OF THE 1,300 bowmen who competed in the National Field Archery Championships in Clemson, S.C., last month, only five were black.
One of them was James Brown of Marlow Heights, Md. Through five days of blistering heat and stifling humidity, Brown outlasted the top shooters from 48 states and Canada. When the scores were tallied, the 32-year old Safeway employee was the new U.S. champion bowhunter and the first black athlete in the tournament's 32 years to win an archery title.
"It was a tremendous feeling - when the crowd started applauding I could hardly hold back the tears," recalled Brown. "I guess first and foremost, I wanted to win it help promote the sport in Maryland because we really have a lot of potential here. But there's another part of the picture too. I wanted to win because I'm black."
Brown's entry into the predominantly white world of archery came about in 1971 when he met an archery instructor named Ken Thompson at a picnic.
"I encouraged him to join Mohican Bowmen," said Thompson, a Capitol Police officer. "Mohican was an all-balck club at the time, with just about 10 members. We didn't have the greatest facilities but we had enough for Jim to get his bowhunter technique down."
Throughout that year, Brown worked each weekend and any other time he could under the supervision of Thompson and club president John Knox. The bowhunter style provided the greatest challenge because it prohibited the shooting aides allowed in "freestyle" and "barebow" such as target sights, bow string release and bow stabilizer.
By September of 1972 Brown had progressed so much that he entered the Maryland State Field Archery Championships. What followed was a disllusioning experience but one that propelled Brown deeper into the sport.
"I was shooting my first round when one of the men in my party called over to me," recalled Brown. "He said something like 'Hey, this isn't your sport,' and since I was the only black guy there, it wasn't hard to figure out what he meant. I was pretty upset and when I told Knox about it later, he said 'you'll just have to beat him on his ground.'"
So, Brown spent the next year mastering the "gap" system, a point of reference method in which the arrow is aimed at a preplanned spot well below the target but in the same vertical plane. Since each field archery course has 28 different targets of varying size and distance, detailed notes and long hours of study were required to memorize each point - sometimes just a blade of grass or a paint chip.
The system worked so well for Brown that he not only defeated the shooter of the year before but went on to capture the Maryland state championship of 1973.
Brown's shooting continued to improve but right before the 1974 state championships, Mohican's rented range was sold to a developer. Fortunately, the 12th Precinct Club of Washington offered to share its course. Brown regained his momentum and again captured the state title.
"We spent the next two years sending out letters to any place that had available land for a shooting site," said Brown. "We even gave several demonstrations. We either got no answer or the run-around. One letter said something like, 'Rome wasn't byilt in a day and maybe you boys are trying too hard."
In early 1975, Mohican members made an effort to encourage white archers to join.Local shooting buddies took them up on the offer, invited their own friends, and within months enrollment was up to 50. Mohican was still without a course but as the tournament season ended, Brown successfully defended his state title again.
The course finally came during the following year with the new club president, Bob Sullivan, a former Navy officer, helping to secure a field on the Naval Communications Base in Camp Springs, Md. This time though, Brown finished second in the state and had to put aside thoughts of the nationals, which still required too much money to cover travel expenses and accomodations.
"I think there was some pressure on me to keep winning," he said. "Some people figured that I would just disappear once I lost. But I didn't mind not taking it in '76. Losing is part of the game and it made me better, more aware of my mistakes."
But another setback followed. The bow that Brown had honed for two years was stolen from his van. A new bow was purchased with the help of a friend, John Jones, but Brown's scores started to drop off.
"The Middle Atlantic Regionals were coming up in June and I was getting pretty worried," Brown said. "I wasn't getting the accuracy I'd always seemed to have. I tried chaning my system but that didn't work. Then, a few days before I was supposed to leave, John took the bow apart and found that four of the 14 strands of the bowstring had snapped inside the leather handgrip. We restrung it and I headed up there just hoping for the best."
Brown cleaned up. His score of 959 easily netted him the title and a standing ovation from the capacity crowd. His friends insisted he take a shot at the nationals. After a week of considering the finances of the trip, Brown made up his mind to head for Clemson."
"I really just went down there to see what I could do, just to try," he said. "But after the first day, I was leading the pros - my category - the opens and the amateurs. I said to myself, 'Hey, I can win this thing.'"
Brown weathered the 104-degree heat, which eventually sent 57 people to the hospital, and fortunately managed to ignore his shooting partner from Indiana.
"The whole time this guy kept making announcements while I'm shooting about how if I win, it will be the first time a black guy will win the championship. Well, when it came to the last round, the guy said it again. But this time, another guy in our party from Texas said to him, 'Why don't you shut the hell up - if I didn't know better, I'd think you were trying to ruin his concentration.'
"I appreciated the gesture, but by that time there was no way I was going to lose it no matter what anybody said."
Brown has now taken up teaching anyone who's shown an interest in archery - including a man confined to a wheelchair.
"Teaching's part of the whole thing. That's how I was able to make it in this sport. Besides, I want to make my competition as good as I possibly can to keep me on my toes."