I grew up outside of Cammack Village, an anomalous little enclave of a community that is both part of Little Rock and separate from it. My first memories of playing sports come from the fields and courts of its Jefferson Elementary, which I attended for seven years. I dearly recall playing games of “soccer” during my fifth-grade recess that more resembled two teams of 20 kids each swarming around a red kickball at unsafe velocities than actual sport. I spent whole summers playing water baseball at Cammack Village’s pool and basketball at its park.
The place is unique. It has its own elected mayor and aldermen, along with a city attorney, recorder, and treasurer. Yet it relies on Little Rock for its water, waste collection, and power services. Still, it maintains a police force of eight officers, as well as a fire department with one fire engine.
Decades ago, it was known as a “sundown town” – a community where African-Americans were forbidden to live. The town has roots in the 1940s as a federal housing project and at that time all federal housing was segregated. For much of the following decades, no blacks moved into its city limits.
I didn’t think know this growing up. Cammack was all-white, yes, but that was no different from most of the surrounding Heights or Pine Valley neighborhoods. I attended Jefferson with plenty of black classmates, and played basketball with a few blacks at Cammack Park. Residents of the community might have been all white but integration had long become part of their world.
Still, the “sundown town” aspect of the community’s history surprises me. A totally new side to a place I thought I knew well.
I got a similar feeling today when reading about Jamaica. I don’t know much about Jamaica, but after Bob Marley, jerk chicken and weed, I start thinking about sports when playing word association with the island: sprinting, Patrick Ewing, bobsledding. I found out, though, the island nation also has an independent entity – a sovereign nation of about 500 people (only a couple hundred less people than Cammack Village) in its northwest.
The nation, Accompong Town, is near the same region as the homes of track superstars Usain Bolt and Veronica Campbell-Brown. In the early 1700s, this remote, mountainous area was home to a small band of ferocious fugitive warriors who became a major thorn in Great Britain’s side. Many in the track world believe the fact Bolt grew up near the descendants of these famed warriors is no coincidence.
Their story in Jamaica starts in the 16th century, when slaves from some of the most physically powerful tribes in West Africa escaped their Spanish masters and fled into the extremely rugged mountains of west Jamaica’s Cockpit Country – an area known for star-shaped valleys called cockpits walled in by sheer cliffs.
The rulers changed – Great Britain took over from Spain – but not the resolute determination of these fugitives who hailed from tribes like the Coromantee of Ghana which were expert in warfare. They knew the foreboding terrain well, and develop intricate spying networks and ambush techniques to take advantage of that familiarity. The ex slaves consistently defeated British troops who often dove into the jungle in search of runaways.
The British soldiers were beaten so badly that this area became a kind of sundown town for whites. Even today, “British dread is still embedded in the local names of Cockpit Country districts: Don’t Come Back and Land of Look Behind,” David Epstein wrote in his book “The Sports Gene.”
A particularly gruesome massacre took place in 1738 outside of a limestone cave now called Peace Cave. It resulted in a single British survivor, sent back to his superiors with an ear cut off. Soon afterward, the British signed a treaty with the runaway fighters. Today, their descendants do not hesitate to claim Olympic gold medalists Usain Bolt and Veronica Campbell-Brown as members of their lineage.
Whether there is a direct genetic link between the best of today’s Jamaican sprinters and the isolated, warrior genetic stock of these powerful mountain people is a matter of much debate. Really smart people are on both sides of it.
I won’t bludgeon a complicated topic like this when Epstein has done a magisterial job of breaking it down in the “The Sports Gene,” which comes out this month. Do yourself a favor and buy it.
You’ll no doubt be surprised by the many links he draws between the world of genetics research, academics, sports and political history.
Some will even hit home.