A group of eight Harlem teens are changing the complexion of the once exclusive sport of squash. The players are making history by becoming the first all-Black team to perform at the high school nationals in late February.
“Being the only all-Black team, we broke a lot of stereotypes, and it’s deeper than squash,” StreetSquash player Harlem Jones told WCBS.
The teens attend Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change in Harlem, New York. The school is 78 percent Black and 18 percent Hispanic according to Public School Review.
The school integrates the “theme of social change” into the curriculum to reflect the spirit and life of Justice Thurgood Marshall and his commitment to positive social change, according to the school’s website. Marshall was the first Black justice to serve on the Supreme Court.
The teens play wearing black panthers jerseys, the mascot of their school. They are under the tutelage of StreetSquash, a nonprofit after school program designed to introduce middle and high school students in Harlem to the sport of squash at no cost. The program also helps with college preparedness and is funded entirely by donations and grants, according to its website.
Squash is similar to racquetball, but racquetball balls are larger, and the rules of the game are different. “The objective of the game is for players to take turns hitting the ball against the front wall, above the tin and below the out line,” Squash Canada explains. The game is played to 11 points. Points are awarded if the receiver fails to hit the ball before it bounces twice or hits the ball out of bounds.
“Squash in the U.S. has been a predominantly white sport found mostly in country clubs and private clubs. There are not many found within public schools,” StreetSquash spokesperson Mark Wishnia told Atlanta Black Star.
“It was super affluent here, and the rest of the world, it’s not” StreetSquash coach Simba Muhwati said of the sport’s demographics.
The teens have been playing squash for years. Last year they petitioned their school to designate squash as an official sport permitting them to enter the national high school tournament. The team has traveled across the country and even to Europe as part of the program to sharpen their skills against all kinds of players.
The teens are coached by Simba Muhwati, who has an extensive background in squash. He moved to the U.S. in 2005 from Zimbabwe and played squash during college. He has won five national collegiate championships during his career as a player and a coach.
“If I don’t shed a tear, I’ll be shocked,” Muhwati said to WCBS.
The team is composed of 16 and 17-year-old high school students. Many of them have played with StreetSquash since they were in middle school. They currently play squash for the FairWest League as well as Thurgood Marshall Academy. The team’s record in the league is 8-2.
“It’s a great feat for our students. They’ve been breaking barriers often, in fact they’re often the only individuals of color playing squash at their tournaments,” Wishnia said.
The U.S. High School Squash Championships will be held on Feb. 24-26 in Philadelphia. The team appears confident they will put on a strong showing.
“Best believe our name will be heard,” David Johnson said.
“It’ll be probably the most proud moment of my career in squash. To walk into that facility with these young men is going to be super special,” Muhwati said.