Rowing & People of Colour: A Few of the Few

Frenchy A. Johnson (d.1883), a professional sculler active in the U.S. in the late 1870s, the first prominent African-American oarsman of modern times.

13 June 2020

By Tim Koch

In yesterday’s post, “Rowing: Time To Do The Right Thing”, I wrote that:

The death of George Floyd has produced the greatest civil unrest in decades and a debate far beyond America and its police. Rowing has not been exempt from this diverse and international self-examination.

I then made some observations, posed some questions but gave no answers.

In today’s post, it may seem crass or tokenistic or opportunist to segue into a historical piece on three people of colour who have made their mark in rowing. However, I would argue that a look at ‘a few of the few’ perhaps illustrates how much poorer the sport must be through the loss of all those excluded by intentional and unintentional prejudice, and, by implication, how much poorer prejudice makes life is in general. I am one of the many who is currently struggling ‘to do the right thing’ and I hope that this article is ‘right’. As with yesterday’s piece, comments are closed for this post.

Clearly, historical reports will contain words, attitudes and images that are now considered offensive.

In a tantalising footnote in his thesis of 2000, A Social and Technical History of Rowing in England and the United States, Stewart Stokes wrote:

Frenchy Johnson is a fascinating character on whom very little information (is) available. He was a black man who had learned to row in the deep South at some point, likely in the slave races which were popular among plantation owners during the period when rowing was exploding in popularity around the country.

We do have a form of obituary for Johnson from the New York Clipper of 24 March 1883 but, unfortunately, there is little personal detail. However, it begins:

The death in Florida of Frenchy A. Johnson, the well-known colored sculler and trap shot, is announced in a dispatch dated March 19. He was an excellent second-class oarsman, and was repeatedly successful in regattas and match races.

Stewart Stokes: ‘Competitive rowing in America did not have places such as Eton or Oxford or Cambridge to nurture them and help formulate the prevailing national outlook on the sport…. (The) professional oarsmen were far more influential in shaping the American rowing tradition than in England…’

The Clipper gives accounts of many of Johnson’s races, beginning in June 1877 and ending with possibly his last race in July 1880. He did not win any of the first four 3-mile races described, but he was either second or third to some of the best-known professional scullers of the time. Things changed on 30 May 1878 at Silver Lake, Massachusetts, when Johnson unexpectedly beat the favourite and won a three-mile race with a turn in 21 minutes 36 seconds. He won again on 4 July at Boston and on 15 August at Silver Lake. In 1879, a couple of second places were recorded, one to probably the best sculler of the day, Charles Courtney. In 1880, he won in races in Jacksonville, Florida, and Savannah, Georgia.

In one of his last races, on 4 July 1880 in Boston, Johnson won in the double scull with ‘F. Hilley’. I assume Hilley was white and I imagine that such displays of teamwork between the races would have been rare at the time. However, looking at the reports of Johnson’s races, it is interesting to see that he was usually written about with much the same respect given to the white scullers, this at a time when both ‘casual’ and overt racism would be normal in almost any reference to a black man. For example, the Boston Globe of 31 May 1878 said of the fact that the white favourite was unexpectedly beaten by Johnson in a professional race at an Eastern Rowing Association regatta on Silver Lake: ‘Frenchy Johnson’s victory was a surprise, but it is in all respects credible’. As an aside, the paper also reported on an amateur race held that day and it mentioned that one of the seven entrants, Frank M. Hart of Boston, was ‘colored’. The Boston Evening Transcript of 5 July 1878 produced this race report from an Independence Day Regatta:

Frenchy Johnson forged ahead at the (start) and kept to the lead to the finish… Johnson’s rowing was ‘just splendid’, his black back swinging back and forth with all the regularity and seemingly with all the ease of a well-greased pendulum. But hold! here they come, Johnson a dozen lengths in the lead, still swaying back and forth, and over the line he goes in 21.42, amid the yells of the crowd, the shrill whistling of the steamers and the short, sharp ‘well done’ of the signal gun. Morris followed in 22.38, Lynch in 25.22 and Lane in 25.24. When Johnson pulled round to the judges’ boat, in reply to the question whether he wished to claim a foul, ‘No,’ said he, ‘nobody near enough to trouble me’. 

Historically, boxing matches between black men and white men divided supporters along racial grounds, they were the dominant metaphor for racial conflict. Dr Louis Moore has written: ‘whites looked at the ring as a symbol of superiority, and blacks viewed the ring as a sign of equality’. Judging by contemporary newspapers, Johnson did not seem to produce this division in rowing (though possibly only because he may have been almost unique in the sport).

Rowing was a rough, tough and rather dirty business for the professionals and there was little of the amateur’s concern for the purity of sport. The Pilot of 25 October 1879 describes one of Johnson’s more unusual races, a stunt that he was, no doubt, well paid for:

On the 11th inst., at Mayville, N. Y., about 1,500 people witnessed the race between the colored oarsman, Frenchy Johnson, and the steam yacht Olivia, from Long Point to Fair Point, a distance of about three miles. The weather and water were all that could be desired, and consequently much interest was taken in the race. At the start Frenchy gained the lead, and continued to hold it till the close, making the distance in 20min 30sec. 

Charles Courtney and Frenchy Johnson.

