An Incomplete History of Black Skiers

In 1956, Ebony published an article on Bryce Parks and Floyd Cole. Cole and Parks were Black ski patrollers based out of Denver. And they were likely the first African American patrollers in the nation. The reporter wrote that the two skiers were invited in 1952 to “join the patrol by officials who had noted their skill and proficiency,” and that they “were assigned to duty tours with no thought of racial restriction.” Although it did not hint at where or when they learned to ski, the article praised their skill on the slopes. A subtitle noted that they had rescued over 100 people at Winter Park and Berthoud Pass which were the preferred skiing areas of Denverites at the time. The article continued that they were even awarded the Purple Merit Star (Ski Patrol’s highest honor) after saving a skier’s life. Lauding the volunteers’ accomplishments (all patrollers were volunteers in the 1950s), the magazine offered insights from two of the first Black recreational skiers in the nation. The most interesting statement came from Park.  “Amazingly enough,” he said, “there have been no racial incidents. We’ve had cooperation from everyone. Lots of people we rescue are southerners up for a vacation, and they are very cooperative.” It seemed from the article that the ski slopes – some of the whitest places in the country in all meanings of the word – were miraculously free of racism.

In its early years – the magazine was founded in 1945 – Ebony’s pieces on skiing were generally laudatory. The first article was published in 1949, and it was titled “Skiing: Popular Winter Sport Becoming Favorite with Negro Fans.” According to the magazine, skiing which was rapidly growing in popularity nationwide, was also increasingly appealing to America’s Black middle class. About a decade later, in 1958, Ebony published a laudatory piece celebrating Chet McGuir, a Black skier at Dartmouth. Noting McGuir’s place in one of America’s most exclusive institutions, the article recounted the invitation he extended to Carolyn Morant, a Black student at the equally prestigious Bryn Mawr College outside Philadelphia. Despite only being students, the article was filled with pictures. One depicted McGuir teaching Morant to ski on Suicide Six, in Woodstock, Vermont. To the knowledgeable skier, the implication was clear. Suicide Six was the location of the United States’ first rope tow in the mid-1930s (although it is far to wonder how many readers at the time had a sense of ski history). Iconic and prestigious, the implication was if Black skiers could ski there, why not anywhere? The magazines general reflections on skiing continued. An article in 1960 celebrated Dave Lucy, a Black student from North Conway, New Hampshire. Lucy had formerly skied on the Denver University race team. Furthermore, his hometown of Cranmore, New Hampshire where one of the first ski hills in American was located, enhanced his bona fides as a skilled skier. These first several articles were almost formulaic. They highlighted young Black skiers. They celebrated the sport as increasingly popular to the Black middle class. And, almost universally, the subjects had ties to iconic ski locations, Denver University and North Conway, Berthoud Pass and Winter Park, and Dartmouth and Suicide Six.

Ebony averaged about one article every two years (or every other winter edition) on skiing from its founding in 1945 through 2000. (In comparison, golf was mentioned once every 1.6 years, tennis every third issue, while football and basketball were mentioned multiple times an issue on average.) While skiing certainly did not dominate the magazine, an article every eighth edition does demonstrate some level of consistent interest in the sport by the publication’s journalists and by their readers, for a sport that is mostly white.  Like many of Ebony’s articles, their pieces on skiing were mostly positive. While focused on Black culture and politics, the magazine unabashedly sought out “the zesty side of life.”  Ebony was founded on the premise that “not enough is said about all the swell things we Negroes can do and will accomplish. Ebony will try to mirror the happier side of Negro life – the positive, everyday achievements from Harlem to Hollywood.” The more exclusive aspects of skiing, expensive lodges and cottages, beautiful mountains, and isolated locations, all gave skiing the glamour that Ebony sought to share, while simultaneously demonstrating barriers that were being broken.

Early on, the magazine celebrated individual Black skiers. But as time went on, they also began writing about Black ski clubs. The first article to investigate a group of skiers was a 1962 piece on the Jim Dandy Ski Club of Detroit. Founded in 1958, they were the first Black ski organization in the United States. And though unstated in the article, the organization offered safety in numbers for Black enthusiasts who were passively or explicitly unwelcome at many resorts. This focus continued into the 1970s, as the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS), a national organization for Black enthusiasts, began to gain prominence (both in Ebony and nationwide, in a country that had largely come to think of explicit segregation in negative terms).

Park’s 1956 claim that he experienced “no racial incidents” was frequently repeated, although in different words. It became the calling card of ski articles in the magazine. Despite people’s perceptions, and despite skiing’s reputation, overt racism was largely absent on the slopes – at least as far as the journalists and those interviewed were concerned. The party line of Black skiers embraced what Ibram Kendi, in his book Stamped from the Beginning, calls an assimilationist logic. Rather than embrace a philosophy that skiing must change to offer equitable access to ski resorts, ski equipment, and instruction, most of the Black skiers interviewed (although not all) highlighted how easy it was to melt into the Eurocentric ski world. For instance, in an article in 1974, Ebony estimated that there were between 15,000 and 60,000 Black skiers in the United States (which is to say, they had no idea how many Black skiers were in the States). Importantly, the article quotes Art Clay, one of the founders of the NBS. He said, “as more blacks have become middle class, they have found that they have more time and money to spend on leisure interests. In his own words, ‘you don’t want to sit around all winter just because it’s cold outside.’” As he suggested, middle-class Black people understandably wanted to partake in the same type of recreation and vacations as the white professionals they increasingly interacted with.

