NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Olympic Gold Medalist Wilma Rudolph, legendary track and field Coach Ed Temple, the famed Tigerbelles, and the first-ever African-American basketball team to win a national college basketball championship – and three consecutive titles – all make up the rich sports history of Tennessee State University. The impressive accomplishments of the TSU athletics program will be part of exhibits in the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Museum of African-American History and Culture opening in 2016 on the National Mall in Washington. D.C.
Dr. Damion Thomas, curator for the museum’s sports exhibits, visited TSU to get a first-hand look at sports memorabilia on display in several buildings on the main campus. Accompanied by University officials, including Grant Winrow, TSU coordinator for the Smithsonian project, the curator toured the Brown-Daniel Memorial Library, the Wilma Rudolph Hall, the Gentry Complex that houses many of the University’s sports mementos and souvenirs, as well as the Olympic statute.
Some of the treasured items that the curator saw included gold medals, championship trophies and track cleats, as well as photographs and portraits of TSU trailblazers like NFL quarterback Joe Gilliam, golf coach Catana Starks, and legendary coaches John Merritt and John McClendon.
Highlighting Thomas’ visit and tour was a meeting with Coach Temple, the man who took 40 athletes from TSU (Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State University until 1968) to the Olympic Games and helped them win 23 medals — more than 157 countries in the world have ever won.
Temple, who shifted the focus from him to his Tigerbelles during a discussion, said he was pleased to know that the Smithsonian Institution was including an area in its new museum dedicated to the achievements of African-Americans in sports.
“I am glad that what they are doing will finally give these young ladies their due recognition,” Temple said. “They work hard to earn all that they achieved.”
The curator also met with Starks, the first African-American woman to coach a men’s NCAA Division I golf team when she took the job at TSU. Her trailblazing efforts was made into a motion picture titled “From The Rough” starring Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson. In the Gentry Complex, Thomas also briefly met with current OVC “Women’s Coach of the Year,” Chandra Cheeseborough-Guice, a former Olympian, who made history by snagging two gold medals at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.
Before ending his tour, Thomas gave a brief presentation on the new museum, a 400,000-square-foot building of bronze metal and glass structure. It will feature a collection of artifacts of slavery and freedom, mementos of military service, symbols of the civil rights movement, the Harlem Renaissance, as well as a comprehensive collection of fine art including paintings, sculptures, works on paper, installations, photography, and digital media by and about African-Americans.
According to Thomas, the sports exhibit section of the museum will include a room, called “The Game Changer,” dedicated to individuals like Wilma Rudolph, whose contribution went beyond the track or playing field to changing the course of history.
The museum has built a collection of 40,000 artifacts, and a staff of 160 is developing the 11 major exhibits that visitors will find at the opening next year. Smithsonian officials estimate annual visits to the African-American Museum of History and Culture will average between four to five million people in its first few years.