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The power of Juneteenth, according to Memphis 901 FC’s Akeem Ward

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 06/18/24, 3:00PM EDT


Going in-depth with the United Black Players of the USL executive board member about history, pathways and changing perceptions

Memphis 901 FC's Akeem Ward has served as a member of the executive board of United Black Players of the USL for the past two years in addition to his standout career on the field. | Photo courtesy Eric Glemser / Memphis 901 FC

Since making his debut in the USL Championship in 2019, Memphis 901 FC’s Akeem Ward has been one of the most consistent two-way fullbacks in the league. The 28-year-old recently passed 10,000 regular season minutes in the Championship’s regular season and has notched 130 appearances across the regular season and playoffs in five-plus seasons in the league.

He’s also become a well-known figure in each of the communities he’s played in, working off the field to help make soccer more accessible. Ward has served on the executive board of the United Black Players of the USL for the past two years, working on initiatives within the organization and in tandem with the league over that span.

As part of our celebration of Juneteenth, we sat down with the native of Brooklyn, New York, to talk about a wide range of topics from his pathway in the game, how the perception of Juneteenth has changed in recent years, and how the UBP has evolved since its launch four years ago.

Editor’s Note: Answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: When did you first become aware of Juneteenth? How old were you?

AKEEM WARD: I would say probably early teens. Like, it was like a thing that was talked about, but obviously wasn’t official, you know? I was aware of it in the late-to-early teens, but it wasn't really well-known by my peers. It was kind of a thing where, you know, you wanted to kind of educate them – here's what this is, this is why it is significant. I’ve known about it longer than it's been an official holiday.

Q: How did you come about finding out about it?

AW: My mom’s a teacher, so that in and of itself kind of makes it easier to pick up on history and stuff like that. She introduced it to me and related the significance of what it was, why it’s important. Then being around friends and having the same kind of upbringing and families all linked together like that helped. But mainly it was my mom who introduced it to me.

Q: Do you think the perception of Juneteenth as a holiday has changed since it became more broadly known outside the Black community?

AW: I do think it has changed, but I don’t think we’re at the point where I can say everyone understands the complete significance of it and understands that Juneteenth is not, I would say, Black history, but American history. I think once we understand that, we’ll be better off. But I think the recognition and understanding – especially since the things of 2020 amplified, raised and uplifted Black voices – I think there definitely is a change in what the perception of it was before to what it is now.

Akeem Ward's career has made numerous stops, including at Oakland Roots SC in the 2021 and 2022 USL Championship seasons. | Photo courtesy Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC

Q: What role do you think sport plays in honoring a socially impactful day like Juneteenth?

AW: I think sport plays a small role, but it plays a really important one because it allows athletes like myself and other members of my group to be able to use our voices and tell our stories around Juneteenth, around history, around the events that may not be well known or shown in the light. I think sports are a platform for us to be able to voice our opinions, as well as be able to showcase historical events that may have not been shown otherwise.

Q: Memphis is a crucial city when you talk about Black American history and especially the Civil Rights movement. What does that mean to someone like you and what does it mean to have made a career now with 901 FC?

AW: To me, it’s very powerful. It’s very interesting how my career has been, where I’ve gone and just how my journey has ended me up here. That I was also in Birmingham as well. That's a very important place for Black history. Oakland, as well. So, it seems like I’m going to these historical places. Obviously, I’m maybe a bit more comfortable or it feels like it works, and it fits better in that situation. But I think it’s very important that the places I go to also reflect who I am as a person, not just as a player. These weren’t by coincidence, so to speak. I think it’s played a big role in shaping me as a player and as a Black man in America.

Q: Have you seen issues about race in sport change since the events of 2020 in the wake of George Floyd's murder?

AW: I would say yes. I would say definitely yes. From 2020, like I mentioned before, it was not a good time in history for Americans as a whole, let alone George Floyd’s murder. So, I think that it has changed, for sure. But I think, once again, bringing the idea of Juneteenth back into it, is the idea of celebrating freedom and the idea of we must acknowledge the past to be better in the future. I think that’s what we're doing. We’re trying to do that, but I think still there are necessary steps that need to be taken to move forward. Growth is always a part and always changing in what's happening. And obviously, I think there's still room for improvement and growth in the U.S. as a whole society.

Q: When you see people realize there were these big chunks of their history and their knowledge of American history, especially from the past century, that have just been missing – and they realize that, and it maybe changes perceptions and changes minds – how does that resonate with you?

AW: I think it’s good, because it’s not only that they recognize this, it’s that they’re willing to acknowledge it. That’s a big part of it as well. Like, you have to have the self-awareness to understand that you missed something and be able to have a self-honesty as well to acknowledge that, OK, yes, it was missing, and this is what truly happened, to be able to take that information on board. Maybe there’s also a little bit of self-accountability in there like, hey, maybe I was a bit ignorant to not know what was going on, you know?

I think education is the key, though, and being able to educate as well as be able to have the difficult conversations and be able to take feedback. I think that’s where we’re going and going in a good direction. I think that’s what most people who have reacted positively to that information, have done it taking on board.

