1936 was a monumental year for Black athletes on the international stage. Alabama native and track and field athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the Olympics in Berlin. The victories– gold medals in the 100-meter dash, the long jump, the 200-meter dash and the 4-by-100 relay– made Owens the most decorated athlete at the 1936 Olympic Games.
That summer, Adi Dassler, the co-founder of emerging shoe brand Adidas, persuaded Owens to wear the brand’s leather, spiked track shoes, making him the first African American athlete to have a sponsorship deal.
Black athletes won 14 of the 56 medals awarded to team USA at the 1936 Olympic games. At the time, Germany was under Nazi rule, and the triumphs of Black athletes flew in the face of Adolph Hitler’s campaign to promote the myth of Aryan physical and racial superiority.
RELATED: Inside the phony science that perpetuates white supremacist ideas
But while Black athletes at the Berlin Olympics received accolades, they returned home to face barriers. Companies in America refused to offer them lucrative work. And many American newspapers, especially publications based in the Jim Crow South, refused to acknowledge the accomplishments of multiple Black athletes, choosing instead to focus solely on Owens.
Mack Robinson, the 1936 silver Olympic medalist in track and field and the brother of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, found work as a street sweeper when he returned from Berlin. Robinson, a longtime advocate for youth, was well known in his community. In 1981, he was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of fame. But Robinson’s biggest nationwide recognition came more than 40 years after the 1936 games when the U.S. Olympic Committee chose the track and field legend to be one of the athletes to carry the Olympic flag into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum during the opening ceremony of the 1984 games.
The triumphs and challenges of Black athletes in America are at the center of “Race to Freedom: African Americans in Sports & The Marathon for Progress,” an exhibit at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute that examines the intersection of race, history, and sports.
The exhibit, which opened in conjunction with the 2022 World Games and runs until July 30, is a partnership between the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, NASCAR, Honda, Southern Custom Exhibits, Microsoft, and The Southern Center for Broadening Participation in STEM.
The BCRI describes the exhibit as a “narrative and full-sensory experience” that encourages visitors to unpack the intersection of racism and sports using three themes: segregation, discrimination and stereotypes, and activism and change.
A corner of the exhibit spotlight lights NASCAR’s present and past Black drivers. One wall of the display holds a fire suit worn by Ragan Caruth, one of only five African American professional stock car drivers currently competing in the company. Another panel tells the history of Elias Bowie, who became the first Black driver to compete in NASCAR-sanctioned events in 1955 and Wendell Scott, the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series event on Dec 1, 1963.
The NASCAR display’s biggest section is dedicated to Bubba Wallace. In 2018, the Mobile native became the first Black driver to compete for the NASCAR cup series in more than four decades. Wallace’s portion of the exhibit features his image surrounded by a collage of news headlines from pivotal events during his career– including NASCAR’s ban on Confederate flags amid the 2020 protests against racial injustice– as well as tweets about the ways the NASCAR star has made history. One wall also features a QR Code for the link to “RACE: Bubba Wallace,” the 2022 Netflix documentary series on the athlete’s road to success.
Throughout the exhibit, artifacts and pieces from private collections and art institutions chronicle and pay tribute to sports history. Former Birmingham Black Barons team members donated seventeen baseballs autographed by various teammates and family members.
Theresa McGhee Johnson, the executive director of Birmingham’s United Community Center and the founder of the Riley Center Quilters, crafted a quilt with panels featuring the sports of The World Games, including drone racing, tug of war, and squash.
Panels exploring the legacy of discrimination in sports also examine the stereotypes and appropriation of Native American imagery and culture used in team names, mascots, and branding, such the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Blackhawks.
One panel in the exhibition’s activism and change portion places the spotlight on University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban. In 2020, Saban marched alongside hundreds of university’s athletes, coaches and in a Black Lives Matter march during the summer of protests against racial injustice. Two years later, at a countdown event for The World Games, Saban accused two football programs–Texas A&M and Jackson State University– of paying recruits and questioned the integrity of their programs.
Top recruit Travis Hunter sent shockwaves through the college football world in 2021 when he flipped his commitment from Florida State University to Jackson State University to play under JSU head coach Deion Sanders.
