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‘More than just a game’, how black Iowans broke barriers on and off the field

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (KWWL) -- In 2018, 20% of the division 1 athletes were black, but just less than a lifetime ago African Americans faced racial aggression just to get on the field.

In honor of Black History Month, the African American Museum of Iowa took a look back at trailblazers in the realm of sports in it's 'More than Just a Game' traveling exhibit.

From the early 1800's to even now Black athletes face struggles and hurdles to get equal treatment, opportunities, and recognition.

Former UI football and fencing athlete, Orville Townsend Sr. was in the audience and reflected on his own experiences after the presentation.

"Blacks were not accepted. We were, we were like you know, just there. Something they had to accept," said Townsend Sr.

Townsend Sr. and his wife Billie, of Iowa City, was in the crowd as Sean Donaldson, an educator with the African American Museum of Iowa looked back at Black athletes fight for equal treatment.

"It's one thing to go to the games and cheer for your team but it's another thing to know there were struggles to get to that point and yeah, being a white person you didn't have that problem," said Billie Townsend.

Not long ago, Black players were unable to eat meals with their teams at restaurants or even stay in the same hotel.

"A lot of the story is of barrier breakers, if you will, people who broke that mold and did something new. So there's a lot of firsts in here and then a lot of people who parlayed their success in athletics to kind of changing society," said Donaldson.

From 1867 when Blacks were banned from baseball leagues to 1934 when athletes such as UI Football player Ozzie Simmons faced verbal and physical abuse on the field.

"We talk about the sporting aspect of it, we talk about football, we talk about track and that's good. We get recruited to play those sports but I think the big picture is opportunity. If you look at most of those athletes on that screen, none of their families could have sent them to college. So athletic scholarship were a stepping stone to have access to the educaltional system and many of them took advantage" said Townsend Sr.

Each of the athletes mentioned from John Fowler, the first black man to play on a white baseball team for the Western Keokuks, to Johnny Bright, a former Drake University football player whose jaw was broken prompting a redesign of the helmet. Each individual broke down barriers for athletes today and helped close the educational gap through athletic opportunities.

UNI's Head Women's Basketball Coach, Tanya Warren, was also highlighted today. She was the first Black head coach in the Missouri Valley Conference, she was also one of the first Black women inducted to the Iowa High School Girls Hall of Fame.

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Ashley Neighbor

Reporter, Cedar Rapids

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