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A promising time in the MEAC illuminates importance of HBCUs in women’s sports history

HBCUs served as the incubator for modern women’s sports in the United States, allowing black women to showcase their athletic talent when many primarily-white universities denied such opportunities. With this history in mind, we take a look at the 12 HBCUs that make up the MEAC and their prospects for the 2019-20 season.

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 23 Div I Women’s Championship - First Round - Bethune-Cookman v Notre Dame
Bethune-Cookman junior forward Amaya Scott shoots over former Notre Dame forward Brianna Turner in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Can Scott and the Wildcats return to The Big Dance?
Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Without historically-black colleges and universities, women’s sports in the United States would not be where they are today.

In the postwar U.S., when mainstream, white-defined sports culture absurdly obsessed over the supposed masculinizing effects athletic competition might have on young women, African-American sports culture permitted young women to participate in sports. Even though the black middle class also had far from equitable ideas about gender, they understood that athletically-successful young women could demonstrate that African Americans deserved full citizenship.

Wilma Rudolph would exemplify this.

By winning three gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Rudolph, a product of Tennessee State University (who just so happened to have first flashed her speed on the hardwood as a high school basketball star), captivated all of America, communicating the class, capacities and abilities of African Americans. Her achievement was the culmination of decades of athletic striving by young women of color at TSU, Tuskegee and other African-American institutions. They repeatedly ran, jumped, hopped and hooped, establishing a rich, albeit often overlooked, athletic tradition.

Dorothy Hyman, Wilma Rudolph, Giusseppina Leone Shaking Hands
Wilma Rudolph (center)
Getty Images

However, when dominant American sport culture looked at Rudolph, they did not see this history. Instead, the great and graceful Rudolph seemed to show that women could be fast and feminine — an example that would open a space for young white women to more assertively compete in athletics. Soon thereafter, ambitious white women, highlighted by the likes of Billie Jean King and Kathrine Switzer, would launch the modern women’s sports movement.

Their efforts, while certainly important, all but erased the HBCU origins of this movement.

Today, the women’s basketball programs, teams and players of HBCUs still are relegated to the periphery of women’s sports culture. Yes, they are recognized for achievements, such as Bethune-Cookman earning its first-ever berth to the NCAA Tournament last season. But such recognition often, even if unintentionally, underscores their perceived “difference” from the primarily-white institutions that are understood as the sport’s mainstream. While HBCUs’ status as majority-black institutions should be a point of pride, it should not prohibit athletes at these schools from being seen as integral to the broader culture of women’s college basketball or to the ongoing women’s sports movement.

It would be overly optimistic to suggest that even the most excellent season from the HBCUs in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) could change this equation. Nevertheless, the teams and players of the MEAC should more than occasionally capture the attention of the wider world of women’s basketball, reminding that HBCUs are part of the past, present and future of women’s sports.

Three MEAC squads — North Carolina A&T State, Bethune-Cookman and Howard — appear most likely to make a mark on the 2019-20 college season. However, this does not preclude the conference’s other nine teams from providing some surprises.

North Carolina A&T State

The Lady Aggies enter the season as the favorites to take the MEAC title, with senior guard C’coriea Foy to captain this effort. Selected as preseason Player of the Year, Foy averaged 13.4 points, 2.7 assists and 2.6 steals per game last season. Other Lady Aggies named to preseason All-MEAC Teams include Cinia McCray (Second Team) and Alexus Lessears (Third Team).

Exceeding already high expectations will require excellence from more than just Foy, McCray and Lessears. A summer trip to Puerto Rico should prepare the Lady Aggies to overcome any challenge, as the trip not only presented an opportunity to work on their games but also to establish camaraderie.

North Carolina A&T begins the season with a tough test, facing No. 14 North Carolina State in Raleigh on Nov. 6 (7 p.m. ET). Approximately two weeks later, the Lady Aggies again can see how they measure up against some of the country’s best, meeting No. 18 Miami in Coral Gables on Nov. 22.

Bethune-Cookman

The Wildcats will attempt to repeat last season’s success and earn a second-consecutive berth to the NCAA Tournament. The prospect of this accomplishment has been enhanced by the return of Ashanti Hunt, who was granted an extra year of eligibility.

The 2018 MEAC Defensive Player of the Year played only two games last year before suffering a season-ending injury.

On Hunt’s return, BCU head coach Vanessa Blair-Lewis stated:

We are extremely delighted to have Ashanti back. She has played a key role in the success of this program. This gives us extra incentive to get back to the NCAA tournament so she can have those well-deserved March moments on the court.

The rest of the conference appears to agree that Hunt will have an impact, voting her to the preseason All-MEAC First Team. Junior forward Amaya Scott, named to the preseason All-MEAC Third Team, will work with Hunt to try to take the Wildcats back to The Big Dance.

Bethune-Cookman gets going on Thursday, Nov. 14, against Edward Waters on the road, in Daytona Beach, Florida. With back-to-back games against SEC stalwarts Auburn and Alabama in mid-December, Hunt, Scott and the other members of Blair-Lewis’s BCU squad will have a pair of high-profile opportunities to show that they again are the class of the MEAC.

Howard University

Can the Bison continue that D.C. sports energy?

That Howard can claim four members on the 2019-20 preseason All-MEAC Teams, the most of any team, suggests they just might.

The foursome of senior guard Sarah Edmond (First Team), senior guard Ayonna Williams (Second Team), junior guard Jayla Thornton (Second Team) and senior forward Imani Bryant (Third Team) will attempt to lead the Bison to their first conference championship since 2002 and first NCAA Tournament berth since 2001.

Howard tips off its regular season against LaSalle on Tuesday (Nov. 5) at 7 p.m. ET in Washington, D.C. In late December, Howard heads to Rocky Top to take on Tennessee, a potentially instructive challenge before conference play begins.

Making noise in the MEAC

Of the MEAC’s other teams, Maryland Eastern Shore University most intrigues. Last season, the Sea Gulls launched a conference-leading 727 3-pointers, more than 200 more than the second-highest team. Even with such volume, the Sea Gulls led the conference in 3-point shooting percentage. As evidenced by the past two WNBA champions, a willingness to shoot (and shoot some more) from distance can supercharge an offense. Can Eastern Shore use the three to fire their way into the MEAC title conversation?

They received one first-place vote in the conference’s preseason standings, suggesting that some folks have their eyes on the Sea Gulls’ potential. Such floor spacing also should allow junior forward Bairesha Gill-Miles to go to work inside. The 2016-17 MEAC Rookie of the Year registered six double-doubles during her sophomore season, earning a nod on the preseason All-MEAC Third Team.

Look for other members of the preseason All-MEAC Teams to make noise this season as well. First Team designee Taylor Brown will get buckets for South Carolina State, with the senior forward aiming to help the Bulldogs maintain their recent upward trajectory.

At Coppin State, senior forward Chance Graham, a fellow All-MEAC First Team member, will hope her double-doubles can drag the Golden Eagles up from the near-bottom of the conference. From the Second Team, Norfolk State redshirt senior guard La’Deja James and North Carolina Central senior forward Paulina Afriyie will seek to vault their squads up the conference standings. Third Team member Lanayjha Ashe, a senior guard at Delaware State, will strive to do the same.