WASHINGTON, D.C. — Fisk University gymnast Morgan Price made the decision to not be the only Black woman on her team for the first time in her career. A five-star recruit while growing up in Dallas, Price earned a full athletic scholarship to the University of Arkansas when she decided to become a part of the first Historically Black College and University (HBCU) gymnastics program in the country earlier this year.
“Growing up I never had a Black coach and I didn’t understand the meaning of that until I got to Fisk,” Price said. “Every time we go to practice or go out on the weekend or prepare for a competition we help each other with our hair, nails and lashes.”
Arkansas plays in one of the top gymnastics conferences in the country, the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Fisk doesn’t have a gymnastics gym on campus and has to bus its gymnasts to a local gym to practice and get treatment. Knowing all of this, Price made her decision and hasn’t looked back, she says.
“There was no option for me to go to college and not do gymnastics,” Price said. “It was a very big sacrifice.”
A panel on the intersection and necessity for public policy solutions for Black women and girls in gymnastics, “Beyond the Beam: Exploring public policy solutions for Black women and girls in gymnastics” took place on day three of the Annual Legislative Conference Friday morning.
Price joined Rutgers University women’s gymnastics head coach Umme Salim-Beasley, Wendy Hilliard, a USA Gymnastics Hall of Famer, USA Gymnastics Board member Lois Elizabeth Bingham and Congresswoman Emilia Strong Sykes (D-OH) on the stage with political analysts Zerlina Maxwell, who moderated the panel.
The women shared stories of how they began their personal gymnastics journeys. All but Bingham had been gymnasts, including Maxwell and Strong Sykes. All of the former gymnasts, coaches and student-athletes on the panel were either the only Black girls on their team and/or never had a Black coach during their career.
Only 10% of Division I scholarship athletes involved in gymnastics are Black.
“It was my very first sport and it is my favorite sport,” said Maxwell, a political analyst. Salim-Beasley, a collegiate head coach for over a decade, said seeing the late Dianne Durham, the first Black woman to win an all-around senior title at the U.S. National Championships, on television changed her life.
“Seeing her really sparked and interested me in the sport of gymnastics,” Salim-Beasley said. Salim-Beasley, who was part of the team at West Virginia University, is a former teammate of legendary gymnast Dominique Dawes. The pair grew up involved in the sport in Silver Spring.
Hillard, who remains involved in the sport as a coach in her native Detroit, Michigan, saw one of her former athletes in the crowd. “We have to make sure we have policy that supports Black women and girls,” she said.
As an early trailblazer in the sport on the national level, Hillard told stories of facing racism in the sport, even from her coaches. She said she was told that she “stood out” amongst the otherwise white team.
“It made me an advocate, but gymnastics is still not diverse on the grassroots level,” Hilliard said.
Congresswoman Strong Sykes said what she learned as a young gymnast has helped her do what she does for her native Ohioans in Congress today. “You do learn a lot of skills that you take with you that you can transfer,” Strong Sykes said, while sharing a story of filming a campaign commercial in a gymnastics gym. “People don’t see a lot of us in the sport,” she said.
Though policy may have been in the panel title, the discussion was more about what took place in the lives of these Black women and their families and what needs to continue to happen in order to keep Black girls and women in the sport.
Words like “fit”, “presence”, and “look” came up a lot during the conversation.
All of the panelists agreed that there have been major advances in the sport for Black women but there is still a lot of work to do. “There’s still a problem to be solved,” Bingham said. “Being able to be at the table talking about this is very important.”
The present and the future
Price, only a sophomore at Fisk, wants to remain involved in the sport when she is done as a student-athlete. “Becoming an HBCU gymnast has inspired me to become a head coach,” Price said. “I want to become a coach at an HBCU.”
Bingham has some advice for people that want to support Black gymnastics, whether at HBCUs or predominantly white universities.
“The sport is a business. Go to that event, be in the seats,” she said. Her point being that if those seats in those gyms are empty it becomes even harder for corporate and ultimately political support to become a reality.
“We are really trying to create a new culture,” Bingham said.