The History of Sports and Leisure

Anthea M. Hartig

There was nothing I wanted more. It didn’t need to be fancy. In the mid-1970s it wouldn’t have been-maybe a blonde wood “dogtown” cruiser with two-color wheels. Already loving roller-skating at the tiki-themed Roller City along Route 66 (Foothill Boulevard in Cucamonga, California), a skateboard seemed the ultimate in cool freedom for a 13-year-old. My athletic, water-polo coach and college counselor uncle gifted me the object of my desire for my birthday, I’m thinking in 1977 or so.  I was over the proverbial moon—I can still feel it beneath my feet rolling down my grandparents’ concrete driveway. My euphoria was very short-lived as my overprotective if loving mother made me give it right back. On the spot. My cool days evaporated before my teary eyes, I could merely envision a future wearing HangTen shirts and Op shorts but not on a board.  

I wrote the above for a foreword to Betsy Gordon and Jane Roger’s pathbreaking Four Wheels and a Board (2022). With its emphasis on the dynamic cultural intersections of boarding culture, beginning with its Hawaiian origins, it captures Americans’ obsession with the art, the lore, the design, the innovation, and the daring of boarding. One of the key and critical strengths of their work lies in the telling and honoring the indigeneity of the sport so many of us love. From reservations to reservoirs, teens to elders, skateboarding not only has a history, but it also has a series of interlocking spaces that when understood with the people and their objects reflect a powerful and lasting cultural phenomenon.

Like the essays in this volume, Four Wheels and a Board does not shy away from the ways issues of identity, race, ethnicity, class, and gender have played out and continue to roll out. Like all historians, reckoning with my own past and its privileges and complications along race, ethnicity, gender, and spatial contours brings forth deeper understanding of not just wanting a skateboard but learning to swim in my uncle’s pool, skate at a rink, and frolic in the Pacific.

Histories of the socially constructed contours and cultural landscapes of leisure activities and playing of sports contain keys to our modern understandings of everything from exclusion to economics, from violence to velocity, and from long-jumping to justice. Historians’ work in these intersectional areas has manifested in recent scholarship, public memorialization, oral history projects, museum exhibitions, and even repatriation of Black-owned oceanfront property. Here I reference examples like the reprarational return of Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach, California, to the descendants of its Black owners.

As well, the important scholarship and place-based activism of Alison Rose Jefferson. Both Living the California Dream (2020) and the just-opened exhibition, Black California Dreamin’ at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles explore the erased stories of Bruce’s Beach, South Santa Monica and other Black leisure communities in Southern California. That exhibition’s website lays it down: “Access to nature, recreation, and sites of relaxation—in other words, leisure—is critical to pursuing the full range of human experience, self-fulfillment, and dignity.” U.S. history is rife with overt and subtle, violent and genteel efforts to prohibit and limit leisure for non-white, poor, and marginalized people.

Likewise, issues of spatial justice due to racial apartheid help situate Andrew Kahrl’s piece in this volume. Like his work on the coastal communities of the U.S. Southern states, notably, The Land Was Ours (2016) Kahrl shared powerful history of the 1919 stoning and drowning death of Eugene Williams, a 17-year-old Black boy who had inadvertently drifted into the white-only waters of Lake Michigan, and the subsequent two-week race riot that followed.

It is important to situate both the Californian and Illinois heart-wrenching examples in the post-WWI era’s racial intensity. The decade between 1919 and the crash of 1929 witnessed some of the most violent acts of white supremacy since the Civil War.  Acts of policing black and brown bodies, bodies of those identifying as women continue to our times as the bloody years since 2020 brought into even sharper focus.

Kahrl brings in scholars such as Robin D. G. Kelley who twenty years ago understood how places of play and leisure were “places that enabled African Americans to take back their bodies, to recuperate, to be together.” In his “‘We Are Not What We Seem,’” Kelley asserts, “Regardless of their origin, function, physical conditions, or duration, all of these places played a critical role in Black people’s struggle to survive and thrive under American apartheid.”[1]

This painful dislocation from the water by Black Americans was and remains from oceans to lakes to swimming pools, as Jeff Wiltse’s Contested Waters (2010) demonstrates. It is critical to recall that these types of segregation, violence, reclaiming, and resistance were and are a national phenomenon. Moreover, the lasting legacies of suppression of places of non-white leisure remain to this day.

