patriotic Dinner.” In the early 1920s, Williams excelled at fullback for Washington High School and was named to the 1923 Interscholastic League’s All-Star football game, which at the time only permitted one African American player per year. Robinson, a halfback at Jefferson High School, won that honor in 1925, a year after having his life threatened by a spectator during a game. Though both players’ scholarships for the Ducks football team marked a milestone for our state, the black athletes experienced many racist indignities during their time at the University of Oregon. They were barred from living in the dormitories in their freshman year, which led to their white teammates petitioning the school on their behalf. They often were forbidden from lodging at the same hotels as the rest of their teammates on road trips. In the final game of one season, the University of Florida refused to host the Ducks with Robinson and Williams on the active roster, so the two talented men were left at home.
As more African American athletes were given an opportunity in Oregon, many others rose to become sports heroes. Mack Robinson (brother of baseball’s famed Jackie Robinson) won a silver medal in the 200-meter dash at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, finishing only 0.4 seconds behind Jesse Owens. Robinson would go on to star on the University of Oregon track team, winning numerous titles and eventually being inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame. Celebrated former Negro league player Artie Wilson, who would also play one season in baseball’s major leagues in 1951, starred for the Portland Beavers baseball team in the mid-1950s before settling in Portland and raising a family. He remained a figure in the community even into his late 80s, greeting customers at the auto dealership where he worked for 30 years.
Civil Rights Era
In his forthcoming book, “The Long Ebony Line,” Herman Brame includes a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., addressing a handful of black baseball players who crossed the color line, claiming they made his job easier. Brame explains that “America’s pastime” was one notable platform that acted as a vehicle for social change in the 20th century. Through sports, fans began celebrating accomplishments by African American athletes. This had a profound social impact. Brame explains that if “you’re screaming and cheering for a person who is not culturally or racially someone you’d usually celebrate, that makes a difference in a person’s mind.”
The Civil Rights era saw notable African American athletes rise up in Oregon, even as institutionalized racism persisted. Mel Renfro stands out as Oregon’s most celebrated African American athlete of the 20th century. Renfro attended Jefferson High School in Portland and starred in both football and track, helping his football team go undefeated for two seasons, including two state championships. Renfro went on to the University of Oregon, where he became a two-sport All-American. Renfro also quietly but steadily combated racism wherever he encountered it. As Brame puts it, during his career Renfro had a “quiet way of doing the right thing.” In 1962, the Ducks played Rice University in Houston, and Renfro was able to convince university authorities to permit his family access to the previously “whites-only” stadium, setting them up with seats at the 35-yard line. Renfro went on to star in the NFL for 14 seasons as a cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys. Even as a professional athlete, he encountered racism, as he had to win a lawsuit in order to move into the neighborhood of his choice. Ultimately, Renfro was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Brame explains that it really took until the passage of Title IX in 1972 for women to get a fair shot at competing in sports. As federally funded institutions became compelled to offer women’s sports, more women received the opportunities to realize their athletic dreams. Prior to Title IX’s impact in Oregon, one African American woman in particular managed to rise to the upper echelon of sport. By the age of 16, Eugene resident Margaret Bailes had become one of the top sprinters in the nation. She would go on to compete in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (the same Olympic Games that featured the “Black Power” salute on the medal stand). Bailes won a gold medal in Mexico City as a member of the 4 x 100-meter relay team. She is a member of the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame and her Oregon state high school sprinting records have stood for nearly half a century. As Brame puts it, an African American woman was never widely celebrated in the State of Oregon before Margaret Bailes.
The Long Ebony Line
Himself a former University of Oregon track team member in the ’60s, Herman Brame has made it his goal to educate younger generations about the struggles African American athletes went through simply to get a chance to compete. A driving force behind the project is Brame’s desire to understand how it is that he lives in a world today that’s so different from the world of his grandfather. Athletics is a big part of that — he cites its ability to change people on a personal level, as athletes form lifelong bonds with each other and fans develop attachments to players who come from different cultures and backgrounds. In sport, victories and defeats are felt collectively as a community, often regardless of sociocultural factors such as race. Both in sports and in society as a whole, it often appears that “sometimes change happens through group action and sometimes through a courageous individual,” said Brame. “I think it’s both.”
Brame will be publishing two volumes of his work “The Long Ebony Line” in the near future. The title reflects upon “the long green line” that his old Oregon track coach used as motivation in practice. By knowing the university’s lengthy history, team members were expected to carry forward its prestige. After all, the past informs the future. Within the next year, Brame also plans to make “The Long Ebony Line” into a documentary. He hopes that learning about past struggles will inspire today’s youth to use athletics (and other platforms like music and art) to extend the same kind of protections to other athletes regardless of such factors as sexual orientation or national origin, and to bring about social change “across the board.” That’s a message worth rallying around.