Even for someone who has designs on a career in filmmaking, Gwenna Gentle couldn’t believe it.
After sitting on the side of the highway for several minutes during what she thought was a routine traffic stop, Gentle said a sheriff’s deputy in Liberty County, Georgia, got on the charter bus she and her Delaware State lacrosse teammates were riding in and started rambling about human trafficking and drugs.
“When he said, ‘What we’re looking for is lost children that are returned to families and drug trafficking across state borders’ and not a little bit of marijuana and all of the drugs he listed, it was like, is he joking right now?” Gentle told Sportzshala Sports this week.
Gentle and her teammates couldn’t believe it was happening to them, even in this smartphone era, where videos of police brutalizing citizens of all ages and colors have gone viral.
The Delaware State team was headed home after a long trip for its final three games of the lacrosse season, against Kennesaw State, Jacksonville State and Stetson, and classes would be wrapping up for the year in a couple of weeks.
Then just after 10:30 am on a Wednesday, their drive home took a sharp turn.
And the experience drove home for many of the students and others how often racism shows itself.
What lacrosse means for these black women
Delaware State is the rare women’s lacrosse program from an HBCU (historically black college or university). Among HBCUs, only DSU, Howard and the University of District Columbia offer the sport. Although lacrosse’s roots are Native American, it has been the bastion of elite white private schools on the East Coast, especially at the high school level.
The sport has been growing in recent years, as have grassroots programs to get sticks in the hands of kids in marginalized communities. Gentle’s mother, Kate, started the girls’ program at West Brunswick High in North Carolina, where roughly a third of the students are Black or Hispanic; after the winter basketball season she’d approach players and ask them if they wanted to try lacrosse.
She’d quickly be met with mumbles of, “I don’t know…”
“But then I’d ask: Who wants to go to college for free? And they’d raise their hands,” Kate Gentle told Sportzshala Sports.
Lacrosse has similarities to basketball, and she would build field drills around their strengths from the court, like boxing out.
It’s part of the reason why two members of the Delaware State team on the bus on the side of Interstate 95 that day last month were Gwenna Gentle and Moe Brown. Both had played for Kate Gentle at West Brunswick. They got to go to college for free thanks to lacrosse.
Nearly all of Delaware State’s roster is young Black women, and two of its three coaches are Black as well. They and the other members of the DSU community had already endured the terror of several bomb threats made to their campus and other HBCUs in February. They had already heard what their lax sisters at Howard said they suffered at Presbyterian College that same monthaccusing fans of showering them with racial epithets.
Their experiences of the past couple of months are familiar threads of racism. Although fans or law enforcement didn’t use physical violence in the incidents, that does not make the women’s experiences less harmful, stressful or scary.
Delaware State is looking for more than an apology
DSU’s bus driver on April 20, Tim Jones, is a Black man. In body cam video, Jones told an officer that he’d been driving for over 20 years and had never been pulled over before that day.
He was, as many Black people know they must be during any interaction with law enforcement no matter how transparently ridiculous, respectful and did as he was told. But at some point, after the officer told Jones he pulled the bus over because it had passed in the left lane – which, it turns out, isn’t illegal for buses in the state to do — more deputies showed up, a drug-sniffing K-9 was on the scene, and the officer who had been interacting with Jones nonchalantly theorized that a bus of young women trying to return to campus after representing their school on lacrosse fields might be “schoolgirls” with some marijuana.
With zero cause to do so, the group of deputies put on rubber gloves and started searching the women’s bags, rifling through their duffles and personal effects, even opening a graduation gift that had been given to Aniya Aiken by one of her family members at one of the games.
Liberty County Sheriff William Bowmanwho is Black, defended his deputies, telling reporters this week the stop was a “commercial interdiction detail.”
It was dehumanizing. Which was exactly the point.
After an hour, the officers let Jones pull off. Not a single citation was issued.
On Friday, Delaware State president Tony Allen said the school will file a civil rights complaint with the US Department of Justice.
“What we believe is that the search was conducted inappropriately and there was an implicit racial bias in the search,” Allen said, according to NBC 10 Philadelphia. “Even if they did not know who was on the bus at the time of the stop, there was certainly great certainty who was on that bus once they boarded it. …
“We believe the stop and search raises serious constitutional and civil rights issues.”
Over the past few days, Delaware State’s story has gone viral. Gwenna Gentle, who was a team captain this year and runs the program’s Instagram page, said the responses she has seen have been overwhelmingly supportive. Other lacrosse programs have offered help, people who have no connection to DSU outraged and hoping to uplift the young women.
School administrators have been unequivocal in their support, especially since Bowman gave a statement to media that completely contradicted what the officers’ body cameras show.
With school over for the year, the members of the team have returned to their respective hometowns, but in a way, they welcome the attention. They want the spotlight on what happened to them, for people to know that a team of accomplished young Black female student athletes on a bus driven by a Black man is not immune from what they see as American anti-Black racism.
Asked if the team wants an apology, Gwenna Gentle would like to see more.
“[An apology] is the bare minimum,” Gwenna Gentle said. “They’ve been asking for feedback, but feedback should come after an apology. I don’t think they realize how traumatizing it was for the 29 people on that bus.”
As any mother would be, Kate Gentle is angry and protective.
“They deserve better, they deserve justice,” she said. Coach Pam [Jenkins] said … the one thing I need the most is an apology, and I haven’t received that and I don’t understand. She has three kids herself. The season’s done, girls have graduated, Coach Pam needs a break.
“They are such an amazing group of young women. Maybe this will open people’s eyes.”