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Jackson Lecture Series Puts Black Athletes in Olympics Spotlight

Dr. Kevin Witherspoon, the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Endowed Chair at Lander, discussed the impact of Black athletes on the Olympic games and sports history during the Jackson Lecture Series. Photo by Laura B. Wood

A comprehensive book on the contributions of Black athletes in sports history, titled “Black Mercuries, African American Athletes, Race, and the Modern Olympic Games,” provided the foundation for this year’s Larry A. Jackson Lecture Series at Lander University.

Author Dr. Kevin B. Witherspoon, a history professor and the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Endowed Chair at Lander, discussed the book as co-authors Dr. Mark Dyreson, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, and Dr. David K. Wiggins, a professor emeritus at George Mason University, joined the lecture by video conference. The authors were introduced as a “dream team of scholars” in the field of sports history.

“Black Mercuries” has been hailed by critics as “an essential source on African-American athletes and Olympic history” and the “first book to fully chronicle the struggles and triumphs of African American athletes in the modern Olympic Summer Games.” Published by Rowman & Littlefield, “Black Mercuries” explores the varied experiences of Black athletes whose contributions in the summer Olympics have largely gone unrecognized.

Wiggins said the project came about in 2018 after he published a book, “More than a Game: A History of the African American Experience in Sport.” After considering a follow-up book, Wiggins said the logical choice was a book on the experience of Black athletes in the summer games. “The topic had not been addressed,” he said. “But I didn’t want to do this solo.”

He contacted Witherspoon and Dyreson. Despite concerns that three people, with different perspectives and writing styles, could successfully collaborate on a book, the scholars pressed forward. Dyreson, an expert on early 20th-century sports, wrote the first third of the book. An expert of the Cold War period in American history, Witherspoon accepted the challenge for the second part, and Wiggins wrote the last section.

As he began writing the book, Witherspoon said, “One of the things that really stood out me … was how little I actually knew.” In his research, he became familiar with the story of Malvin Whitfield, a member of the renowned Tuskegee Airmen who fought in World War II. Whitfield won medals in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics.

Another standout, Witherspoon said, was John Henry Davis, a U.S. Army soldier who fought in the Pacific Theater in World War II, where the heavyweight lifter lost 45 pounds. He came home from the war, underwent rigorous training and won gold medals in the 1948 and 1952 games.

Dyreson found the story of William “Billy” Morris to be powerful. Although he was never able to compete in the Olympics because of color barriers, Morris was a great distance runner. He became a trainer for the University of Pennsylvania and trained track-and-field athletes for the 1924, 1928 and 1936 games.

“A powerhouse in track and field … Morris got to work with early Black Olympians,” said Dyreson, crediting the athlete for “hanging in there and overcoming color lines.”

Wiggins discussed the role of Black female athletes in the modern era. Among the lesser known of these athletes is Ashleigh Johnson, a water polo player, who earned fame as one of the best goalkeepers in the sport for all time.

One of the greatest stories among females, he said, is that of gold medal gymnast Simone Biles, who dropped out of the games in Tokyo in 2020. Citing overwhelming stress and the need to prioritize her own mental health, Biles made a decision to put herself first – for the first time in her life.

“That was really extraordinary,” Wiggins said, recognizing the move as a powerful public health statement and a recognition of the importance of protecting an individual’s health.

The panelists concurred that as much as was covered in the book, there were many amazing stories that were left untold.

“I would hope that people take sports seriously. Sport does matter. Sport tells a lot about culture in general,” said Dyreson, noting that he hoped “Black Mercuries” will inspire people to read more about Black athletes and do their own investigation of the contributions made throughout history.

Dr. Ashley Woodiwiss, chair of Lander’s Department of Government, Criminology and Sociology, moderated the lecture, which is named for Dr. Larry A. Jackson, who was Lander president from 1973 to 1992. Jackson’s wife, Barbara, attended the 2023 event and was recognized for her work to champion student success during her tenure as Lander’s First Lady.