Author’s Note: Ha! Now add Oscar winner to the resume…hers, the director’s, Steph Curry’s, everybody involved! I say let’s have more Oscar-winning documentaries about women–woohoo!
Lucy Harris died about a month ago, but the “Queen of Basketball” seemed the perfect subject to cap off Black History Month, with a tribute to her remarkable career. She won three national championships before NCAA women’s basketball became the commercial juggernaut it is today; she excelled in the Olympics in the days before Team USA dominated women’s Olympic basketball as it does today; she competed when she was the only Black face on the team, on the court, or practically in the building.
Whenever someone is the first, it always means more than a note in a record. There are stories under the stories.
Tall Family, Tall Dreams
Harris is the subject of a delightful but unfortunately short biopic making the rounds on ESPN, produced by Shaquille O’Neal. Ben Proudfoot’s film is narrated by Ms. Harris, who talks about her basketball days with a smile.
Harris was the 10th of 11 children, born to sharecroppers in the deep South of the Mississippi delta. Her idols as a teenager were the basketball heroes of the late 1960s: Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and especially Oscar Robertson, her favorite. She spoke of sneaking TV after light’s out–I had one of those 9-inch sets myself–so the family was not dirt poor, even with so many mouths to feed. By the time Lucy was old enough to watch basketball under the blankets, her siblings may have been working as well as babysitting her.
All her elder brothers and one sister played basketball at Amanda Elzy High School, where they all went to school. They were coached by Conway Stewart, whose team went to multiple state championships, winning one with Harris’ older brother. The year that Harris came along, the team won every game until its last, missing the opportunity to go to state her first year. They fixed that the next year. She broke the school record, scoring 46 points in one game, and captaining the team back to the state championships.
Cubists were old white French dudes who painted blocky shapes in gray and brown, and there’d be a guitar in there, somewhere. They all seemed to have an African period, where they became enamored of African masks and imitated by flattening the faces in their paintings; then they moved on to something else. The impressionists used pastels, rarely vibrant colors. Didn’t the Harlem Renaissance meant jazz flowing from a briefly opened door in an underground speakeasy during Prohibition–maybe there was a gay poet in there, somewhere?
I probably know a little more about modern art than the average person, as my mother taught classes on the subject, and our house was filled with Pollock prints (mine has O’Keeffe and Hopper). But I recently took a refresher class on modernism (OLLI is America’s best-kept secret and Jannie Dresser is the bomb-digitty of teachers). When we covered the Harlem Renaissance, I realized I knew very little about Black American modern artists and appallingly nothing about our American jewel, painter Jones.
Cultured, Educated, Ignored
Jones was born and raised in Boston; her parents were educated, and they, in turn, encouraged both her education and artistic development. She sold her bold and beautiful designs to department stores; she had a solo exhibit in Martha’s Vineyard at the age of 17. She apprenticed with designer Grace Ripley, and eventually created costume designs for the Denishawn dance troupe (Martha Graham was one of the students). After completing her degree at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, however… you can guess the rest. One decorator told her that a “colored girl” couldn’t possibly produce such designs.
She was born Mary Richards, or Mary Jane Richards. Or Mary Elizabeth. She married and became Mary Bowser/Mrs. Wilson Bowser. Also Mrs. John T. Denman and/or Mary J.R. Gavin. Sometimes she used the name Mary Jane Henry or Richmonia Richards. Maybe Ellen Bond, although that has been disputed. Maybe this is her photograph, although that has been disputed.
If you were an educated black servant in the slave-owning state of Virginia in 1861, little would be known about you. Your words would not have been written down and what was written about you by others, even the wealthy abolitionist friend whose family you served, would be filtered through their lenses. Scraps of information remembered later by family members who were children when they saw you would come to be taken as fact, whether true or not. Grainy photos replicated might be mislabelled, speculations treated as accurate, oral embellishments become history. All truth would be distorted, like seeing through a glass darkly. This would be especially true if you were a Union spy in the Confederate White House.