|Dr. Rita Liberti at work |
in UNC Greensboro's Jackson Library
As if she were opening a door into another world, sports historian Rita Liberti draws you into the 1920’s and 1930’s when basketball opened opportunities for black women at historically black colleges and universities that were not shared by many of their white counterparts. At HBCUs in North Carolina, and particularly at Greensboro’s Bennett College, women’s basketball reached a level of prominence and success that would fade as the 1940’s came and expectations about gender roles changed. Between 1925 and 1945, however, with strong administrative support, young women from as far as Detroit were recruited to come play basketball at Bennett, and provided grants-in-aid to do so. They played on high profile, well-organized teams that traveled extensively and played 20 game schedules against teams from other black colleges and universities.
Liberti has an infectious passion for her subject. She is revisiting this topic eighteen years after writing her dissertation about it at the University of Iowa in 1998, and spending 18 years teaching sports history in the Kinesiology Department at Cal State East Bay in Hayward, CA. In the interim, she has taught, done research, and written extensively, including a book about Wilma Rudolph published in 2015 by Syracuse University Press.
For Liberti, a Research Travel Grant from the University Libraries has allowed her to see how UNCG’s Archives could open up new insights into the context of the remarkable experiences of the women basketball players at Bennett. She is effusive in her praise for the University Archives at UNCG and the archivists who are helping her locate the materials she wants to explore. In the papers of Walter Clinton Jackson and Julius Foust, for example, Liberti finds contrasts in the role of women’s basketball at what is now UNCG (then North Carolina College for Women and after 1931 Woman's College) and links to the relationships between players, white and black, who never met on a basketball court but often came together in such places as the interracial work of institutions like the YWCA. When Liberti did her dissertation research almost two decades ago, Bennett basketball player Amaleta Moore (’38) had told her about how good the relations between students at Bennett and WC had been. According to Moore, the students at WC were “really nice.” As she follows up on that comment, Liberti is gaining more insight into race relations in Greensboro during that time period, about the interaction of the students, and the activities of WC President Walter Clinton Jackson, who served on the Bennett Board of Trustees and was awarded an honorary degree from Bennett in 1949.
Liberti is excited about examining how differing views of what it meant to be a lady led to very different opportunities for competitive basketball experiences at the two schools. At what is now UNCG, she says that Head of the Physical Education Department Mary Channing Coleman adhered to a philosophy that stressed intramural basketball for women, while at Bennett competition with other schools received much more attention. For her 1998 dissertation, Liberti recalls, she interviewed Ruth Glover (later Ruth Glover Mullen) about whether or not she played against the girls from white schools. “She did not,” Glover remembered, “they were southern ladies, and basketball was considered too rough for them. “We were ladies too,” said Glover, “we just played basketball like boys.” Bennett President Dr. David Dallas Jones, installed in 1926, believed that competitive basketball would help give the women at his schools the tools to enter a world that was in many ways not yet ready for them.
The University Libraries at UNC Greensboro is pleased to provide a Research Travel Grant to Dr. Liberti to further her research as she plans to write a new book-length monograph about women’s basketball in North Carolina’s black colleges and universities between 1925 and 1945.