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April 20, 1929
Guest post by Trent Cork, undergraduate student at Iowa State University.
On April 20, 1929, the Chicago Defender carried an article titled, “Boy Athlete Killed after Winning Race: Rival Hurls Brick Then Escapes.” It is about a boy named Henry Clarke who was killed after winning a local sprinting race in New York. From the context of the newspaper and how the author described the story, it is implied that the boy was African American. Clarke’s killer was a white youth. The youth warned Clarke before the 100-yard race to lose or something bad may happen to Clarke. Clarke, however, did not heed to this demand. Clarke beat his white opponent, as it is noted in the article, by quite a bit. The killer then proceeded to attack Clarke with a brick and Clarke was soon pronounced dead. Police were still searching for the killer when the story was written. The story made the front page of the Chicago Defender, but it wasn’t the headline, and it didn’t make it into newspapers around the country on this date. This story is important and serious for obvious reasons, especially locally, but it also carries great symbolic significance nationally. Today a story like this would be the headline of newspapers nationwide, the fact that it isn’t in 1929 shows that this story signifies common issues in 1929.
This story of prejudice against African Americans in sports is not an isolated occurrence. Similar to this article in severity and a little better known, Jack Trice, an Iowa State football player, was a victim of violence as he competed athletically. Although with less serious consequences than the two just mentioned, there are many famous examples of the fight against prejudice through sports. Athletes like Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens faced racial hate and adversity as they worked to break color barriers in baseball and track, respectively. The fight against racial prejudice in sports was a testament to the general racial prejudice that African Americans faced in the twentieth century as many transitioned into cities looking for better jobs and a better quality of life.
African Americans flooded into the city as part of the Great Migration in the early twentieth century. This great influx of people changed the demographics and dynamics of the American city. African Americans may have left the slavery of the South but they faced new problems hindering their quality of life and pursuit of success. African Americans were able to pursue better jobs in the cities they migrated to, which was good, but it did not come without negative effects. African Americans began competing with white workers for jobs. This upset white workers who were used to the established status quo of having jobs reserved solely for them. This theme that white people wanted the African-American migrants to not have the chance to compete with them was shown through violence in the cities and segregation laws, but it was also exemplified through things like sports. This article symbolizes this theme. The event the article covers is a white citizen attacking an African-American citizen because the African-American citizen is competing with the white citizen and “stealing” his success. Even more so, the writer directly relates this theme by discussing the social implications and issues represented by this event, “Race prejudice and that old American spirit that we must not come to the front, but remain in the background.” (Chicago Defender, 20 April 1929, p. 1 col. 5). Racial tension existed in American cities as a result of the Great Migration, and from this article one can see that it was a problem faced in the events of people’s everyday lives, like sports.
For more about African-American athletes that used their sport to be influential, explore this recent article, The 20 Most Influential African-American Athletes Who Changed Sports Forever, from Bleacher Report, an online sports news site. For more information about the challenges and experiences of the Great Migration, see this article from In Motion: The African American Migration Experience, which is presented by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.