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Johnson’s career in sculling was that he was for a short time the trainer to the very successful Charles Courtney. While Stewart Stokes says that how this happened is unclear, it is certain that during a famous and controversial race held between Courtney and the great Canadian sculler, Ned Hanlan, on Chautauqua Lake, New York, on 16 October 1879, Johnson was casually referred to in press reports as Courtney’s trainer. At the time it must have been unusual for a black man to be in what could be considered a superior position to a white man (though possibly ‘trainer’ did not mean ‘coach’ but a more lowly ‘training partner’). As it happens, the Hanlan – Courtney race ended in farce and did much damage to rowing as a spectator sport but none of this was the fault of Johnson.

The New York Clipper obituary concludes ‘After (July 1880) the deceased did little rowing, paying more attention to (clay) pigeon and glass ball shooting, at which he became an expert’. He died in Florida, ‘having gone there in search of the health he had lost’.

Shown here in 1976, the great-granddaughter of a white plantation owner and his servant, Anita L DeFrantz (b.1952). She has been named by “Newsweek” as one of the ‘150 Women Who Shake the World’ and “Sports Illustrated” as one of the ‘101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports’.

The publishers of DeFrantz’s 2019 autobiography semi-summarise her life in typical book jacket style:

In ‘My Olympic Life,’ readers will learn how an African-American girl from racially-charged and segregated Indianapolis in the 1950s and ’60s, who went to a high school with no sports for girls, grew up to not only lead the first women’s US Olympic rowing team to a bronze medal in the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games but to become an active member in national and international sporting and Olympic organizations, including becoming the first woman vice-president of the International Olympic Committee. Her story is more than a civil rights and sporting victory for one person. It reveals how with grit and passion, one person can change the game positively for all.

DeFrantz at ‘7’ in the 1976 U.S. Women’s Olympic Eight.

After the 1976 Olympics, DeFrantz became a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and practiced at a public interest law firm but, in 1979, left to train for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. However, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. boycotted the Games. In response, DeFrantz filed an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit against the U.S. Congress stating that it was an athlete’s choice to compete or not. Despite the unpopularity of this challenge, she was soon working for the USOC, starting with the 1984 Olympic organising committee.

In 1986, DeFrantz was chosen to represent the United States on the International Olympic Committee (IOC). This made her the fifth woman on the 93-member IOC, as well as the first African-American and first American woman on a committee dominated by white men and non-athletes. In 1997, she was elected as the IOC’s first female Vice-President.

DeFrantz pictured in 1980 when she led the athlete’s fight for the right to compete in the Moscow Games. On her left is Ira Glasser of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Serving on numerous committees and boards with the International Olympic Committee, the United States Olympic Committee, and many other associations, DeFrantz has championed the rights of athletes, women and people of colour. In particular, she is credited with the acceptance of women’s soccer and softball into the Games. The IOC’s summary of DeFrantz’s many appointments, achievements and honours is on their website.

In 2001, with the endorsement of the USOC, Anita DeFrantz had sought to become the President of the International Olympic Committee, but, in some typically opaque IOC manoeuvrings, was eliminated in the first round of voting. Possibly she was considered too interested in sport and too keen on fair play to be in charge of the business that is the Olympic Games.

Aquil Hashim Adbullah (b.1973), the first African-American to win the Diamond Sculls, Henley 2000.

Abdullah began sculling because he was an American football player who needed a spring sport his senior year of high school and he did not want to run ‘track’. Fortunately, he attended the only public/state school in Washington, D.C., with a rowing program and he decided to try ‘crew’. Within a few months he was offered a scholarship to row at George Washington University. In 1996, he graduated with a physics degree and also became the first African-American to achieve an American national championship rowing title when he won the men’s single sculls at that year’s U.S. Nationals. He repeated the win in 2002.

Aquil Abdullah (bow) and Henry Nuzum (stroke) at the 2004 Athens Games.

In 2000, Abdullah missed qualifying for the Sydney Olympic Games by a third of a second, but after his Henley win, he was paired with Henry Nuzum and they began competing in the double sculls. From 2001 to 2004, the double went to three World Cups and two World Championships and in 2004 it qualified for the Athens Games, making Abdullah the first black American male to row in the Olympics (two African-American women had preceded him). The double finished sixth.

In 2001, Abdullah wrote a thoughtful book, Perfect Balance, in which he questioned where he belonged: in the predominantly white world of the sport that he loved or among other African-Americans, most of whom knew little about it?

After Athens, Abdullah retired from the sport aged 31 but, at his home in Boston, he worked with ‘Mandela Crew’, an organisation that gives minority groups opportunities to row. The National Rowing Foundation (a non-profit organization dedicated to raising funds to support the U.S. National Rowing Teams) announced on Thursday that he would be one of three new members of their board.

Abdullah pictured in 2019 as an instructor for ‘Hydrow’, a rowing equivalent of ‘Peloton’.

Despite having Washington, D.C., as his birthplace, being a member of the U.S. Rowing Team and worshiping as a Roman Catholic, Abdullah encountered extreme difficulty in travelling following 9/11 and the hasty passing of the so-called Patriot Act. Were the tall, handsome athlete white, Abdullah would have been considered ‘an all-American boy’ but racial profiling made him a terrorist suspect. Anyone guilty of having a ‘Muslim surname’ would automatically be taken aside at airports for long, in-depth questioning, no matter how many times they had previously been checked. It once took Abdullah 24-hours to get from Princeton to Seattle and it was suggested that he could have made the trip quicker by rowing. The journey of people of colour is indeed a slow one.

One comment

  1. Has the photo identified as Frenchy Johnson been confirmed to actually be him? Or is it simply assumed to be him because of his prominence as a rower and the rarity of black rowers during that period?

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