The Courage to Change

By Michael Hudson
Updated: October 13, 2005

Chester Pierce

Part One

Read Part Two

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA— CONFEDERATE BATTLE flags waved in the clear autumn air that Saturday afternoon in 1947 as Harvard’s football squad invaded the South for the first time in history. Inside Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va., University of Virginia fans were determined to let the Harvard players know exactly where they were. Rebel flags were in such demand that one Main Street shopkeeper sold out more than a week before the game.

In the locker room before game time, Harvard coach Dick Harlow took Chester Pierce aside. “You’re going on the field with me,” Harlow said, falling in protectively beside his 6-foot-4, 230-pound senior tackle. As they walked, they heard cheers from perhaps 200 black spectators who lined up along a cyclone fence near the locker room exit. But after the team ventured onto the field, Harvard players recalled, catcalls of “damn Yankee” and other insults showered down on them from the white section of the home team’s grandstands. But just by stepping onto the playing field of Scott Stadium, Chester Pierce had made history.

On Oct. 11, 1947, Pierce became the first black collegian to perform against whites on a Southern college’s playing field. Despite the harsh words that came from the stands – “They were so anti-black it was frightful,” one Harvard player recalled – the game came off without much fuss. Virginia’s newspapers downplayed Pierce’s ground breaking step, mentioning it in passing, if they mentioned it at all. And on the field, both Harvard and Virginia players recall, there were no ugly incidents.

UVa’s players treated Pierce just like they treated the rest of the Harvard athletes. They rolled over and around him on the way to a resounding Virginia victory. “Maybe I should have stayed home,” Pierce, a retired Harvard Medical School professor, joked a few years ago. “We got trounced, 47-0.” Members of that UVa team say they understood that the game was an unusual event, but they didn’t realize at the time just how historic it was. They recall it as a just another game – save for the fact that it signaled to the world that UVa could compete with any team in the nation.

Stuart Barbour, a burly tackle from Roanoke’s Jefferson High who returned home after finishing UVa, says any excitement had to do with playing with Harvard, which in that era still retained an aura of athletic prestige. As for Pierce’s presence on the field, Barbour says, “I don’t remember it being any big deal, one way or the other. I do remember talking to the janitor at my fraternity. He thought it was great.”

But it was a momentous event, considering the history of football in the South. Since early in the century, match-ups between lily-white Southern teams and integrated Northern teams had been tests of the South’s Jim Crow system of segregation – and Northern colleges’ willingness to stand by their professed commitment to racial equality.

In the 1920s, as more blacks began appearing on Northern teams, an effective “gentlemen’s agreement” had been forged. Northern colleges assented to hold black athletes out of all games with Southern schools. Sometimes, schools went to strange lengths to honor this bargain. In 1934, Georgia Tech agreed to bench its star end, Hoot Gibson, if Michigan would bench one of its top players – who happened to be black – for a game in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Upset at not being able to use some of their better players, some Northern schools began to challenge the gentlemen’s agreement. Charles H. Martin, a University of Texas at El Paso historian who is writing a book on integration in college sports, says some Southern schools began making exceptions while playing in the North because they were worried about losing the exposure and money that came with intersectional contests.

The same year as the Georgia Tech-Michigan incident, the University of North Carolina played in New York against an integrated NYU team. But the taboo against blacks playing against whites in the South remained firm. Boston College’s black halfback, Lou Montgomery, was left at home for the 1940 Cotton Bowl contest against Clemson. He watched the 1941 Sugar Bowl game against Tennessee from the press box.

Martin says segregationists worried that any retreat on the issue would eventually open the doors to complete integration. The logic was, “If you play against them in the North, why not play against them at home? If you can play against them at home, why not have one on your own team?”

But times were changing. In the summer of ’47, major league baseball’s new player, Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson, was battering down the color line. Southern college football teams had fielded black players in the North. The stage had been set. Now, integrated college football was about to head south and cross the Mason-Dixon color line.


