Comprehensive “Crescent City Sport” exhibition doesn’t pull any punches

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Pictured during the 1956 Sugar Bowl, Pitt’s Bobby Grier (#38) was the first black football player to play in a bowl game in the South.

NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints have been around for more than 50 years.

The Sugar Bowl has been around for nearly 90 years.

Super Bowls, Finals Fours and other championship events have been coming to New Orleans for decades.

But all of that is just a small part of the history of sports in New Orleans, which is the subject of “Crescent City Sport: Stories of Courage and Change,” an exhibit running at the Historic New Orleans Collection on Royal Street through March 8.

The exhibit “draws from more than a dozen institutional and private collections” as it tells 20 stories, “each one an indelible thread in the social fabric of New Orleans.”

The stories don’t just recount facts, but when appropriate they place events in the larger context of New Orleans’ evolution, both as a sports city and as a unique community.

The exhibit examines the roles of sport in the economic and societal development of New Orleans, particularly in the wake of watershed events such as the Civil War, the Great Depression and Hurricane Katrina.

It takes a no-holds-barred look at New Orleans’ challenging evolution through discrimination to become one of the most popular destinations for championship sporting events as well as the home of significant teams and events.

The exhibit begins with a display of rowing, a sport not generally associated with New Orleans, but one that was significant in the city’s formative years as a sports town.

It wasn’t long after the Civil War that New Orleans became a popular destination for oarsmen, hosting national regattas in 1875, 1880 and 1885.

The competitions’ value in the post-Civil War healing was noted at a regatta awards ceremony when Louisiana Speaker of the House R.N. Ogden called the events “contests of manly skill, and prowess, embittered by no sectional prejudice, inflamed by no political animosity, contests of brotherly love, where the best man wins.”

But the exhibit demonstrates right away that it won’t shy away from less pleasant aspects of the stories by including another excerpt from the same speech. Ogden “noted that the athletes’ ‘sinewy forms and muscular physiques speak of the hardy race whose sons they are,’ a not-so-veiled nod to the white supremacist attitudes of the time.”

Just a few years before that, in 1876, a group of “British nationals involved in the local cotton trade” brought the fledgling sport of lawn tennis to New Orleans and formed the New Orleans Lawn Tennis Club, “considered the first and oldest tennis club in the U.S.”

In less than a decade “the club began allowing white women to play on its courts – but only at specified times, usually in the morning, and with explicit instructions not to wear high-heeled shoes,” the exhibit explains. “By 1890 white women were admitted as members to the club.”

But again the exhibit places the historical development in context.

The lawn tennis display features a photo from circa 1898 that includes one black person, who “may be John William Wright, who was ‘taken in’ by the club leadership as a boy to care for the club grounds at South Saratoga and Marengo Streets.

“Granted proximity but not equality, he and other people of color would be denied club membership – and the social benefits such status conveyed – for another century.”

That photo represents the slow development of equality even though sports have often been ahead of society at large in fostering healthy race relations.

The Sugar Bowl was the centerpiece of an annual “Carnival of Sports” established by the New Orleans Mid-Winter Sports Association, which was formed to find “innovative ways” to stimulate the local economy in the wake of the Great Depression.

The Sugar Bowl wasn’t integrated until its 25th edition when Pitt’s Bobby Grier became the first African-American to play in the game in 1956.

Georgia Governor Marvin Griffin, “appealing to segregationist voters in his state, protested Grier’s participation,” but Grier’s teammates rallied around him and said they wouldn’t play without him. The game went on as scheduled and Georgia Tech prevailed 7-0.

“His participation challenged the social conventions that empowered Jim Crow,” according to the exhibit, “but segregationist forces only hardened their stance, pushing through the Louisiana state legislature laws that placed tighter restrictions on integrated competition.”

Grier was the last African-American to play in the Sugar Bowl until after the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Shortly after the Civil Rights Act became law, a group of players voted not to play in the AFL All-Star Game scheduled for Tulane Stadium.

