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Olympians’ Contributions Featured Prominently In National Museum Of African American History And Culture

By Scott McDonald | Feb. 23, 2017, 3:27 p.m. (ET)

A statue at the National Museum of African American History and Culture depicts Tommie Smith (C), John Carlos (R) and Peter Norman of Australia (L) at the Mexico City 1968 Olympic Games.


The National Museum of African American History and Culture came fruition when it opened in September 2016 in Washington D.C. It only took five decades.

The sports wing isn’t nearly as expansive as those for entertainment, slavery or social injustice, but its importance doesn’t go unnoticed. The sports gallery takes up about one quarter of one floor in the newest museum of the Smithsonian Institution, and Olympians are well represented.

NYU history professor Jeffrey Sammons, who has written extensively about sports in African-American history, said that talks of opening a museum began in the 1970s when he was working on his master’s degree at Tufts University.

A statue at the National Museum of African American History and Culture depicts Shani Davis, the first black athlete to win an individual gold medal at the Olympic Winter Games.

“It was a long and difficult struggle to have such a facility, and its realization is a testament to lots of scholars, in particular to Dr. Lonnie Bunch, the director of the museum,” said Sammons, who has already visited the museum three times.

Sammons said the “Olympic experience” is highlighted in the sports gallery. In all, there are six statues in the sports area, and three of them are directly related to athletes in the Olympic Games.

One statue depicts sprinters Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman at the Mexico City 1968 Olympic Games. Americans Smith and Carlos won gold and bronze, respectively, in the 200-meter while Norman, an Australian, won silver. Smith and Carlos gained recognition for each raising a black-gloved fist in a “Black Power” salute during the national anthem, protesting social injustice. Norman, who is white, showed solidarity by wearing a badge supporting the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

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Another statue is of track and field star Jesse Owens running at the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games. At those Games, Owens became a fan favorite while winning gold medals in the 100, 200, 4x100 and long jump, in the process dealing a blow to Adolf Hitler’s efforts to use those Games to prove his ideology of Aryan superiority. However, Owens still faced discrimination and segregation upon returning to the United States.

“We had blacks performing on the world stage unrivaled in the Olympics,” Sammons said. “People made all sorts of propaganda in victories of black athletes. Berlin is often known as Jesse Owens winning four gold medals, but there were other African Americans who performed like Cornelius Johnson and Ralph Metcalfe.”

Johnson won gold in the high jump and Metcalfe won gold on the 4x100 team and silver in the 100 behind Owens. In all, the United States sent 18 black athletes to Berlin.

The third Olympic-specific statue is long track speedskater Shani Davis, who became the first black athlete to win an individual gold medal at the Olympic Winter Games when he won the 1,000-meter in 2006 in Torino. He also won the silver medal in the 1,500 at those Games in Italy and duplicated the feat in both events four years later in Vancouver.

There are also two statues in the museum that depict Olympic athletes but in their sports back home. The Michael Jordan statue shows the two-time Olympic champion’s last shot as a member of the Chicago Bulls, and the Venus and Serena Williams sculpture is of the Olympic champion sisters celebrating a women’s doubles tennis championship.

Jordan won his first Olympic gold medal in 1984 as a college student and then came back to win another with the “Dream Team” in 1992 in Barcelona. The Williams sisters are multi-year Olympians and multiple medal winners, including three times together as doubles partners.

An exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture displays nine of Carl Lewis' 10 Olympic medals.

The sixth statue is Jackie Robinson sliding into a base. Robinson broke baseball’s color line when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Sammons said there are videos to accompany many of the displays that tell the stories of black athletes’ accomplishments in sports. He added that the Olympic experience “is very important to the African-American experience.”

“It is a tribute from the outside into the persistence, and vision, and the struggles of blacks to be recognized and to have their history made available to all who are interested,” Sammons said, “and that includes not just many, many African Americans, but people of all races, ethnicities and nationalities.”

Sammons added that though sports aren’t as important as some of the other major movements in black history, sports still had an integral role.

“What the museum is trying to do, and rather effectively, is position sports in the larger vision of the black struggle with injustice, racism and success,” Sammons said.

“It’s also about bringing these things to life, especially to young people. Anything would be new to a lot of visitors. Sport is not something a lot of people see as important to the African-American experience other than outstanding performance. Many don’t see how it’s connected to Black Power and international relations in terms of nationalism.”

The museum has proven to be a popular attraction, drawing more than 1 million visitors in its first five months, including a visit from President Trump earlier this month. For Sammons, the end result was worth the wait.

“It’s first-class in every respect,” Sammons said. “It’s on the mall, and it has very fine views of the Washington Monument. One of the problems now is it’s too crowded. But it’s a beautiful facility and a great tribute.”

Scott McDonald has 18 years experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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