Michael Hudson, a reporter with the Roanoke (Va) Times, can be reached at Part Two

Read Part One

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA— Before the school year began in 1947, a few of the Harvard football players wrote UVa to put the Cavaliers on notice that Harvard intended to bring Negro tackle Chester Pierce to Charlottesville and play him. Lockwood Frizzell, a Charlottesville native and UVa’s captain, talked with some of his teammates and then wrote back with an answer. Bring him on. Frizzell says that response wasn’t so surprising when you consider that most of UVa’s top players weren’t Southerners. They hailed from places like California, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. “Only three of our 11 starters were from the South,” Frizzell recalls. “If we had had 50 percent of the team from Alabama or something like that, we might have had more trouble.”

In addition, three-fifths of the team’s players were World War II veterans. They were older and had been exposed to more of the world than the average collegian. Frizzell himself had served alongside Hispanics in the Pacific, a new experience for a young man from Virginia. And while blacks still served in segregated units, Frizzell and other white soldiers were aware that blacks had fought and died in the struggle for democracy abroad.

In September, three weeks before the game, the issue hit the press and controversy erupted. Harvard players recall that UVa athletic officials called and tried to persuade Harvard’s athletic director to leave Pierce behind. After the issue heated up publicly, Frizzell says, he brought it up at a team meeting and “as I recall, there were a couple guys who murmured.” But when they saw how everybody else felt, he says, they quieted down. “So it was a unanimous thing. I think most people just said, ‘It’s a football game. This man is black. What difference does it make?'”

Harvard arrived the day before the game. Virginia officials had arranged to put the team up in a hotel – with the exception of Pierce. Pierce, a native of Glen Cove, N.Y., recalled that UVa wanted to put him up in “separate-but-equal” accommodations – “a whole mansion” behind the hotel “so nobody could say I didn’t have a nice play to stay.” Harvard coach Harlow crossed the hosts up and put his top 22 players, Pierce included, together in the mansion. “I thought that was a great act of courage,” Pierce recalled. Harlow also refused the host’s request that Pierce enter the team’s dining room through a back door.

But the next day, there were no problems out on the playing field. “I don’t recall a hint of anything racial on the field at Virginia,” Pierce told Harvard Football News almost a half century later. “I remember nothing different in that game from any other I played in at Harvard.”

Both teams came in with identical 2-0 records, but Virginia clearly outclassed Harvard. The Cavaliers scored early and often. The game films shows Pierce slamming into UVa opponents without incident, looking a bit tentative on some plays, trailing the action. On many, he was untouched, as Cavalier ball carriers blew through big holes in the Harvard line. The next morning’s Roanoke Times didn’t give headlines to the history-making nature of the game. Its story did, however, note, “Chester Pierce, Harvard’s big Negro tackle, played outstanding ball for about 50 minutes of the game and received a big hand from the Virginia stands as he left the field in the fourth quarter.”

Pierce was elected a marshal by the Harvard Class of ’48 and became an internationally known psychiatrist. A mountain in Antarctica – Pierce Peak -was named after him in recognition of a decade’s worth of biomedical research he did around the South Pole. A soft-spoken man, he has talked publicly about the UVa game only once, in a 1991 interview for Harvard Football News with George Sullivan, a water boy on the ’47 squad. Since then, he’s declined interviews on the subject. “The game happened a long time ago, and it’s not in my temperament to keep talking about it,” he told a columnist for the Daily Progress in Charlottesville.

The first integrated Cotton Bowl was held in Dallas less than two months after the Harvard-Virginia game. On New Year’s Day 1948, Southern Methodist went head-to-head with a Penn State team that included two black players. But other Southern colleges didn’t necessarily run to imitate Virginia’s example of racial tolerance, Martin says. The barriers came down slowly, sometimes under the force of law.

In 1963, Wake Forest and Maryland became the first Atlantic Coast Conference schools to integrate their football teams. Virginia waited eight more years before putting its first black scholarship players on the field – making it the last ACC school, along with South Carolina, to integrate its varsity. It wasn’t until after it began full-scale recruiting of black athletes that UVa returned to the national football prominence it had gained in the years after World War II.

Today, more than half of the university’s football players are African American.

Michael Hudson, a reporter with the Roanoke (Va) Times, can be reached at