‘‘A black skier? Come on. Blacks don’t ski.”
Arthur Clay has heard that comment more times than he can count.
“I can’t even come up with a number,” Clay said. “Just about every time I mention skiing outside a group of skiers, I hear it.”
At the grand age of 83, the South Shore resident and retired State of Illinois employee, fresh from the Black Summit, an annual skiing outing he first co-organized in 1973 with Benjamin Finley, still enjoys a good flight downhill. But this most likely will be his last season on skis.
“I’m getting older,” he said. “I think it’s time for me to quit.”
Clay might be getting older, but his words still fizzle with the effervescence of youth when he talks about the sport that has ruled his winter social life for more than five decades.
And while the thrill of skiing has landed Clay on snow-dressed slopes across the country, as well as white-powdered slopes in Austria, France and New Zealand, creating a deeper passion for the sport became part of his agenda.
Clay refused to let negative vibes, rhetoric from other blacks, racist mindsets or the exclusion of restricted ski communities derail him from living his dream of traversing down the pristine slopes. He found causes to lobby for among blacks. Clay promoted skiing as a recreational sport, then shifted his attention to the exclusion of blacks in competitive sports.
For his arduous fight to break down color barriers in the skiing industry and relentless promotion of skiing among blacks and other non-white cultures, Clay, along with skiing buddy and business partner Finley, earned a spot in the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame. They will be inducted as part of the Class of 2019 on March 28 in Sun Valley, Idaho.
According to Justin Koski, executive director of the Hall of Fame, Clay and Finley aren’t only the first African Americans to be enshrined in the organization’s 60-plus-year history, an accomplishment that took four years to come to fruition once their names were submitted. They’re the first to be nominated, as well as the first double inductees on one ballot.
“Mr. Clay and Mr. Finley recognized an important need during a time when exclusion and racism was prevalent in the ski community,” Koski said. “Their tireless efforts have not only benefitted African Americans, but other groups such as wounded veterans, women and the disabled who were also excluded from the sport.”
When and, more importantly, how did Clay’s ski sojourn begin?
Clay, a member of Kappa Alpha Psi at Clark Atlanta University, took his first ski trip with some of his fraternity brothers at 30, and it was downhill from there — on the slopes, that is.
“When I first started skiing, there might be one other black person out there,” Clay said. “But I loved the sport.”
The more Clay became involved with the ski industry, the more he started to seek out other black skiers. He eventually connected with Daddy-O Daily, a popular black radio jock from the 1940s and 50s, who had formed the ski club Sno-Gophers. Clay became the club’s trip director and brought more blacks into the fold.
“The Sno-Gophers started the Ski Carnival held in northern Michigan as an outing for the group,” Clay said. “We eventually started inviting other black clubs to join us, and we began having a greater presence.”
Among those clubs was the Chicago Ski Twisters, one of the oldest black ski clubs in the city, founded by the late George Sanders in 1959.
And while skiing was getting a nudge in the black community, it didn’t get a big push until Clay and Finley — a California ski enthusiast Clay met in 1972 who was president of the Four Seasons West Ski Club of Los Angeles — founded the National Brotherhood of Skiers in 1974. They incorporated it as a nonprofit organization in 1975.
Clay and Finley founded the NBS after initiating what would be the largest conglomeration of black skiers in one place. In 1973, at a time when the skiing community of Aspen was as white as the revered slopes it’s known for, Clay and Finley worked fast to arrange a ski event in the city.
The two amassed a group of black skiers from across the country to attend. But there was a bump in the road: Skiers had to register at the resorts with a club. According to records, more than 350 black skiers showed, soon to be known as the Black Summit, an event that continues today.
It was a bold and very successful move that made ski communities take notice. Skiing became more than a recreational sport for Clay. It became a passionate cause, with an initiative to reach out to black youth.
Teo Hyde, a Chicagoan who was an avid skier and an aspiring Olympic contender, was among the attendees at that first summit, from which the National Brotherhood of Skiers sprung. Clay and Finley had hopes of grooming competitive skiers for events such as the Olympics. NBS’ immediate goal was to place a black skier on the U.S. ski team.
“We have kids ages 8 to 12 in development programs, grooming them for competitive sports,” said Clay, who’s still semi-active with the organization’s administrative affairs.
The National Brotherhood of Skiers’ success stories include bronze and silver medalist Bonnie St. John-Dean in the 1984 Paralympics. Former member Errol Kerr competed with the Jamaican ski team in the Vancouver Olympics.
There’s more to Clay’s tale on the slopes. In 1971, he met his wife, Mamie, on a ski trip. They were married in 1974.
“A romance developing between skiers on those trips wasn’t uncommon at all,” Mamie said. “There was a lot of romance going on.”
Despite the success of Clay, Finley and others in the advancement of black skiers, the percentage of known African American skiers is still small.
According to a 2017 survey on the International Skiing History Association website, only 5 percent of known skiers at that time were black, which was a dip from the organization’s 2014 survey. Koski isn’t surprised.
“The ski industry as a whole has taken a dip based on cost,” Koski said. “It’s an expensive recreational sport that has economically affected families who once took ski trips as vacations.”
As for Clay, he still sees an upside in the industry, referencing a story from the Idaho Mountain Express on the Black Summit this year in Sun Valley.
A passage from an online article by Mark Dee posted Feb. 28 read: “When they [Black Summit] arrive, they’ll increase the number of African Americans in Blaine County 10-fold, up from 64, according to counts by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. As a group, they’ll account for about 4 percent of all black people in Idaho.”
Said Clay: “I’m glad [his and Finley’s] efforts are finally being recognized and looking forward to what will come from our work in the future.”
A final note from Clay on his phenomenal journey on the slopes and his hopes for continued success and advancements in the sport, especially competitively: “We said white boys couldn’t jump, and they proved us wrong. Now it’s our turn to prove them wrong.”
For more information on the National Brotherhood of Skiers, write to 10 S. Riverside Plaza, Suite 875, call (773) 955-4100 or visit http://www.nbs.org.