Darlene Anderson flies by opponents in a roller derby match. She opened the doors for other blacks to perform in the sport.
By Jason Lewis
Sentinel Sports Editor
Every sport has an individual who breaks the color barrier. Who opens the doors for other black athletes and minorities to compete against white athletes. Football had Woody Strode and Kenny Washington with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. Baseball had Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. And Roller Derby had Darlene Anderson in 1958.
Anderson grew up in Pasadena, where she attended John Muir high school. She always played sports, but her mother stopped her from playing baseball because the sport was too rough. So Anderson took up roller-skating instead.
Anderson’s parents agreed to let her skate, not knowing where it was going to lead their daughter. Anderson and a friend went to the roller derby training center, as her parents thought that she was going to take ice skating lessons.
“I could only practice on Saturdays and after four lessons, I would race to the Olympic Auditorium so I could see that night’s roller derby game,” Anderson said. “We would have to take many street cars. I would stay overnight at a girlfriend’s home so my parents did not know anything. I knew my mom would have a fit.”
Anderson was raised to be a lady, so she knew that her parents would not let her compete in a sport as rough as roller derby.
Anderson took up skating as just a hobby, having no idea that she would become a star in the sport. At the time roller derby was one of the most popular sports in the nation.
A time trials held at the Olympic Auditorium was Anderson’s big break. She proved that she was a great skater, and a career was born, with the blessing of her parents. They were skeptical at first, but later became Anderson’s biggest fans.
Anderson quickly became a star, unanimously winning the rookie of the year award at the age of 19 in 1958 while skating for the Brooklyn Red Devils. She was first place on every coach’s ballots.
Anderson’s career took her all over the nation and the world. She skated for the Hawaii All Stars, San Francisco Bay Bombers, New York Chiefs, Los Angeles Braves, and many other powerful roller derby teams.
The thrill of flying by opponents on skates while racking up points excited Anderson, and she pointed out that back then it was a legit sport, unlike the staged performances that roller derby turned into as time went on.
Anderson was treated well by other skaters.
“Myself being black, I don’t think ever mattered to anyone as I was respected, treated by all skaters on an equal level, and I don’t ever remember once that black was an issue,” Anderson said. “In fact, I think if you ask anyone of our age group, or of our skating group, we saw no color. No, black wasn’t an issue or, if it was, the person was kind enough to respect me and keep it to themselves. We were family. We were not color. I truly believe this.”
Outside of a few rowdy fans here and there, Anderson said that she was treated well in different arenas.
After her career was over, Anderson became the first black woman to be a Pari-Mutuels Clerk with the Southern California Racing Association.
Recently Anderson spoke at the “How We Roll” exhibit at the California African American Museum (CAAM). The exhibit showcases the contributions of blacks to surfing, roller-skating, and skateboarding.
Anderson fits in perfectly with the exhibit, which is still on going and free to the public, because she is a pioneer when it comes to skating.
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