April 2014 BSTM (Black Sports the Magazine)
Acknowledging How Roller Derby
Embraced African-Americans from Day One
By David Block
It is a known fact that Black History month acknowledges and honors African-Americans. However, what people might not know is that long before Civil Rights was in vogue, long before Jim Crow was questioned, long before the sit-ins, and even 12 years before Jackie Robinson broke through baseball’s impenetrable color barrier, roller derby welcomed African-Americans, women and all minorities from the time of the sport’s inception back in 1935. Over the years, I have written a number of
articles about roller derby, and even one for the New York Times Sports’ Section (August
21, 2005). From interviewing women, African-Americans and other minorities who
competed in roller derby from its inception till now, I learned that the sport was color blind from day one.
Over the years, roller derby has been compared to the predetermined outcomes and theatrics of professional wrestling. Many people don’t realize the good that roller derby has done for women, minorities and people with disabilities.
When I interviewed Hazel Roop last year, a roller derby star who competed from 1936 to 1941, she told me that in the 1930s, roller derby was the only sport where a woman could be a professional athlete. She elaborated that there were no opportunities for women to do other sports and get paid. Roop remembered fellow skater Jay Levy, who was deaf. Because Levy could not hear the whistle blow, officials turned on strobe lights whenever a jam started, so that he would not be caught off guard.
Slamming Sammy Skobel skated from 1945 to 1965. Legally blind and unable to see faces or read uniform numbers, Skobel recognized his teammates and opponents by the way that they skated.
Roop gave her take on why the sport was so inviting. She explained that some of the organizers conducting roller derby tryouts had seen African-Americans excel at professional wrestling. They knew that African-Americans would enhance roller derby, and they were right. According to Roop, whenever unruly fans harassed African-
American skaters, the ushers threw those fans out.
In a 2010 interview with this writer, Ruberta Mitchell, an African-American skater, who grew up in Alabama and who skated from the ‘50s to the ‘70s, said that the skaters and owners never cared about color. “Growing up in Alabama, there was segregation,” said Mitchell. “Roller Derby embraced African-Americans. That was a whole new thing for me. We were one big happy family because we were all together. There was no Black, no White. We were all one.”
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There wasn’t any physical contact. I was a tomboy, and I didn’t care that my grandparents and aunt disapproved of that. They were old fashioned. They said ‘girls wear dresses’ but I wore jeans.
I climbed trees, and played football with the boys, and I was tougher than they were. Once I had the ball, they could never catch me.”
Roman recalled one road trip down South when her team experienced discrimination first hand. They had a hard time getting served at a restaurant. “For the longest time, the cooks and staff just looked at us,” said Roman. “We finally got served, but the service was so bad that we tipped the waitress one penny.”
One of Roman’s teammates was the African-American skating star, the late Ronnie Robinson, son of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.
Roman understood why Robinson chose not to be a boxer like his father, “He did not have a boxer’s build. Ronnie never went out of his way to talk about his father, unless someone asked him questions. I never did.”
When former African-American skating star Cliff Butler first competed in the 1960s for the San Francisco Bay Bombers, he never experienced discrimination. “When I skated in the south,” said Butler, “I never saw a sign ‘Whites only.’ Never. Those days were gone.”
Buddy Atkinson, Jr. (a Caucasian roller derby star from the ‘60s and ‘70s) assessed why African-Americans were accepted, “There was only a small segment of people in the United States capable of being Roller Derby skaters. They were special people. They respected people who could play. If someone was a good skater, nobody cared anything about how tall they were, how short they were, what color they were, how they looked, or where they came from.” Atkinson knew this firsthand because his parents were roller derby stars.
‘Little’ Richard Brown, an African-American skater, who competed from the ’60 through the 200s, likes that Roller Derby has always given equal opportunities to women and African-Americans. “We were colorblind,” said Brown. “Nobody cared what color you were, how big you were. If you could skate, the other skaters liked you. If you couldn’t, then they didn’t like you. The fans didn’t care either. They liked you if you were the home team. If you were on the visiting team, they hated you, whether you were Black or White.”
Brown remembered his team went to a Florida restaurant in the 1960s, and the waitress refused to serve him and the other Black skaters. To protest the discrimination, the entire team, White skaters as well as Black skaters, left the restaurant. Like Mitchell, Brown agreed that, “We were one big happy family.”
David Block is a legally blind documentary producer/director and freelance journalist for over 20 years. He stated, “Over the years, I’ve written a number of articles about roller derby, where I learned that from day one, the sport – as theatrical as it would eventually become – did so much good in that it gave equal opportunities to women, African-Americans and all minorities from day one. Before Jackie Robinson, before Martin Luther King, before women’s lib, roller derby had its inviting door wide open. In 2012, Block made a roller derby documentary, “This Time It’s Real.” To read some of his articles and to review some of his documentaries, log onto his website www.blindfilmmaker.com.
BSTM April 2014