Sports

African American Museum’s newest exhibit chronicles saga of Kansas’ black athletes

“Undefeated: The Triumph of the Black Kansas Athlete” opens at the Kansas African-American Museum this weekend and runs through the summer. The exhibit is put together by curator Carole Branda, left, and executive director Mark McCormick.
“Undefeated: The Triumph of the Black Kansas Athlete” opens at the Kansas African-American Museum this weekend and runs through the summer. The exhibit is put together by curator Carole Branda, left, and executive director Mark McCormick. The Wichita Eagle

The conversation starts with history, and sports, and how when the two intertwine they can lead to the most dynamic types of change.

And at its heart, the Kansas African American Museum’s newest exhibit, “Undefeated: The Triumph of the the Black Kansas Athlete” is meant to start a conversation.

“I liked the idea from (museum curator) Carole Branda right away, because we really hadn’t done anything like that before,” said Mark McCormick, the museum’s executive director. “And what I liked most was the title she thought of, because historically sports, at least at the pro level, didn’t fit the definition of sports, per se. It’s not a diversion.

The Kansas African American Museum's newest exhibit is "Undefeated: The Triumph of the Black Kansas Athlete" and opens Saturday and runs through August 27. (Tony Adame/The Wichita Eagle)

“In a lot of iterations, the black athlete’s performance was a form of political speech … black athletes could say things in competition they couldn’t say, nor could African Americans cheering them on say. They could say, ‘I’m your equal … and most important, I’m fully human and you should recognize that.’”

The exhibit, which runs from Saturday through Aug. 27, chronicles 84 men and women – athletes and coaches – who helped shape that history. From Wilt Chamberlain to Barry Sanders (McCormick’s childhood friend who donated several items to the exhibit) to Lynette Woodard to long-forgotten athletes such as Solomon Butler and Isiah “Fireball” Jackson.

“The most difficult part was probably trying to track down pictures of all the athletes and coaches we wanted to feature,” Branda said. “The three universities were very, very helpful when it came to that. A lot of the pictures you see came from the athletic departments at Kansas, Kansas State and Wichita State.”

I’m sure people, as they were watching, were also hoping that someday society could be as transparent and the playing field could be as level in life as it was in sports.

KAAM executive director Mark McCormick

And while the majority of the exhibit’s panels focus on individuals, its first panel chronicles an event unknown to many Kansans that is sure to generate its own buzz. On June 21, 1925, a baseball game at Wichita’s Island Park was played between the all-black Monrovians, a semi-pro team, and the Ku Klux Klan.

The game at Island Park – a baseball stadium on a sandbar in the Arkansas River – was announced in The Wichita Eagle with the headline “Only baseball is on tap at Island Park” and the article opens with the line “Strangleholds, razors, horsewhips and other violent implements of argument will be barred at the baseball game.”

Fletcher Powell of Boston’s National Public Radio station, WBUR, wrote in a 2012 article that the two teams hired Catholics as umpires to show there was no favoritism. On the back of a public-relations campaign by Emporia Gazette owner William Allen White, the Klan was forced out of Kansas in 1927.

New exhibit at Kansas African American Museum features panel on baseball game between all-black Monrovians and Ku Klux Klan at Wichita's Island Park in 1925. (Tony Adame/The Wichita Eagle)

The Monrovians were beloved by Wichita’s African-American community because they often donated money raised from games to social causes, including the Phyllis Wheatley Children’s Home.

The Monrovians defeated the Klan 10-8.

The exhibit will feature several speakers throughout the summer, including Woodard. There will also be a panel on the 1977 Heights boys basketball team, which went undefeated and featured future NBA players Antoine Carr and Darnell Valentine. There is the possibility for more panels on more involved topics, if the interest is there, according to McCormick.

“Sports was an avenue for people to participate in society, it was an aspirational kind of thing,” McCormick said. “I’m sure people, as they were watching sports, were also hoping that someday society could be as transparent and the playing field could be as level in life as it was in sports.”

Tony Adame: 316-268-6284, @t_adame

UNDEFEATED: THE TRIUMPH OF THE BLACK KANSAS ATHLETE

▪ Where: Kansas African American Museum, 601 N. Water St.

▪ When: Saturday through Aug. 27

▪ Admission: Adults $5.50, Seniors (over 55) and students with ID $4.50, ages 5-7 $2.50, under 5 free

ONLY BASEBALL ON TAP AT ISLAND PARK

Strangle holds, razors, horsewhips and other violent implements of argument will be barred at the baseball game at Island Park this afternoon when the baseball club of Wichita Klan Number 6 goes up against the Wichita Monrovians, Wichita’s crack colored team.

The colored boys are asking all their supporters be on hand to watch the contest, which beside its peculiar attraction due to the wide difference of the two organizations, should be a well-played amateur contest. On the side of the colored boys is the fact that they have had a ball team here for several years...

The Wichita Eagle, June 21, 1925

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