“Many resented the accusation, which hinted that UA was a superior program, while JSU, a Black college, required bribery for successful recruitment,” reads a display in the exhibit, which also pointed to years of state underfunding at Black universities.
RELATED: For many African Americans, Nick Saban’s Jackson State, Deion Sanders words more than ‘stung’
Other artifacts include the 1967 U.S. Court of Appeals booklet detailing the documents, petitions, motions, and complaints filed in relation to Muhammad Ali’s initial appeal to the Supreme Court regarding his objections to the Vietnam War. The 51-page booklet is a loan from the Muhammad Ali Museum and Education Center in Louisville.
A display case near the center of the exhibit holds the 1996 Olympic volunteer jersey, badge, and other Olympic collectibles belonging to Dr. Samantha Briggs, the BCRI’s vice president of education. Briggs fondly remembers her tenure as a volunteer in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. She worked at the Kodak section of the Olympic village, where the athletes could get their film developed.
At the time, Briggs was a recent graduate of Clark Atlanta University and had just started a job teaching kindergarten.
She also recalls the educational opportunities surrounding the 1996 Olympics, such as the chance to teach youth sports and world history. Briggs saw a similar opportunity with The World Games, calling the event a “once in a lifetime” chance for Birmingham youth to use an international sports competition as a summer learning workshop.
With The World Games, the biggest international sports competition in the South since the 1996 Olympics, “Race to Freedom” would be a perfect opportunity to showcase connections between Alabama and Georgia.
Briggs and her husband Calvin, who is also an alum of Clark Atlanta University, worked with Billye Aaron, noted television host and wife of late baseball legend Hank Aaron, to procure relics from her home as part of the exhibit.
Calvin Briggs is also the founder of the Southern Center for Broadening Participation in STEM, an organization devoted to increasing diversity in science, technology, education, and math.
In addition to working on the gallery portion of “Race to Freedom,” Samantha and Calvin Briggs combined their backgrounds in science, education, and art to create a series of outdoor weekend activities called S.T.E.A.M Sporting Saturdays.
For two Saturdays, the BCRI campus transformed into a hub for hands-on workshops in technology, music, and engineering. At the front of the building was a series of pop up activities, from 3D printing to stations for button making. Inside, hip hop duo Shaheed and Supreme hosted K.R.U., their workshops on emceeing, DJing, music production, and breakdancing.
The patio at the back of the BCRI hosted skateboard assembly stations, race car simulators, and a virtual reality lounge. S.T.E.A.M Sports Saturdays was all hands on deck: BCRI staff and youth leaders gave tours and handed out free prizes, such as coding kits for children.
Samantha and Calvin Briggs had two goals: activate every part of the BCRI that didn’t have art on the wall and encourage youth to see themselves as mini scientists.
When Samantha Briggs thinks about The World Games, she draws a connection to Birmingham’s civil rights marches of 1963. She also thinks about the phrase “The World is Watching”– a time in 1963 when the eyes on the world were on Birmingham after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
“Here we are in this momentous occasion where the world is watching again. And what a time such as this. Because now, we still find ourselves dealing with civil and human rights that I’m sure, back in 1963, they were hoping we would have moved beyond. And here it is, 2022 and the world is watching again,” said Briggs.
Briggs said the staff at the BCRI has had a lot of conversations about the connections between cultural museums and STEM. The institute, she says, is also a tool for teaching science and technology. The pre-tour film BCRI guests watch about the coal mining origins of Birmingham is an example.
“When you come into the institute, before you go into the galleries, (you) are learning the history of this city and the role of trying to burst through the mountain,” said Briggs. “And steel and coal and iron. Those are technologies. But oftentimes, we don’t think of coal as being a technology.”
The contributions of Black scientists and innovators are often written out of history books, and it’s often cultural institutions, such as the BCRI, that fill in the gaps, said Briggs. She points to the traffic light, pressing combs, and the super soaker– all invented by African Americans.
“If we think of our place in this world and all of the innovation and inventions that we have created, we didn’t profit off of those things. Other people did,” said Briggs.
“We could just go on and on about the roles (Black people) have contributed, but our children are not represented when it comes to AP testing. When it comes to what they are majoring in college. When it comes to the jobs in the industry.”
One of the “Race to Freedom” exhibit’s biggest attractions was a life size replica of Bubba Wallace’s Tall
adega race car. The car– a donation from NASCAR– sat outside of the BCRI during the last weekend of The World Games.