Alex Nuñez’s article in this issue shifts the gaze of racialized places, the color line, and the landscapes of sports and leisure to the great American game of baseball. In doing so, he adds to the growing scholarship of José M. Alamillo, including Making Lemonade out of Lemons (2006) and pointedly Adrian Burgos, Playing America’s Game (2007). Subsequent community-based projects continue to multiply in these literal and intellectual fields, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, ¡Pleibol! In the Barrios and the Big Leagues/En los barrios y las grandes ligas, where Nuñez was a Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies Fellow working with that project’s lead curator Margaret Salazar-Porzio.

These scholars help us understand “how sports could be understood as something larger than a game and how Mexican Americans experienced race through their unique relationship with citizenship and national identity,” as Nuñez writes. He pays particular attention to the fluidity and boundaries of race and racial categorization of athletes based on eugenics-fueled discrimination and segregation. Here, too, in Nuñez’s recounting, the Jim-Crow era separation shifts painfully to a limited and still evolving post-WWII integration. He smartly locates and weaves in passing and accommodation “afforded” by the whitewashing of the mythical Spanish fantasy past of California and the western states in stark contrast to the Blackness of Afro-Latinos of the Caribbean. Damian Thomas’ “Sports: Leveling the Playing Field,” at the National Museum of African American History and Culture picks up these themes and others in his important contribution on the National Mall.

Place, race, myth, and significantly gender also figure keenly in Bethanee Bemis’ essay in this volume: that of the proverbially happiest places on earth—Disney theme parks. Orange County, California, is surely a complicated cultural landscape. But starting in the 1950s, a century after German immigrants mingled and displaced Californios following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo in 1848, an entire new and mythical layer emerged: Walt Disney’s land. Historians and critics have had a proverbial field day ever since.  Bemis continues this tradition with her piece here, her new book Disney Theme Parks and America’s National Narratives (2022), and new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History where we are colleagues. I re-read with admiration older scholarship such as Michael Steiner’s 1998 “Frontierland as Tomorrowland,” connecting historiographical dots and enjoying observations like this: “In an act of Promethean audacity, Disney’s imaginary world had been etched upon the land and embedded in the public mind. It was a dream come true: a fabricated land of neatly packaged regions that would become the key symbolic landscape of modern America and the best known and most copied place on earth.”

Bemis focuses value proposition the value(s) exchanges between the Disney theme parks and their millions of visitors. The myth packages embodied in the carefully constructed and controlled landscapes are in her research embraced, challenged, and remade by individuals, families, and communities—many of whom were not represented in the lands and worlds Disney created. Often when included, non-white/hetero/cis-gendered American were reduced to painful stereotypes. But in the embrace of Disney, non-dominant groups have pressured and changed Disney’s “visual representations of those values to match the breadth of people who share them.” On the ahistorical constructions that Steiner and others since have dissected, Bemis finds, “That fuzziness around historical fact and narrative is what allows it to be interpreted by people of different political persuasions as supportive of their own identities and viewpoints.” This fascinating reverse juke continues to play out, gathering more political moss as it rolls in the heightened culture wars of our time.

In all, these three scholars deepen the already complex racialized understanding of sports and leisure across much of the past century and into our current, tumultuous times. That the crossroads of racism, segregation, discrimination, and violence also have produced joy, athletic accomplishment, community identity, cohesion, “Gay Days” at Disneyworld, and the repatriation of Bruce’s Beach. What a place, what a world in which we historians work today.

Exhibitions:

https://caamuseum.org/exhibitions/2023/black-california-dreamin-african-americans-and-the-frontier-of-leisure

https://americanhistory.si.edu/pleibol

https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/exhibitions/sports

https://americanhistory.si.edu/exhibitions/mirror-mirror-reflections-america-disney-parks

Author

Anthea M. Hartig is the Elizabeth MacMillan Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and the first woman to hold the position. Hartig is currently leading a vibrant new strategic plan to take the museum through the 250th of the United States in 2026 and beyond. It challenges the museum to be the nation’s most accessible, inclusive, relevant and sustainable public history institution.

Notes

[1] Robin D. G. Kelley “‘We Are Not What We Seem’: Rethinking Black Working-Class Opposition in the Jim Crow South,” Journal of American History, 80 (June 1993), 75-112.