The boycott was initiated by African-American players who encountered “resistance to change” upon their arrival in the Crescent City, such as being denied rides by white taxi drivers and entrance into some Bourbon Street nightclubs.

The group’s white teammates supported the boycott and the game was moved to Houston.

“The controversy embarrassed the city and seriously threatened its chances to land an AFL franchise.”

City leaders would continue to pursue a professional football franchise, holding a series of NFL exhibition games at Tulane Stadium, which was on private property and not subject to laws against integrated seating.

The games drew “sizable, integrated crowds,” and when two Louisiana members of Congress – Hale Boggs, the Majority Whip in the House, and Sen. Russell B. Long – helped exempt the AFL-NFL merger from federal antitrust laws, New Orleans was rewarded by the NFL with the Saints franchise on Nov. 1, 1966.

A young Texas oilman named John Mecom Jr. was named majority owner, but a distinguished group of minority owners included Xavier University President Dr. Norman Francis and Louisiana Weekly owner C.C. Dejoie Jr., who became “the first African Americans to hold ownership stakes in an NFL franchise.”

Though the integration of football required a lengthy struggle, independent African-American baseball teams were active in New Orleans as early as the late 1860s.

Walter Wright, a former pitcher with the New Orleans Black Pelicans, founded the New Orleans Old Timers Baseball Club, whose records “reside in the collections of the Amistad Research Center to preserve the memory of Negro League baseball in New Orleans.

Despite the early date that African-Americans found baseball-playing opportunities, women initially “were discouraged” from attending games of the Black Pelicans’ white counterparts, who started playing in the Southern League in 1887.

But Abner Powell, a 27-year-old team captain, convinced team management to institute regular “Ladies Days” beginning in April 1887 at Sportsman’s Park. Women received free admittance, “boosting attendance and opening the game up to a wider fan market.”

The inclusion of women wasn’t limited to being spectators. Many women became passionate cyclists in the 1880s after the introduction of “the safety,” which featured a frame more convenient for riders wearing skirts or dresses.

“That hastened the decline of cumbersome fashions that inhibited athletic activity, as women began taking advantage of the newfound freedom of movement afforded them by cycling.”

The exhibit also takes note of the New Orleans Pride professional basketball team, which participated in a predecessor to the current WNBA, as well as the “Rollergirls” roller derby team.

“Crescent City Sport” doesn’t just acknowledge ways in which New Orleans became more inclusive as a sports city, it also notes the city’s role in evolution by exclusion.

Legendary boxer John L. Sullivan trained in New Orleans for illegal bare-knuckle fights in the area in the 1880s.

After Sullivan and his opponent, Jake Kilrain, were arrested for their bare-knuckle “epic 75-round match” in the summer of 1889 at a lumber mill near Hattiesburg, Sullivan vowed to “never to fight bare knuckle again, essentially concluding a brutal era for the sport.

“James Corbett finally put an end to Sullivan’s reign in a legal match with gloves at the Olympic Club in New Orleans on Sept. 7, 1892. Sullivan’s fights in and around New Orleans made the city, in the eyes of many throughout the nation, synonymous with big-time sporting events.”

The Crescent City’s place as a leading venue for championship events was enhanced with the arrival of Super Bowl IV at Tulane Stadium 50 years ago and subsequent Super Bowls there and inside the Superdome, the construction of which is prominently displayed.

Also noted are other elements of New Orleans’ distinctive history as a sports city, including the establishment of the Southern Yacht Club in 1847 and the subsequent creation of the Lipton Cup race, which “helped invigorate sailing along the Gulf Coast”; the careers of legendary Fair Grounds horses Pan Zareta and Black Gold, both of whom are buried on the track site; the LSU-Tulane football “battle for the rag;” the USFL Breakers; the renaming of the city’s NBA team as “the Pelicans;” and the Saints’ role in the rebirth after Katrina, including the Super Bowl triumph 10 years ago.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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