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    Origin Story

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    *Originally published in the April 2020 issue of Rowing News

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    Doctor Rowing’s last column about the soon-to-be-released film A Most Beautiful Thing and the story it tells about Chicago’s Manley High School crew sparked a quick response from my friend, rowing historian Tom Weil. He said he enjoyed the column, but pointed out that the Manley guys in 2000 were not the first all-African-American crew. “Howard University boated all-Black crews from the 1960s into the 1970s. They were definitely not all inner-city kids, but they were definitely ‘all-Black crews,’ so ‘first-ever’ for this crowd is simply wrong.” 

    Ken Alpart, the former Penn lightweight, appeared in the Manley lunchroom one day to drum up support for his idea, saying, “There are no all-Black crew teams. You will be the first.” He was unaware that Howard University had preceded this effort by close to 40 years. The teenagers in the film, men now, believed they were the first African Americans to row. They hadn’t heard of Howard’s crew. In no way does this diminish their story, because it is about so much more than being the first. Arshay Cooper’s memoir and Mary Mazzio’s film tell the tale of how rowing provided them with something beautiful and positive.

    The Howard University crew program was started by an alum named Howland Ware, a member of the class of 1941, who had seen the Eastern Sprints in 1952 and thought, “It was so exciting. I just figured Howard had to have a crew.” He convinced the powers that be at Howard to let him finance the enterprise with a $10,000 gift and get onto the Potomac River. The program’s first coach was a George Washington University law professor named Stuart Law. Law had rowed at Yale and been a spare for the 1956 Olympic gold medalists. Starting up any rowing program is hard work, but imagine the difficulties that Law must have faced in 1961 when Howard boated its first crew. College sports across the country were still very much a white man’s game in the early sixties. While Jackie Robinson had played football at UCLA in 1939 and broke the “color barrier” in major league baseball in 1947, the legendary Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama didn’t allow a black football player until 1971; Adolph Rupp at Kentucky kept his basketball teams all-white until 1970. 

    It must have also been a monumental effort to get rowing started at Howard because, unlike with other sports, none of the men who joined the team had ever rowed. But driven by their passionate coach and visionary founder, Howard students began to take to the water. In 1962 they had a tough year, including getting ridiculed for flipping their eight at the dock. In 1963 they were given varsity status and looked to be improving although they did not win any of their eight races. In 1964 they beat American University (which has since dropped rowing), George Washington, and Georgetown to become the “Champions of the Potomac,” as Jet magazine called them. They also traveled to New Haven to race the Rutgers’ third varsity heavyweights and the Yale third varsity lights, finishing third but earning respectability. 

    Rowing is never all about racing results, however. Small college programs are never stocked with a surplus of athletes; if you are lucky you can find several and teach others what being an athlete means. In the early days, most of the Howard oarsmen were rowing as a way to get in shape for wrestling and football. But a few of them grew to love it and were committed. Rudolph Smith, who rowed three seat in the 1964 crew was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying, “I soon found out that I liked rowing better (than wrestling). Out there on the water you have to depend on yourself to go all the way. There aren’t any substitutes. Rowing isn’t a great spectator sport, and you don’t get to be a hero. You have to do it just because you like it.” 

    There isn’t a great deal of information about the Howard crews of the late sixties. If we remember those years, we know that political action and protests against the Vietnam War dominated college campuses. Even Yale saw all of its freshmen quit in 1970 after the Sprints in order to go off campus and join in demonstrations. Tony Johnson, a Rowing Hall of Fame member with fellow 1968 Olympic pairs silver medalist Larry Hough, took the Georgetown coaching job in 1966 and recalls coaching Howard oarsmen at Potomac’s summer program in 1969. There was still some enthusiasm for rowing on campus, but it was waning. Johnson moved to Yale in the fall of 1969 and was contacted by Howard for help in finding a coach for the college. He mentioned it to Nat Case, a 1970 Yale graduate, who eagerly accepted his first coaching job. His Howard crew in 1971 boated two eights and raced at the Dad Vail after winning one race but “didn’t do especially well,” he recalls. The next year, the university pulled the plug on the program because of a lack of interest. Case was disappointed—he had a couple of very dedicated athletes—and went on to become Yale’s first full-time women’s coach.

    Rowing continues to struggle with diversity and inclusivity in today’s era, although there are a number of programs that have succeeded in getting people of color to try the sport.

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