Tulane University athletics has jumped back into prominence with the planned opening of the new Yulman Stadium in 2014, which will bring football back to the Uptown campus. As anticipation — and the modern stadium — rose, Sally Main, senior curator at the Newcomb Art Gallery, saw an opportunity to showcase the symbiotic relationship between sports and community.
In “More Than a Game: Sports and Identity at Newcomb and Tulane,” archival photos and sports-themed cartoons illustrate the way Tulane and Newcomb College set a standard for sports and athletic life dating to the 1800s, including progressive programs for women. The exhibit runs through Sept. 15.
“What is our identity within the community? I remember Saints games, I remember watching Sugar Bowls (at the old Tulane Stadium). That stadium was so iconic,” Main said.
Main was fascinated by the history of public facilities on campus that dates to a visit by President William Taft in 1909. An area was cleared for a chorale performance and was later named Taft Field for sporting events until a more formal athletic space was developed across Freret Street behind the Navy building.
Main said that both Tulane and Newcomb administrators understood how athletics contributed to students’ overall health and promoted their social and civic involvement.
The “More Than a Game” exhibit shows the evolution of athletics and sports facilities at Tulane from the blueprint stage and the stadium building campaign to raise $300,000 in the 1920s (one slogan: “We want! We want! We want a seat!”).
There are photos of pile driving and other documentation in the evolution of the old football stadium, which anchored the Uptown area and became the home of 40 Sugar Bowl games and the National Football League’s first three Super Bowls.
The display also features a survey of cartoons from famed illustrator John Churchill Chase, who drew the program covers for Tulane football games and other local sporting events. He also drew football game covers for Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Rice, and the University of Texas. Chase taught at Tulane and bequeathed his illustrated material on Louisiana history to the university’s Special Collections.
But the More exhibit also showcases photos from a feminist side of athletics on the Newcomb campus. Clara Gregory Baer was a pioneer in physical education for women and taught at Newcomb from 1891 to 1929.
“She had been trained in Boston in the Swedish gymnastics system, it promoted good health, balance and strength, and she came back to teach (at Newcomb), so she taught what became physical education at the Southern Athletic Association’s gym,” Main said. The old Behrman gym was located at Prytania and Washington Avenue.
Newcomb students wore long skirts and stockings as they elevated their physical health in archery, gymnastics, a half-court version of “basquette ball” (basketball) played in 1903, and a distinctive Newcomb version of volleyball that is still played at summer camps in the Northeast corridor.
Baer lobbied for financial support of women’s sports more than 50 years before the landmark Title IX legislation in 1972. Baer’s influence also led to the Newcomb Freshman class holding a Field Day in 1910 and rebelling against the skirt policy to wear a form of long pants to play sports.
“By 1918, post-World War I, women had already been in the workforce doing things that they were never expected to do. So the whole issue of physical education reinvented itself,” Main said.
Main believed that led to Newcomb women exploring other sporting options, such as fencing, a rifle team and a women’s football team.
“There’s a lot of history in women’s athletics here, and I wonder how many current female athletes know about it going back to 1891,” she said.
More exhibit material was obtained from Tulane’s Special Collections, the Newcomb Archives, the Historic New Orleans Collection, as well as alumni and area residents.
Karen Celestan is a writer, educator and cultural administrator living in New Orleans. She can be reached at Karen@mosaicliterary.com