Economic prejudice became the party line of the NBS and of Black skiers more broadly – at least those interviewed. But threats of violence, explicit exclusion, and overt racism quietly emerged in Ebony and other news sources. In the early years, like in all aspects of tourism, Black skiers (like Jewish skiers) found that many hotels and resorts were “restricted.” For instance, in a 1949 survey conducted by the magazine, of 116 resorts surveyed about whether Black skiers were welcome, 90 responded: 32 qualified acceptance, 35 rejected Black skiers, 4 didn’t know, 8 claimed they were closed or closing, 4 said they had no overnight facilities, 7 gave general info, 3 said yes “but were filled”, 6 said “Filled now, try later.” This type of information was quite normal for Ebony at the time. As Carolyn Finney has written in her canonical book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, one of the magazine’s essential functions was informing Black Americans about where they could safely travel and recreate. But as journalists continued to write about Black skiers, explicit statements about racism were sometimes more difficult to parse.

Clay and many others in the NBS contended that Black exclusion from skiing was the result of class dynamics more than racial dynamics. Ben Finley, another founder, frequently mirrored this sentiment in interviews, highlighting what he saw as a type of economic exclusion. For instance, the following year, Finley was quoted in The Independent, a paper in Long Beach, California. In the interview he suggested that “the sport is prejudiced – but not in the traditional sense.” Finley said, “It’s an economic prejudice… Anyone on the lower level is excluded from skiing because of the expenditure necessary to participate.’” As a result, the issue was not ski culture or the ski industry; rather, the primary enemy was Black poverty. However, not everything was about economics. Finley, Clay, and many others also highlighted the importance of representation. They pushed for more ads with Black people skiing (which Ebony began publishing in later years). And the NBS’ stated mission was (and is) to help find and fund the first Black Olympic skier. Nevertheless, at its root, they argued that the reason more African Americans did not ski was due to the economic realities of American life, which was built on a foundation of inequality, rather than the types of vacations ski resorts sold.

Often, in Ebony, comments on racism in skiing were disguised or hidden but would have been understood by careful readers of the magazine. For example, in a 1965, an article placed a quote by Kert Samples, an instructor in France, at the end of an otherwise benign image. Samples insisted that racism had hampered his career as a skier in the United States. He said, “otherwise I wouldn’t be here.” Yet, the photo, far from depicting Samples’ resentment, focused almost exclusively on the glamour of skiing in France. In another instance, an article focused on Dick Martin, who owned Four Seasons Ski Shop in New York, and ran a successful ski club. The second paragraph in the article begins by stating that “Martin claims his skiers have never run into racial troubles.” Yet the article continues, noting that one skier in the club had “overheard a white skier quip to another: ‘I don’t see any cotton fields around here.’” The statement by the white skier may have been intended to be a harsh “joke.” But we also know jokes of the kind usually come with a specific intent: to convey messages about white supremacy. So, despite Martin’s claim, the lack of “trouble” was likely due to Black skiers avoiding confrontation as much or more than the fact that they were welcome on the slopes. As Black scholars have pointed out, and as many Black people know from personal experience, explicit threats are not necessarily needed to convey a danger. And these types of “jokes” were likely common (and likely are still common) on ski slopes throughout the country. According to Black skiers like the current NBS head Henri Rivers, such forms of not so subtle racism continue. In a recent interview, he noted that despite his qualifications (and unstated his position as the head of the single largest ski club in the nation), he has frequently been passed over when it comes to teaching the highest level racers at his home mountain. He also recounted that even now, he will get “looks” and that “people will say to him ‘I didn’t know Black people ski.” Though the press and Black skiers tend to highlight the ways in which economics restrict people from skiing, reading closely reveals what Anthony Kwame Harrison calls “the everyday racism” inherent in skiing. In skiing’s history, both overt and veiled acts have worked in conjunction with economics to make skiing seem unappealing even to upper-middle-class Black communities who can afford to partake in the exclusive winter sport.

A broader history of Black skiing has not been told to its full extent. Most articles begin the history in the 1970s, with the story of the NBS. Such histories are usually based on interviews with the founders of the National Black Brotherhood, an organization that (fairly enough) tells an intentional and welcoming story of skiing’s past. Interviewing the same people who were interviewed by journalists in the 1970s has resulted in articles that tend to recount a now well practiced story of the organization. Journalistic attention has emerged historically in clusters and in moments in which America was especially focused on racial conflict. For instance, the National Brotherhood of Skiers emerged – and received an outpouring of press – during the Black Power movement. Once again, after the Rodney King beating and riots in the early 1990s, press interest in Black skiing rose once again. And, in the past few years, the rise of Black Lives Matter and the protests over the summer of 2020 initiated a third wave of press attention and discussions of diversity and inclusion in the ski industry. (Since I wrote this article as the Derek Chauvin verdict was being released, it can be assumed that this post fits well within the trend.)

Black skiing deserves a more extensive history. Rather than remarking on the absence of Black bodies in the sport, such a story could focus on the difficulty African Americans had in taking part in it. An in-depth study of historical articles, and the usage of a diverse set of oral histories may reveal elements of the past that do not fit into the clean and well-practiced narratives of the Black skiers who make up the majority of interviews. By diversifying the stories told, and depicting a broader history of Black skiers, it may become possible to demonstrate to the ski industry and ski culture at large that economic investments in Black skiers are not enough. The ski industry and skiers more broadly need to change if the sport is to become genuinely diverse, inclusive, and equitable.

Published by Jesse Ritner

I am pursuing my PhD in history at the University of Austin Texas. I specialize in Native American Histories, American Imperialism, environmental history.

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