Robeson’s Benching Was a ‘Wound That Never Healed’

By Mike Hudson
Updated: October 22, 2004

October 14, 1916: Washington and Lee University vs. Rutgers

Paul Robeson

ROANOKE, VIRGINIA — PAUL ROBESON WAS the Michael Jordan of his era — a dominant athlete who captured the imagination of sports fans around the start of World War I.

Robeson was 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, a giant in that era. He was a four-sport star at Rutgers College and perhaps the best football player in America in 1917 and 1918, known for graceful pass-catching and powerful body blocks that would bowl over two or three opponents at a time.

“He is everything and everywhere,” one sportswriter rhapsodized. Robeson stood out for another reason: He was black — one of the first African-American athletes to star for a predominately white college in the United States.

The color of his skin became a painful issue in October 1916 when he was an18-year-old sophomore. Rutgers was celebrating its 150th anniversary and had invited a Virginia team — Washington and Lee University — for a game. The Roanoke Evening News said W&L was heading to New Brunswick, N.J., in an “attempt to establish itself as the best Southern eleven that will play in the East this fall.”

But W&L’s Generals were not eager to play against the best team Rutgers could put on the field. They said they would not play if Robeson played. Simply put, they refused to play against a black man.

Like W&L, Rutgers wanted to be a national power. It gave in to the Southerners’ demand. Robeson sat out the game — a 13-13 tie – on the bench with the substitutes.

Lloyd L. Brown, a longtime Robeson friend and author of a biography, “The Young Paul Robeson,” says the benching was “a wound that never healed” for the talented athlete.

Robeson went on to become an All-American football player, a Phi Beta Kappa scholar and Rutgers’ valedictorian upon his graduation in 1919. He would become an international film, stage and singing star — and a civil rights activist who fought for the integration of major-league baseball — before falling prey to McCarthy-era witch hunters who labeled him a subversive.

Brown says Robeson, who died in 1976, didn’t talk much in later years about the W&L game. It hurt too deeply.

Before the game, some of Robeson’s teammates did complain about the decision by Rutgers’ president. But another Robeson biographer, Martin Duberman, writes that coach George Sanford gathered them outside the school chapel and explained it was a matter of “courtesy” to grant the request from the visiting team’s coach. Sanford also said he feared the W&L boys would gang up on Robeson and hurt him.

Robeson thought about switching to another college. But he stuck with Rutgers, and the next time the issue came up, his coach refused to give in to the segregationists.

A month after the W&L game, West Virginia University’s coach told Sanford “we’ve got a lot of Southern boys on this team, and they don’t want to play against your man Robeson.” Sanford would not bend: “If they don’t like it,” he said, “let them go home.”

“When we lined up for the first play,” Robeson recalled later, “the man playing opposite me leaned forward and said: `Don’t you dare touch me, you black dog, or I’ll cut your heart out.”’ When the play started Robeson dove in “and nearly busted him in two.” As they lay tangled in the pile, Robeson said: “I touched you that time. How do you like it?”

WVU had been favored to win, but Robeson made a game-saving tackle on the two-yard line as time wound down. Rutgers held the Mountaineers to a 0-0 tie.

Afterward, Robeson recalled, the West Virginians lined up and shook his hand. WVU’s coach was quoted as saying : “Guts! He had nothing else but! Why that colored boy’s legs were so gashed and bruised that his skin peeled off when he removed his stockings.”

*** Over the next two seasons, Robeson’s play would be lauded by the national press. One columnist called him “the fastest thinking football player I’ve ever seen.” He became a hero to black Americans during the years before Joe Louis won the heavyweight boxing title and Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball. Brown recalls, growing up as a child in Minnesota in the 1920s, how proudly people would speak the name of “Robeson of Rutgers.”

Robeson’s college career ended with one more showdown over segregation. A post-season game was proposed between Rutgers and Georgia Tech, two of the best teams in the nation.

But it never happened, because Sanford refused to give in to Georgia Tech’s demands that he bench Robeson. A New Jersey sportswriter taunted the Southerners, listing Robeson’s athletic and academic accomplishments and saying that if they ever played Rutgers, “they would be lined up against a man far superior to them.”

*** Washington and Lee continued its policy of racial exclusion for decades. On October 6, 1923, W&L’s team journeyed to Pennsylvania to play Washington and Jefferson College. When they arrived, they demanded the home team bench its star backfield player, Charles West, who was black.

Washington and Jefferson refused, and W&L’s team packed up and went home.

Most of W&L’s student body were waiting eagerly at Lexington’s Lyric Theatre that afternoon for reports of the game. They received this telegram: “No game. W. and J. refuses to play without West. W. and L. refuses to play with.”

In response to Northern critics of the episode, W&L President Henry Louis Smith wrote a letter explicating the racist ideology motivating the university — an institution of higher learning that prided itself on producing “gentlemen.” The South, Smith wrote, was “swarming with Negroes.” All sensible Southerners, he said, were against “amalgamation” of the races.

If it were allowed, “we would become a land of half-breeds like Santo Domingo, Cuba, and Haiti. No farmer with a hundred registered Jerseys on which his living depends could be more determined to avoid amalgamation with hopeless half-wild scrub stock than the Anglo-Saxon communities of the South.”

*** In later years, Paul Robeson told his friend Brown he regretted not making a stand that October day in 1916 when W&L demanded his benching. But Brown told him: “I think you did the right thing. You were out to prove something — for the whole race.”

When Robeson tried out for the Rutgers team as a freshman, Rutgers’ first-stringers had tried to make him quit. They piled on, breaking his nose and bruising and bloodying him so badly he spent 10 days in bed recuperating.

He didn’t quit. Like Jackie Robinson three decades later, Brown says, Robeson took all the abuse the bigots could dish out and showed he was better than they were. Robeson had to do it again when the W&L game came around, Brown says, quietly sitting out to show he could endure the cruelest of blows.

“This was,” Brown says, “a beating of a different kind.”

This story originally appeared in The Roanoke Times in October 1997.