The Commercial Appeal
Little-known trailblazers find safety in sport
What Tyre Nichols’ death reveals about the rise of Black skateboarders
It was a tragedy, to be sure.
A horrific tragedy that sparked protests, vigils and demands for justice now.
The death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-yearold Black man beaten by five police officers after a traffic stop in Memphis in late January, also captured something unexpected.
He was a father, a Fedex employee and an avid photographer. But it was through the lens of skateboarding that Nichols’ life – and death – revealed ways in which the world has changed.
A minutelong video released by Nichols’ family showed him skateboarding with skill and joy. The footage mobilized a sport once considered the exclusive province of white kids.
Skateboarders took to the streets. Black, white and brown, they rode in Los Angeles, Memphis and New York. Gathered in skateparks across the country. Honored one of their own while reflecting a diversity that challenged any lingering stigma.
Trailblazer ‘ripped,’ made history
Marty Grimes, 62, uses photos to illustrate challenges he faced.
Not just the photos of him getting airborne in skatepark pools. But also the one showing five photographers in ideal position to take his photo during an aggressive ride.
All of the photographers are white. Only one is seen snapping a photo. Grimes said he thinks many of the photographers and skateboarding magazines were partial to white skateboarders and helps explain why his unique story is not better known.
Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s, he and his older brother, Clyde Jr., were bused to predominantly white schools. They rode their skateboards across the steep banks in the schoolyard as if they were surfers on concrete waves.
In 1975, the Grimes brothers became the first Black skateboarders to turn pro.
Jay Adams, the late acclaimed skateboarder, told Skateboarder magazine in 1979 that Marty Grimes was among his favorite skateboarders to watch. He also said Grimes and another skater of color were among the most underrated.
“They’ve ripped for a long time, and they’ve never got much credit,” Adams said.
In 2020, Marty Grimes became the first Black skateboarder inducted into the hall of fame, which opened in 2009.
“Well, well, well,” he recalled saying at the induction ceremony. “It took us a long time, but we’re finally here.”
The Fred Astaire of skateboarding
Skateparks shut down en masse in the late 1970s when liability lawsuits made insurance premiums unaffordable for many of the owners and unintentionally created transformation.
Skateboarding migrated to the streets. Eventually it reached Black neighborhoods.
Now everybody had access to the “street skateboarding” terrain – such as curbs, ledges, staircases, handrails and more – on which tricks were performed. Along came Ray Barbee, then a Black teenager from San Jose, California.
“He actually floated and danced on his board like a Fred Astaire-type,“Lance Mountain, a hall of fame skateboarder, said in 2021.
Unlike Marty Grimes, who felt overlooked by the skateboarding magazines, Barbee became a star. He was paid to endorse skateboards and was featured performing in VHS tapes.
By the 1990s, however, his smooth style gave way to something grittier from the next wave of Black stars.
There was Kareem Campbell, whose signature trick was named the Ghetto Bird. Harold Hunter from New York and his skateboard team’s “Zoo York Mixedtape.” Stevie Williams, who rode with the self-described Dirty Ghetto Kids in Philadelphia. He went from homeless kid to a skate mogul, as Vice Sports put it.
Tyre Nichols ‘found somewhere he belonged’
Trouble lurked in the Black neighborhoods of Sacramento, where Nichols grew up before moving to Memphis.
“At a time when there was heavy gang activity in Sacramento, (Tyre) just skated right on by,” his sister, Keyana, told the Sacramento Bee.
At schoolyards and street-style skateparks, city-owned facilities that sprouted across the country, Nichols was known for his colorful flannel shirts and disarming smile.
He drew inspiration from Nyjah Huston, whose father is black and Japanese and in 2010 won his first of six world championships, according to Alonzo Cates, a friend of Nichols who said Black stars provided more motivation.
“Those skaters impacted us greatly as African Americans,” Cates said.
Nichols was not a star. But he perfected a few tricks and made friends in the melting pot of skateboarding.
“He found somewhere he belonged and could be himself,” said Angelina Paxton, a close friend of Nichols.
Now he is among more than a dozen Black Americans who since 2014 have been killed in high-profile cases of police brutality.
But his life, as described by friends, also stands as a testament to a 2020 study of skateboarding culture. It fosters community, encourages diversity and resilience and has a special impact on Black skateboarders, according to the findings.
“Skaters of color felt a greater degree of safety from judgment within the skateboarding community than in nonskate contexts,” according to a report on the study’s findings by the Pullias Center for Higher Education.
‘True meaning of a skateboarder’
In 2020, Chad Muska declined his induction to the Skateboarding Hall of Fame.
Muska, who is white, issued a statement saying Kareem Campbell, who is Black, deserved to be inducted first.
“I know Kareem would of made it in the Hall of Fame without this suggestion,” Muska said, “but I truly believe that now is the time to show the world the racial boundaries that skateboarding, especially ‘street skateboarding,’ breaks.”
Campbell issued a statement, saying, “You are what skateboarding is, and the true meaning of a skateboarder and friend.”
In 2021, Campbell was inducted into the hall of fame.
The inductees include Muska, too.