Features like the race car, says Briggs, engage youth who may not have the chance to experience an official NASCAR event.
“We live in a NASCAR state. How many children have actually gotten to see a race? How many children have had the opportunity to go from viewing a race car to being able to get into a race car simulator and learn about the mechanics behind it?” said Briggs. “It’s just a fun and creative way to introduce families to STEM.”
Another useful teaching resource, says Briggs: CitywalkBHAM, the new, massive public park under I-59/20 that opened days before the start of The World Games. The Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, which includes the BCRI, is less than half a mile away from CitywalkBHAM’s civil rights history panels– a series of small billboards illustrating the city’s movement for social justice in the 1960s.
The BCRI’s “Race to Freedom” exhibit was just one part of the Birmingham civil rights district’s celebration of The World Games.
Outside of the institute, EdFarm hosted an immersive pop-up phone booth to demonstrate The Movement, its civil rights history app developed in partnership with the BRCI.
Across the street at Kelly Ingram Park, The Birmingham Business Resource Center hosted the Civil Rights Marketplace, a five day festival of Black-owned businesses, entertainers and artisans.
With the influx of guests to Birmingham for The World Games, the National Parks Service deployed more than 30 park rangers from around the Southeast to assist with activity at the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. In 2017, outgoing President Barack Obama signed a proclamation designating part of Birmingham’s civil rights district as a national monument. The declaration made a portion of the area- which includes the A.G. Gaston Motel, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the 16th Street Baptist Church, Bethel Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, the Colored Masonic Templ
e, St. Paul United Methodist Church and portions of the 4th Avenue Business District–part of the National Park Service.
For eleven days in June, pairs of rangers with the National Park Service were stationed at sites around the monument park, greeting visitors and offering educational tools, such as Junior Ranger coloring books and brochures with history about the civil rights movement in Birmingham.
“The park service saw this as a great opportunity to send a team of park service park rangers to Birmingham to help staff these sites so folks who are visiting the area or even locals could have the opportunity to see what these national parks have to offer and explore some of the critical stories that these sites are starting to interpret,” said Scott Babinowich, a National Park Service ranger and interpretation officer. “So, it was just a real win-win for the park service to send some folks there to help bolster up those sites, and for the visitors in the community to get to know the national parts service a little bit.”
One of the monument’s newest sites is the recently renovated wing of the historic A.G. Gaston Motel. The National Park Service and the city of Birmingham divide ownership of the motel, which served as a headquarters for civil rights leaders in Birmingham and an oasis of luxury for Black travelers in the Jim Crow South.
The city of Birmingham cut the ribbon on its portion of the motel in late June, just in time for The World Games. The renovated wing houses “A.G. Gaston, Black Power is Green,” an exhibit about the life and legacy of the motel’s owner and Birmingham’s renowned Black businessman, A.G. Gaston. The city opened the exhibit to the public during the World Games to offer visitors a sneak peek of the nearly complete motel wing. (The city of Birmingham plans to have the remaining on-site construction of its portion of the motel completed by October and reopen the exhibit in the fall. The National Park Service hopes to complete the renovation of its portion of the motel by September.)
The newly renovated motel was a focal point for Jalal Slade, Gabrielle Slade, and Kim Stinnett, who were in town from Georgia to experience The World Games. Jalal Slade, the director of development for program management firm HPM–one of the companies that sponsored the sports competition– says HPM encouraged staff to partake in activities and tour sites near the games headquarters in downtown Birmingham.
After two days of opening ceremonies and sports, Slade and his family planned a Saturday trip to the civil rights district, where they visited Kelly Ingram Park, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, and 16th Street Baptist Church.
At the motel, they stood in the courtyard, thrilled to experience history. They took ph
otos and matched them with the black and white photographs on the National Park Service brochures.
“The picture I was taking on that brochure shows Martin Luther King,” said Jalal Slade.
Stinnett was excited as she held her cell phone up to the brochure to compare the images.
“I was standing right there!” she said, motioning to the spot in the courtyard where civil rights leaders, including Fred Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy stood and spoke to crowds of people.
“We wanted to walk where the greats have walked,” said Gabrielle Slade. “And stand where they stood and changed the course of history.”