Black History Lecture with Student-Athletes

Black History Month: Tommies Examine the Role of Sports in Breaking Down Barriers

The University of St. Thomas Athletics Department celebrated Black History Month with a variety of programming, including a discussion regarding the impact of athletics on the movements of equality and justice that took place Feb. 20 in the Schoenecker Arena at the Anderson Athletics and Recreation Complex.

Bianca Jones and Yohuru Williams
Bianca Jones from the Northside Achievement Zone and Yohuru Williams, founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative.

Facilitated by Dr. Yohuru Williams, Distinguished University Chair and professor of history who is the founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at St. Thomas, the conversation delved into the profound impact that sports have had in fostering social change, breaking down barriers, and amplifying voices in the pursuit of a more equitable society. 

“Sometimes when we think about athletes and activism we only think about it in terms of protest,” said Williams, who is the co-author of the book Call Him Jack about baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who was the first African American to play in Major League Baseball (MLB) in the modern era and who also was a civil rights activist. For example, Robinson called for Black Americans to vote and to protest their second-class citizenship. This is an aspect some younger generations may not know about Robinson.

Williams informed the nearly 500 attendees, most of whom were students, about iconic moments in sports history that transcended the playing field to the inspiring stories of athletes, like Robinson, who used their platform to advocate for justice as a way to examine how athletics serves as a catalyst for social transformation. 

Yohuru Williams speaks to student-athletes
Yohuru Williams speaks to student-athletes and coaches.

Several student-athletes in attendance expressed how the lecture helped them better understand the intersection of sports and social justice.

“What I took away from Dr. Williams’ message was how you don't have to be LeBron James or Muhammad Ali, but we can make change in the same way that they were able to on the big stage, while here at St. Thomas or here in our jobs, and in our community,” said Arianna Sanchez, a student-athlete on the women’s soccer team. “We’re able to take part and help bring racial equality and justice here to St. Paul, St. Thomas and the rest of our community.”

Biannca Sanchez, Women's Soccer
Arianna Sanchez, women's soccer

She added that in addition to the lesson she learned, it was important for other reasons to attend the event.

“It was very important for me to be able to join and take part in this event because not only is a Black student-athlete here, but also as a female Black student-athlete I wanted to be able to show myself in that role as well as be able to bring some visibility to the Black Student-Athlete Affinity Group and members of its executive board,” she said. Sanchez is a board member of the BSAAG.

“I continue to be amazed at how our student-athletes and staff engage in the educational opportunities presented to them around inclusion," said Jemal Griffin, deputy athletics director, student-athlete services. "They show up with a spirit of learning, growing, and making our community better. This event was no different as they were locked in and excited about the thought provoking concepts presented by Dr. Williams.”  Griffin was a member of the planning committee, along with Mike Gallagher, Kelsey Whaley and Jason LaFranz.