University of Dubuque

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Racing Past the Color Line: Sol Butler and Paul Robeson in Collegiate Athletics

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Posted Feb 20, 2014

The University of Dubuque’s Charles and Elizabeth Bisignano Art Gallery, located in Heritage Center, will open the exhibition Racing Past the Color Line: Sol Butler and Paul Robeson in Collegiate Athletics on Monday, February 24 at 12:30 p.m. The exhibition focuses on the college experience of two exceptional African American athletes at predominantly white institutions during a period of widespread segregation.  Before graduating in 1919, Sol Butler at Dubuque German College (now the University of Dubuque) and Paul Robeson at Rutgers College (now a state university) led their teams to unprecedented success, while paving the way for future African American students.

According to Assistant Professor of History Brian Hallstoos, this exhibition represents the first close look at the connections between these two celebrated athletes and how they navigated obstacles on and off the playing field.  “Robeson and Butler were world-class athletes, who had the charisma, strength of character, and good fortune to succeed at virtually all-white colleges during an era of rampant white supremacy.”  Celebrating the two men’s athletic accomplishments, the exhibition will also devote attention to their academic and social experiences, in part by creating a 1910s college dorm room.  The exhibition will also share the compelling story of the friendship between Paul Robeson and his white teammate, Fred Rollins, whose son David gave UD the gift of his father’s college items, including team photographs with Robeson.  David Rollins’ generous gift inspired this exhibition.

The exhibition was curated by Dr. Hallstoos and Archivist Jonathan Helmke, with special assistance from Bisignano Art Gallery Director Alan Garfield, Master Carpenter Marc Muehleip, UD student Ross Salwolke and Nathan J. Gruber Photography.  Under the direction of professors Garfield and Hallstoos, students in the Museum Studies course researched and helped develop the initial gallery layout.  The exhibition will be joined by the African American Museum of Iowa’s traveling exhibit The Only One which “investigates what it’s like to be an African American in Iowa.”

The gallery will host a reception for this exhibition before the 7:00 p.m. Live at Heritage Center presentation of the Soweto Gospel Choir on Wednesday, March 12, from approximately 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.  Copies of the exhibition catalog Racing Past the Color Line: The Character of College Stars Sol Butler and Paul Robeson will be available to visitors.  Made possible by a generous grant from UD’s Wendt Center for Character Education, the amply illustrated catalog will feature student essays on ethical issues involving the two men and their peers, along with student reflections on college race relations today.  Complimentary refreshments will be served at the reception.

Public gallery hours are normally 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, when university classes are in session. The Gallery is also open in conjunction with major events scheduled in John & Alice Butler Hall. For more information, please contact Brian Hallstoos at (563) 589-3855 or by email at bhallstoos@dbq.edu.

WHAT:   Gallery Exhibit – Racing Past the Color Line: Sol Butler and Paul Robeson in Collegiate Athletics 

WHEN:   Monday, February 24 through Friday, April 4, 2014

              Reception: Wednesday, March 12 from 6:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.

WHERE:  Charles and Elizabeth Bisignano Art Gallery at Heritage Center

PRICE:    Free to all