Black History Month provides us all a grand opportunity to revisit history and acknowledge the people that overcame our preconceived ideas of what was possible or likely in our sport. Regarding American fencing’s athletes of color, there are many heroes in our history that surely deserve reflective attention. But….since this IS WFencing, let’s dedicate some time just to the ladies!
Here are 6 amazing Black, female fencing phenomena in US fencing history, that you absolutely need to know about:
1. Ruth White - Ruth White has been called “The First of the Firsts.”
First Black athlete to win a US National Fencing title in any weapon (Foil 1969).
She was the first Black athlete to win the US National Women’s Foil individual title.
She was also the youngest fencer to win the US National Women’s Foil individual title up to that time, (17 years old).
First Black athlete to win the U19 National Championship (foil).
First Black athlete selected for a World Championship team (1969).
Youngest athlete ever selected for the US team.
USA Fencing published a lovely article about Ruth this month, that you should definitely take a look at.
“I was so lucky to find fencing. I lived in a world that was wired for discrimination. Not just from white people, Black people too. White people called me the N word from the first day my parents marched me off to school to when I left the all white school in 4th grade and went to an all Black school. In the Black school they called me a mutt and many times a few girls would try to give me a beat down. IT turns out that I was a really good fighter so that didn’t go on for very long. But I carried an emotional burden, a scar, that shaped the way I saw the world and reacted to people. When I entered the fencing salon in Baltimore that was the first time in my life that race wasn’t an issue. How hard you tried was the issue. I began to thrive. I am forever grateful to all my fencing friends. They never made me feel I was anything other than welcome. This changed my life. It allowed me to move forward, pushing the scars to the side and position my life for loving and caring for all people.”
West Coast Fencing Archive has a great article about Ruth.
2. Sharon Monplaisir - a true groundbreaker and prototype for Brooklyn athletes coming after her. She even has a children’s book about her. In The Sword of a Champion, (by Doreen Greenberg, Michael Greenberg, and Phil Velikan) she is described as, “A dreamer from the wrong neighborhood, Sharon Monplaisir had always been teased at school for her hand-me-down clothes and her giant glasses. She felt more comfortable with her books about exotic places and exciting adventures. Sharon had read about sword fighting and great warriors in her books, but she didn't know if she'd be brave enough to even go to the first day of practice for the school fencing team.”
Monplaisir went on to be a force of nature in foil fencing becoming a four time NCAA All-American fencer, a two time Pan-American Gold Medalist (1987, 1991) and a three time USA Olympic team member (1984, 1988, and 1992). She was described by a journalist in the Chicago Tribune as having “the build and bearing of an athletic aristocrat, tall and full of regal grace, [inheriting] her kingdom by feint and force.” Now, that’s some media love!
As she told WFencing:
“The one thing I loved to do when I was an active competitor was to have fencing demonstrations in underprivileged schools. The children had never seen fencing before. I explained to them what an amazing sport this was and how many colleges had scholarships available. I will always remember when a young man came up to me after the demonstration and said ‘I thought fencing was a white person’s sport’. I said there is no sport that is owned by any one race. I made sure to tell the children never put limits on themselves. You decide what you want to do in life. Do not feel because you do not see anyone who LOOKS LIKE you in an area of study, sport or occupation that you can not be the first one. This is why the presence of athletes of color in all areas of life are so important. The trailblazers for me were Ruth White and Nicki Frank. Amazing Black women who were excellent in the sport of fencing and in life. Their presence inspired women of color in Fencing.”
Sharon went on to find competition success in epee as well as being a media ambassador for fencing.
3. Erinn Smart - First US Black female to medal in fencing at the Olympics (Silver medal, team women’s foil, 2008), Erin was the five-time Division 1 United States National Champion in 1998, 2002, 2004, 2007 and 2008. She was an individual competitor in the 2004 Olympics for team USA in Athens and was a member of the United States Olympic team in 2008 at Beijing, China.She was the only Olympic veteran member of a team that finally reached a decades-long, seemingly impossible quest for winning hardware, by bringing home the Silver medals after falling to Russia in the final team match.