Memphis 901 FC captain Akeem Ward and San Antonio FC counterpart Mitchell Taintor greet each other before the club's contest earlier this season. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC

Q: You became a member of the United Black Players of the USL when it began in 2020. You’ve been part of Executive Board since 2022. How has the group evolved in that time?

AW: I think, at first, the group was established in a good moment. I think it was also, at first, more driven toward change right now and the need to drive change. I’m not saying we’re not there anymore, but I think we’ve nailed down where we can drive change in the disparities and the inequitable aspects of the game of soccer and just race, as a whole. So, it goes to the three pillars that we’re trying to build up. Community support, which just goes toward trying to do mini-pitches and free clinics, which we've been able to do. Then you go to the amateur level where we’re also not doing things only in soccer. We're helping with the Bellevue University scholarship partnership with the USL to be able to produce and provide scholarships to students who may not have that. And then on the professional side, creating our coaching scholarships, which is helping black coaches be able to have a bigger chance for more access to be able to coach at the professional level.

Q: In that vein, USL Forward was announced earlier this year, and we’ve seen coaches into that program. How important are the opportunities that can be gained for aspiring coaches from minority backgrounds to where the league is going in the big picture?

AW: I think it's very important to just, in general, have diversity, because it brings a different perspective. And that’s a big, big thing. It’s also a very broad word, perspective, because it’s different for everyone. I think that’s what makes America whatever it is: being able to have such different perspectives on different things. That’s what makes America so great, to be honest. It will make people want to come here and be able to achieve things here.

And so, I think being able to use USL Forward as a key tool for Black coaches to be able to get in there to learn, to be able to be placed into clubs, and other things that are being worked on behind the scenes as well, I think it’s important for the way the league is moving. I also think it sends a statement to others that, “Hey, we as a league, we at U.S. Soccer, we’re moving that in a positive direction.” I think that’s a positive message.

Q: What have you taken away from United Black Players and individual work with executives and staff at the league on potential initiatives?

AW: What I've learned is that we are making the right steps forward. We’re trying and we’re making little gains year by year. That’s all we can ask for it on the small micro aspect of it, but as well as on the macro on the bigger side of things. Things are being planned more than one year out now. We’re starting to talk to the right people before we’re putting statements out, so we’re beginning to have the tough conversations that we’ve never had in the past. I think we’re seeing good strides being made forward. Like I’ve always mentioned, there’s still room for growth. There’s still room to improve. But I have seen from members in the group to myself being willing to be uncomfortable, to grow, as well as executives in the league as well. So, I think that's a very positive thing, the direction we’re going, and I hope we just continue to do that.

Memphis 901 FC's Akeem Ward is currently in his sixth season in the USL Championship, and recently passed 10,000 regular season minutes in the league. | Photo courtesy Chris Hill / Memphis 901 FC

Q: You've always seemed inclined to get involved in the communities around your clubs. Where does that drive come from?

AW: I think it comes from my upbringing, I think comes from my parents, for sure. Both my parents immigrated here, my mom from England, my dad from Jamaica. So growing up I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and then traveled over to Virginia when I was young, around five years old. And my parents, my dad was working two jobs. And my mom was working a job in tutoring and doing other stuff, but they also they always still had time, somehow for me to be able to play and train and be able to play and play soccer.

Seeing that growing up and maybe not having the helping hand that I wish they had, that’s what drives me to be able to help with people of color. Even just people within the U.S. Soccer system, those underserved communities that may not be able to get the help they’re needing. So, I always try to do what I would want somebody to do for me, and so that’s why I try to do as much as I can.

Q: You obviously have your role with United Black Players. You also have a role with the Amarikwa Family Foundation as well. How would you describe your role there and what it gives you in addition to what it gives the foundation?

AW: The reason I joined foundations like these – like UBP and then the Amarikwa Family Foundation – is because of how they’re willing to help push U.S. Soccer forward, and soccer in general forward as well as being able to help underrepresented communities. At the Amarikwa Family Foundation, currently we have a ball-out grant where we’re able to provide soccer balls to underrepresented coaches and players. Donations come in, and we’re able to donate these balls to these communities into these teams. We just want to use this as a way to provide free access to soccer, because hopefully that’s where we’re going, that’s the way we're moving.

But being able to be a part of organizations like this is very important to be able to uplift the communities that aren't able to have access to things I believe they should have access to.

Q: What do you hope Black Players United and the USL can achieve in the coming years to open new doors for not just players and coaches, but also those who are aiming to pursue a path as a staff member or an executive within the league?

AW: First, I hope there are more partnerships with the league and the UBP and potentially a third party where we’re able to open new pathways. What is needed before you can become a musician is education. I’d love to be CEO, but I have no idea how to be a CEO, so I need to be educated, or maybe be around someone who is a CEO. Being able to provide access to coaches who do want to be more than just a coach, who maybe wants to be a General Manager or a Chief Marketing Officer, I think being able to have access to people like that would be very beneficial in the future.

Like I mentioned in the past, the league is working on and we’re working on things like that, and there’s a lot of synergy happening now. I think there’s going to be a lot of potential partnerships in the future where we’re able to achieve a lot of things by kind of having the same goal and I think it starts with education first and then being able to have the plan. Then, eventually, you’ll be able to execute and just continue to grow the game and provide more opportunities.

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