"An essential source on African American athletes and Olympic history.” —Booklist, Starred Review
The first book to fully chronicle the struggles and triumphs of African American athletes in the Modern Olympic summer games.
In the modern Olympic Games, from 1896 through the present, African American athletes have sought to honor themselves, their race, and their nation on the global stage. But even as these incredible athletes have served to promote visions of racial harmony in the supposedly-apolitical Olympic setting, many have also bravely used the games as a means to bring attention to racial disparities in their country and around the world.
In Black Mercuries: African American Athletes, Race, and the Modern Olympic Games, David K. Wiggins, Kevin B. Witherspoon, and Mark Dyreson explore in detail the varied experiences of African American athletes, specifically in the summer games. They examine the lives and careers of such luminaries as Jesse Owens, Rafer Johnson, Wilma Rudolph, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Michael Johnson, and Simone Biles, but also many African American Olympians who have garnered relatively little attention and whose names have largely been lost from historical memory.
In recounting the stories of these Black Olympians, Black Mercuries makes clear that their superior athletic skills did not always shield them from the racial tropes and insensitivity spewed by fellow athletes, the media, spectators, and many others. Yet, in part because of the struggles they faced, African American Olympians have been extraordinarily important symbolically throughout Olympic history, serving as role models to future Black athletes and often putting their careers on the line to speak out against enduring racial inequality and discriminatory practices in all walks of life.
David K. Wiggins is professor emeritus of sport studies at George Mason University. The author of many books, book chapters, and scholarly articles, his publications center primarily on the interconnection among race, sport, and American culture. Included among his books are Glory Bound: Black Athletes in a White America and More than a Game: A History of the African American Experience in Sport. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Kinesiology, currently Editor-in-Chief of Kinesiology Review, and past president of the North American Society for Sport History.
Kevin B. Witherspoon is the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Endowed Chair in the Department of History and Philosophy at Lander University in Greenwood, SC. He is the author of many articles, chapters, and books, most of which focus on the intersection of race, culture, and sport in the Cold War era. His books include Before the Eyes of the World: Mexico and the 1968 Olympics and Defending the American Way of Life: Sport, Culture and the Cold War, co-edited with Toby Rider, both of which won the North American Society for Sport History annual book award.
Mark Dyreson is professor of kinesiology, affiliate professor of history, and co-director of the Center for the Study of Sports in Society at Pennsylvania State University. He has published numerous articles, chapters, and books on the history of sport, including Making the American Team: Sport, Culture, and the Olympic Experience and Crafting Patriotism for Global Dominance: America at the Olympics. He is a past president of the North American Society for Sport History, a fellow of the National Academy of Kinesiology, and has served as a managing editor and senior special projects editor for the International Journal of the History of Sport.
1. Pioneering Black Mercuries: African American Olympians, 1896-1920
2. Black Mercuries in the Jazz Age
3. Black Mercuries in the Turbulent 1930s
4. Black Mercuries and the Dawning of the Cold War
5. Black Mercuries in the Age of Protest
6. Black Mercuries in the Age of Boycotts
7. Black Mercuries in the Immediate Post-Cold War Period
8. Black Mercuries During the Age of Globalization
9. Black Mercuries Shine in Rio and Tokyo
About the Authors
[Black Mercuries] presents a more comprehensive view of African American participation in the Summer Olympics throughout the entire 20th century, up to the most recent games. This text features not only prominent athletes but also underrecognized Olympians, coaches, trainers, and other personnel. The text chronologically analyzes the history, experience, and challenges of African American Olympians, documenting their introduction to the world stage, the rise of female athletes, expanded opportunities to compete beyond track-and-field, and participation in political and social resistance. Wiggins, Witherspoon, and Dyreson join forces to contextualize these topics within the changing social and political milieu of the US and broader world over many decades, beginning with "pioneer" African American medalist George Poage, who won bronze at hurdles in St. Louis (1904). Recommended.
This valuable reference work by respected scholars showcases iconic African American Olympians like Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Simone Biles, but more importantly, it also offers readers the opportunity to discover unheralded, barrier-breaking athletes and their notable contributions to sports history. Chapters are arranged chronologically, beginning with 1896 through 1920 and concluding with the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. As the authors note in their introduction, African American athletes have reflected both racial harmony and racial disparity over the decades, shaping "larger historical, social, and cultural trends” in the process. The focus here is on the summer Olympics, with headline-grabbing sports like track and field and basketball dominating coverage, but there are also fascinating chapters on African American standouts in Tug of War (contested from 1900 to 1920) and white-dominated sports like fencing, wrestling, and soccer. Fewer women athletes competed in the Olympics in the early part of the century, the authors explain, but that changed during the Jim Crow era, when the Tennessee State University Tigerbelles excelled in track and field and left a lasting legacy, which is examined in detail. An essential source on African American athletes and Olympic history.
Wiggins, Witherspoon, and Dyreson do more than rescue the nation’s African American Olympians from oblivion. They capture their triumphs and travails beyond sport, anchoring their lives in more than a century of racial change. This lucid and compelling collaboration, whose penetrating research explodes conventional narrative about race and sport, showcases three eminent historians of sport at the top of their game.
For those interested in Olympic history, this book is easy to pick up and hard to put down. For those interested in the African American experience, the stories of triumph, disappointment, and challenge will both resonate and inspire.
The depth and breadth of African American Olympic sporting excellence fills the pages of Black Mercuries, as does the athletes’ tenacity and perseverance both on and off athletic fields and courts.
Black Mercuries is not just a valuable reference resource for scholars studying Black athletes and US Olympians. Rather, Wiggins, Witherspoon, and Dyreson instructively offer critical analysis of both heralded and overlooked Black Olympians, taking into account historical context and the politics of race, as well as gender, to highlight how the significance of these athletes extends beyond their sporting achievements.
Black Mercuries shines a light upon both the celebrated and the ignored giants of Black Olympic history. By doing so, it forges a new narrative about Olympic success, the obstacles some athletes are forced to overcome, and the bittersweet meaning of victory. Essential reading for those who want to understand a full account of our collective sports history.
From well-known names—like Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, the “Dream Team,” and Simone Biles—to the obscure—like William Penn and Joseph Winton, who competed in tug o’ war on the 1920 team—this meticulously researched book has it all. Black Mercuries blends storytelling with record keeping and is a must-have book for anyone interested in Olympic history or the story of the Black athlete.
Black Mercuries is a delight. Anyone familiar with the iconic Black American Olympic sprinters—from Jesse Owens to Bob Hayes and beyond—will find their stories movingly told in this fine book. But the authors’ deep research also uncovers dozens of forgotten or untold stories. In the end, Black Mercuries is a moving tribute to perseverance and talent.
Foreword by Lonnie G. Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian—the first African American and first historian to serve as head of the Smithsonian and former director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture
11/19/22, Publishers Weekly: This book was featured in a roundup of diverse reads.
11/29/22, Sports Book Reviews: This book was highlighted in a roundup of highly anticipated sports books.
7/2023, Booklist: This title was named a Top 10 Sports Book of 2023 in this feature on the best of the sports books reviewed in Booklist over the past 12 months.