"Black People in Rowing: Our Stories, Our Future" by Joshua Rafferty
As Black History Month approaches, esteemed black leaders, activists, athletes, artists, and so many more are highlighted. It serves as an opportunity to take a step back and look at the history and future of our beloved sport through the lens of black people. First, a bit about myself. My name is Joshua Rafferty, and I’m an economics student and rower at Loyola University Maryland. Originally from Princeton, New Jersey, I attended a small k-12 prep school starting in kindergarten and eventually graduating. During my time there, I played hockey and lacrosse with no serious aspirations of going to the next level. Growing up I had heard stories of the Team USA women’s rowing team practicing in my area and was pushed a few times by my parents to try it out in my early high school days.
Shortly after hearing that my first semester of college would be online in August 2020, I received a mass email from my university’s rowing coach. She said that they were looking for all those who were interested and willing to learn. A college sport, let alone a Division I college sport, was never something I pictured myself doing. I thought I wasn’t good enough at sports to get there, let alone find success. Remembering the encouragement of my parents, I emailed her to schedule a meeting. When we sat down on Zoom, she told me a little bit about the program and her experience in the sport. Starting as a walk-on at Princeton, working her way to cox and win multiple boat races. I was inspired by her story of hard work and dedicating herself to a sport she had not heard of until she arrived in my town. As a Princeton woman, I knew I could trust her, for the town and university had shaped me and countless inspiring individuals throughout history.
Transitioning into rowing, I understood I may be one of few, if not the only black person in the locker room. I was the only one for lacrosse, hockey, and eventually rowing for my club CLRA after my freshmen year of college. In my first two years, I was fortunate enough to have a black captain, something I found inspiring. The men’s team was previously almost all white until my novice class arrived with one Jewish guy, two Puerto Ricans, one Filipino, and an Italian from Brooklyn. The “rats,” as we would eventually go by, would be the rock of diversity in my college experience at a school of almost 80% white students. I had grown up in a white area and even attended a white school, however, the sheer amount of white people at college is a bit daunting and you can sometimes feel like a fishbowl to a black kid. I learned that many of the students I met at school had few, if any, experiences with black people in their lives.
After choosing to write this blog post while on my winter break from school, I was walking through the halls of the Princeton University boathouse after one of my club’s erg practices. The main hallway was covered in photos of championship boats and crews (including my coach) from Princeton’s past, starting in the late 1800s all the way to the present day. There is not one single black person in any of the photos at Princeton’s storied boathouse. As I dove deeper into the history, I was disappointed by the serious lack of people that look like me in rowing. Eventually, I found a few individuals that stood out as black rowers in their time in the sport that I would like to share with all of you.
Starting with Frenchy Johnson, a black sculler who competed in the 1870s during the reconstruction era. Though there isn’t much information on Frenchy’s life, we do know that he had one heck of a rowing career. In his time, he won some big head races and was one of the top professional rowers in the United States. Notably, in one of his last races, he declined a penalty from the umpire simply because the other rowers were too far off for him to be troubled with adjusting times. Johnson was held in high regard as a competitor, even competing alongside white athletes in doubles, finishing out as a coach. Given the time of Johnson's career, it is believed that he was a slave and learned to row in famous slave races on the rivers and lakes of the American south. Learning of his roots made me wonder how many black people rowed in singles for their freedom. Frenchy’s story and those of slave races show that Black people have played a key part in rowing since its beginning in America, ultimately helping to popularize the sport despite bondage and being shut out for generations.
The second rower I want to discuss is Anita DeFranz. Anita was a member of the first Team USA women's Olympic eight, later going on to become two-time vice president of the IOC. Anita grew up in segregated Indianapolis in a time where not only being black limited her from opportunities, but as a woman in a time before women’s sports were popularized in the United States. Overcoming the challenges of being a woman in the early days of women’s college sports on top of being black in rowing, Anita led the 1976 women's eight to a bronze medal. Shortly after, she became a member of the US Olympic committee and practiced law until she started to gear up to compete in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. After the United States decided to boycott the games, Anita’s career as an athlete ended, despite a lengthy lawsuit with the USOPC where she advocated for athletes to compete in the Olympics that year if they chose.
Anita's career in sports and as an advocate was far from over. She became a member of the organizing committee for the LA ‘84 Olympics, the first American woman and African American in the IOC, and in 1997 was elected its vice president. Today she's a member of the LA 2028 organizing committee, a staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, and until 2015, served as the president of the LA 84 foundation, which has helped invest over $200 million in youth sports across America in the decades after the games. Anita serves as a great example of athletics and service to all of us. Her strength to endure the hardships of being a black woman athlete in her time, and her resolve to keep coming back to give the gift of sports to others, should serve as an inspiration to black athletes that we have a place not just as competitors, but leaders in sports off the erg and water.
Lastly, I had a hard time choosing this rower because there have been many notable black rowers in the last 25 years, such as Aquil Hashim Abdullah, the first black American winner of the diamond sculls at Henley in 2000. However, the last rower I want to discuss is David Banks. I first met David when I was in middle school when he was brought in as a guest speaker at a male youth empowerment program in which I participated at my mother's church. He was the first rower I'd ever met. He spoke about rowing and his experience as a walk-on at Stanford before he went on to bow the Olympic men's eight in Beijing and London. The main point of his talk was about trying new things and the value of consistent effort. However, that all went over my head as every question I asked him was about the rowing. It was him, and him alone, that put the idea in my mind that I can do this sport. He showed me that I can walk on with no experience, work hard every day, and eventually reach the highest level as a black man.
I find it amazing that my first exposure to the sport of rowing up close was a black man. After meeting David I always thought, “yea I could do that if I wanted,” something previously not a thought in my mind due to how white the sport is. His story and my connection to him serve as a living example of black people in rowing, inspiring others to try and eventually commit to the journey. I hope he reads this blog post because almost ten years later, I still think of his story from walk-on to the world's stage as a black man; it keeps me going in the sometimes seemingly endless mental battle of rowing.
The future of black people in our sport is bright. Funding and donations to programs in underprivileged programs across the country are higher than ever. Clubs like BLJ Community Rowing, the only black-owned rowing club in the United States, the Chicago Rowing Foundation, and Row New York work tirelessly to get black kids in boats and on ergs. Pages on Instagram like @theblackcoxswain show us as black people that we are not alone in our journeys and can support each other through our own online community. Rowing in Color, a podcast that brought together eight black women to form the first all-black female boat at HOCR this past year shares the narratives of black rowers everywhere, and gives all people an opportunity to listen to the experiences of colored rowers everywhere. However, as great as these things are, there's still work to be done. It is believed that the first black person to win an IRA championship in the eight was this last year in the lightweight category. There have been only five black rowers to go to the Olympics for team USA – six less than the number of black people who have served in the United States Senate. As amazing as these achievements are, there's always a twinge of disappointment where I think, “Really? It took this long?” In all honesty, it can be discouraging, but I remind myself of the black rower I met almost a decade ago who told me I could do anything, even if it wasn’t in a boat.