This announcement for Aron Stewart Day, scheduled for February 23, 1974, publicized the celebration of Aron Stewart (R’74) “for his outstanding basketball career during a special ceremony at [the] University of Richmond’s last home game” against William and Mary. Held during halftime, the ceremony lauded his accomplishments on the court before thousands of cheering fans in the newly minted Robins Center. University of Richmond President E. Bruce Heilman, Richmond City mayor Richard Bailey and former UR coach and athletic director Malcolm “Mac” Pitt, took turns praising Stewart’s career. During the ostentatious affair a letter from Governor Mills Godwin was read, Dr. Heilman presented Stewart with a trophy, and the crowd of over 5,000 fans gave him a rousing ovation.
Aron Stewart, the second black student-athlete to sign with the men’s basketball team (after Carlton Mack in 1970), transferred to the University of Richmond from Temple in 1972. The Jersey City, New Jersey native started off his collegiate career at Essex County Community College where he was a junior college All-American and also led the nation in scoring. After becoming eligible to play at the University of Richmond, Stewart rescued the basketball team from ruins. In his first six games alone Stewart helped the team pick up three wins in what had up to that point been a winless stretch. Throughout his two seasons with the Spiders Stewart almost always led the team in scoring and collected various accolades. In the ’72-’73 season he was named the Southern Conference player of the year, finished fourth in the nation with a 30.3 scoring average and broke numerous all-time records at the University. The following season he was named Southern Conference MVP and chosen as a Helms Foundation All-American.
Coverage of Stewart in The Collegian focused on his time on the court and rarely extended to his identity as a black student on campus with the exception of two occasions. In the first, he is discussed in an article about how much black student-athletes have to offer University of Richmond athletics. In the other, he is quoted at the very end of an article about the prestige that he brought to athletics as saying “blacks have no say on this campus.” The near exclusion of Stewart in the discourse surrounding black students at the University is odd because at the time black students were still new to campus and much of their coverage in The Collegian centered on their struggle for inclusion in the mainstream. Both athlete and non-athlete black students were viewed through this lens yet Stewart all but escapes such consideration. It is possible that his status as a campus superstar allowed for those writing to overlook that part of his identity and let his talent transcend his race. In that way, Aron Stewart, the black student-athlete, becomes Aron Stewart, big (raceless) man on campus.
This week’s episode of Expanding the Ivory Tower captures part of a conversation with an alumna whose pathway to the University of Richmond intertwines with the university’s legacy of racial discrimination.
The term black student-athlete is laden with gendered understandings. Colloquially, the term is most often used as shorthand for black students on the men’s football or basketball team at any given university. That usage not only dismisses the diversity of talent black men student-athletes provide to athletics beyond the realm of football and basketball but also erases the experiences of black women student-athletes and their contributions to athletics.
Even within a historical context, the argument that black student-athletes were central to the integration of predominately white institutions in the 1960s and 70s is one that exclusively relies on the experiences of black men. Part of the narrowness of that argument can be attributed to the lack of emphasis placed on women’s athletics in general. More specifically the limitations of that argument also relate to the timing of the passage of Title IX legislation. Title IX as part of the United States Education Amendments of 1972 states, in part, that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Title IX expanded educational access and opportunities to women particularly in relation to collegiate athletics.
However, the measure came into law after the big waves of integration at predominately white universities had occurred so black women student-athletes were not as integral to that process as black men athletes. Even more, there was significantly less money and attention coming out of women’s athletics so universities placed less importance on recruiting women athletes. In fact, the University of Richmond, despite a long history of having women’s athletics, did not reward a full athletic scholarship to a woman (black or white) until 1981. That scholarship went to Jo White, a white woman on the cross-country team. White was a talented runner that excited the campus community and continued a legacy of excellence on the women’s cross-country team arguably started by Deborah Snaggs, a 1981 Westhampton College graduate.
Snaggs, a black woman, had transferred to the University from Delaware State in 1977. Within her first year, Snaggs had qualified for the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women Championship in the 5000-meter race and “led an assault on the record books [by] setting ten new marks in the State Championship Meet” in 1978. She won numerous state titles and set many school records during her time at the university. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990, Snaggs is regarded as “one of UR’s all-time great track student-athletes.”
Inspired by a presentation given during Black History Month by a group of black student-athletes entitled “Reflections of Our Past”, I return to an earlier episode about the importance of black student-athletes to the history of predominately white institutions and more specifically to the history of the University of Richmond. “Reflections of Our Past” not only presented an expansive history of black athletes in the United States but also posited the role of black athletes (both student and otherwise) in today’s political climate as that of influencers and change agents.
Sitting in the audience I could not help but think back to this episode and my musings about black student-athletes and their significance to the integration of predominately white universities in the 1960s and 1970s. I described black student-athletes as the “vanguards of black student life on campus” because they often cleared the way for further integration at many institutions. As you listen you may be struck by the absence of black women student-athletes in the narrative, which is an unintended consequence of their exclusion from the historical record. With a more intentional eye I plan to uncover their stories and consider their contributions to the university community and legacy.