The historic organization recently celebrated 50 years in Vail, Colorado.
For fifty years, the National Brotherhood of Skiers (now also known as the National Brotherhood of Snowsports) has exemplified the true meaning of Black on the slopes. What started as a phone call between founders Art Clay and Ben Finley to unite the nation's Black ski clubs in 1972, has now blossomed into an organization that centers our rightful place on mountains around the world.
This past week, NBS celebrated the 50th anniversary of its annual summit in Vail, Colorado. Over 2,000 Black men and women descended upon the upscale ski town to bring a little "Soul on the Snow." Black ski clubs from all over the country came together—decked out in their best winter fashions and gear—to hit the slopes during the day and have fun at aprés ski in the late afternoon and evening. In attendance for the milestone event were founders Clay and Finley, both now in their 80s. The two men sat down with EBONY to share the story of NBS' start, what it means to reach fifty years and their vision for the next fifty as well.
"There were Black ski clubs in Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles in the early 1970s," co-founder Finley said. "I was in Los Angeles and a friend of mine told me about another Black ski club in Chicago. I couldn't believe it. So, I set up a phone call with Art because he was a part of the Chicago club. There were several phone calls, but all we knew is that we wanted to unite the groups somehow, and that's how it all happened. We always joke that we simply started forming a snowball at the top of Aspen mountain during that first summit, pushed it down, and we got what we got fifty years later. None of this was planned. What made NBS different from any other ski organization in the country is that we combined the sport with the social in a socioeconomic environment that was attractive. And, it just worked."
During that time, former National Brotherhood of Skiers President Naomi Bryson, PhD, recalls being able to ski with white folks with nearly no issue, but when it came to getting together off the slopes, she and other Black skiers were shunned. This was one of the motivating factors for Clay and Finley—to be able to simply exist and have fun with no issue. She says that Clay was always the one to be able to join folks together for parties, while Finley was the one to set plans in motion.
"I was in Atlanta and met a guy named Ray Mott, who became the first president of NBS. We started learning about all these clubs all over—D.C., California, just everywhere. It was remarkable,” shared Clay. “We planned our first meet up between the existing clubs, which was called The Happening. Once in Salt Lake, we all sat down to say, 'OK, what are we really going to do with this thing?' The first thing was to come up with the name. We just knew we didn't want to lead with Black ski because it would have likely posed issues for us when trying to organize."
"Like many other Black organizations in the country, we landed on the word "national" and then "brother" because that's how we referred to each other," added Finley.
To exist in a space not typically held or created for Black folks in the '70s, founders Clay and Finley share that the organization was typically well received at the various mountain towns across the country. Neither of the founders nor several of the organization's early presidents can recall any instances of racism on the slopes. But, that isn't to say that it didn't happen. Bryson shared stories of friends who had white folks trip them as they skied or even pushed them down the mountains. But overall, those few instances never swayed the bigger picture.
As the years passed, and member counts grew, Clay and Finley went back to the drawing board to ensure that NBS was progressing with a bigger vision. They decided to add the now bigger mission for the organization, which is to get more young, Black athletes on the US Ski and Snowboard teams—and ultimately the podium.
"We needed something that could be more than a party. So we said, ‘let's put a Black kid on the US Ski team,' and we continued rolling that snowball." shared Finley.
During this year's National Brotherhood of Skiers Summit in Vail, several of NBS' current young athletes were in attendance, including male skiers Bogale Giddings and Keagan Suppler. For them, being sponsored by such a prestigious and historic group means the world and has opened doors they couldn't have imagined.
"Being here at my first summit means so much. Just to be surrounded by so many Black people skiing and snowboarding like this, after being surrounded by white people growing up in New Hampshire, it really makes my heart smile," shared Suppler.
Fast-forward to 2023, that same snowball formed at the first summit in Aspen, Colorado is still rolling and still growing. Local clubs and NBS membership have grown exponentially; the visibility of Black folk in snowsports is no longer taboo and, most importantly, they're able to come together in community to do the things that they love.
"To see this many Black people come together each year to show genuine love for what we've done, and the common denominator is skiing, it's hard to put into words. But for me, getting those kids on the US team is most important, that is the purpose of this organization," shared Finely.
As for the next fifty years of the National Brotherhood of Skiers and the legacy that Clay and Finley want to leave long after they're gone, it's to get Black people to step outside this notion of "we don't do that."
"I've lived my life from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the mountain, and it's a lot of Black people that won't do that," explained Finley. "We just want to provide that example that we do. We just have to get out of our own heads."