Keeth Smart, Erinn Smart, Ivan Lee and Kamara James)
By her own account, Erinn’s father took her to the Peter Westbrook Foundation’s first fencing class ever when he read about Westbrook in the newspaper. She and her brother became the stuff of fairytales when they both qualified and then medalled (foil and saber respectively) in the very same Olympics after suffering from debilitating losses of both parents. As she would often say, “My brother is my best friend. Usually when I’m fencing, I can hear his voice.” With her unrelenting interruption/counter attacks and driving ripostes, Erinn Smart is definitely remembered as one of the greats.
4. Nikki Franke - a living legend. Coach Nikki Franke is a two-time Olympian (1976, 1980), two-time U.S. National Women’s Foil Champion (1975, 1980). U.S. National Women’s Foil Silver medalist (1978). U.S. Bronze medalist (1976, 1977 and 1979), and a two-time PanAmerican medalist in 1975, 1979 where she won the Silver and Bronze medal (respectively). "It was a great experience for me," Franke said in an interview with ESPN. "In 1975, I won my first national championship at the Pan Am Games. In 1976, that was my first Olympic team.” Coach Franke pioneered the women’s NCAA fencing team at Temple University and developed a winning program from scratch. She was named USFCA Coach of the Year in 1983, 1987, 1988 and 1991. She has been inducted into the International Sports Hall of Fame, United States Fencing Association Hall of Fame and Temple University Athletics Hall of Fame. In 1992 Coach Franke, along with Sloan Green, Alpha Alexander and Linda Greene, established the Black Women in Sport Foundation, a non-profit, Philadelphia based organization encouraging Black women and girls to participate in all areas of sports, including coaching and administration. Now that’s called “being productive” in life.
Franke’s words to ESPN inspire us all: "[We] want to create opportunities for people at a young age....We used to go to so many women sports conferences and wouldn't see any women of color. We're looking to help out and get more women involved in sports." Do you feel inspired yet???
Nikki Franke Photo Joseph V. Labolito/Temple University
5. Ibtihaj Muhammed - so epic they made Barbie look like her. You know you’ve done something important when they change the toys to match you. Three-time All-American (Duke University), 2005 Junior Olympic Champion, USA National Fencing team 2010-2017, World ranked #7 (2017), 5-time World medalist, 2014 World Champion (team women’s saber), and Olympic Bronze medalist 2016 Rio Olympics (team saber). Once in a while there is an athlete that achieves success at a time and place where it is most sweetly needed. In 2016, at the Rio Olympics, that athlete was Ibtihaj Muhammad who, along with teammates Mariel Zagunis, Monica Aksamit and Dagmara Wozniak, brought home the team women’s saber bronze medal. She was the first Black, female, Muslim American to win a medal and she did it all while representing her faith in a hijab. The visible symbol of her religion left an impression that resonated with the American public and made those of similar faith feel seen. She was described by The Guardian as "one of the best symbols against intolerance [that] America can ever have".
6. Ruby Watson - Some of the greatest fencing pioneers are people you may never hear much about. Ruby Watson was a long-time supporter of women’s fencing. Living and training in Brooklyn, she served as a division officer for many years, entering every competition for epee, and then later saber, in which she was allowed to participate. She was remembered as a tireless advocate for women of color, and for all women, to have a fair chance to compete in every weapon. For every modern Women’s Epee or Women’s Saber fencer that achieves dizzying heights of competitive success, there are women behind the scenes who endure criticism, laughter, bureaucracy, and genderism in order to give others a chance. Ruby Watson was one of these. She loved winning like everyone else, but Watson knew the greater good she did by just showing up.
Ruby Watson is remembered in the Museum of American Fencing like this:
“Ruby Watson of the Metropolitan Division was the most formidable voice year after year for the development and inclusion of Women’s Epee and Women’s Saber in US Division 1 and Olympic events. No matter what negative press and ridicule she absorbed, regardless of consistent refusals, and no matter what illogical explanations the fencing associations of the world gave her as to why women should not have the right to fence the 2 weapons, Ruby never took no for an answer and fought for women’s fencing rights in the United States until the day she died. We all owe Ruby Watson.”
We are thankful to the women on this list and also for the women who are not. We are inspired by women in history and continue to be inspired by the women of today! Who are we missing? Let us know as we begin to collect a