Restoring The Roar (Part Two)

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: August 19, 2008

PHILADELPHIA — In the first two decades of HBCU football there were sporadic games, for example in 1912, Lincoln only played three football games against Hampton, a club team, and Howard.The small amount of games was to a lack of funding and the incumbency stage of scheduling in intercollegiate sports.

So the spotlight burned brightest on yearly rivalry games called “Classics” (ex. Lincoln-Howard and Grambling State-Southern).It didn’t matter the lack of games since the precious few hours that the Lincoln students got to spend watching and playing football took them away from the pressures of being a student and the added stress from an outside segregated world.

As a Lincoln alum recently described to me, “The Lincoln study body was pretty isolated on campus back then, so the weekends with football games were an event”.He added, “Students planned their entire week around the social aspects of the games”.

The games featured the showmanship and kinetic crowds that have become commonplace throughout HBCU football history.The backbone of the raucous Lincoln fan base and the most loyal Orange and Blue supporters were a rousing bunch of students called “The Rabble”.

The Rabble was part band, part social club, part chanters, and part dance group with their main mission of leading Lincoln’s student body in spirit on game day.They would lustily cheer for the Lincoln Lions while razing the other teams with chants like A-well-a-take-um-a Joe (crapshooters’ lullaby) and they may have allegedly lit an occasional firecracker during a game or two.

Their tradition would continue to be seen throughout Lincoln’s football history.

The “outside world” of major white college football may have had traditional rivalries like Harvard-Yale, Ohio State-Michigan, and Notre Dame-Army.But to most African American football fans those contests had nothing on the annual Thanksgiving Day clash between the mighty men of Lincoln (Pa.) and their rival school Howard University.After their initial meeting in 1894, the annual Lincoln-Howard Thanksgiving game quickly became an autumn ritual.

The two teams locked horns head-to-head 53 times over a 66-year period (the first game was the aforementioned 1894 contest followed by another game in 1895 with the annual series beginning in 1904 until 1960 with an occasional missed game).As of 1960 when Lincoln (Pa.) last played the rivalry was almost deadlocked at Howard 24, Lincoln 23, and six ties.

The closest and most remembered contests occurred in 1922 (Lincoln 13, Howard 12), 1923 (Lincoln 6, Howard 6 played in Philadelphia), 1950 (Lincoln 21, Howard 20 played in Washington DC) and 1952 (Lincoln 19, Howard 19 played in Washington DC).

The annual Howard-Lincoln homecoming football game also was an “institution” every November for spectators and was considered the crown jewel of northern African American culture — the 1927 game flyer even said of the Lincoln-Howard classic, “If you are progressive, you’ll be there”.The “big game” was so gigantic that entire African American communities in the Mid-Atlantic region practically shutdown for one week a year just for the event.

In it’s heyday (20’s, 30’s, and 40’s) the Lincoln-Howard Classic brought people from far and wide (some folks even came from California just for the game) by bus, car, plane, and special event trains called “Flyers” that had distinct heritage routes.

It didn’t matter if you were an alum or subway alumni (term created for non-college attendees that still heartily rooted for a particular school), as everyone wanted yearly bragging rights for the “homecoming” rivalry game in places like black owned businesses, churches, alumni/fraternity/sorority functions, social clubs, watering holes, barbershops, beauty salons, public transportation, and any other setting where African Americans congregated.

The Lincoln-Howard games were routinely played before enormous crowds of 20,000 or more in venerable venues like Shibe Park in Philadelphia, Griffith Stadium in Washington DC, the Atlantic City Convention Hall, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field also in Philadelphia.

The game was just a small part of the social “family reunion” type atmosphere surrounding the event as there were a week’s worth of activities including parades, pageants, dances, fraternity/sorority functions, step shows, dances, concerts, and much more.

The Lincoln-Howard Classics were the place to be seen as everyone brought out their “sharp as a tack” duds including furs, hats, suits, and stylish dresses.Star watching for celebrities in the crowd was also always part of the fanfare of the game as Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Joe Louis, and many other African American dignitaries could be spotted in the best seats.

Along with the large crowds of well dressed spectators in modern for the times baseball cathedrals, the Lincoln-Howard Classics were also groundbreaking in terms of media coverage.The games were broadcasted on Washington D.C.- based African American station WOOK-AM and black newspapers (Chicago Defender, New York Amsterdam News, Pittsburgh Courier, Philadelphia Tribune, and others) all covered the event from the pressbox.

No matter if you attended the game in person, listened to it on the radio, or read about the action in the next day’s newspaper, it was greatly understood that the Lincoln-Howard Classic was more than a game.The overall spirit of the Lincoln-Howard Classic was that yearly it brought a much-needed “kinship” and temporary escape for blacks from their tenuous standing in everyday society.

The brotherhood of the event was never more evident than the annual tradition of representatives from the two schools attending each other’s football banquet to present the Lincoln-Howard Classic trophy and hand out most valuable player awards.Here’s hoping that the return of the Lincoln Lions football team in 2008 will also help in revitalizing the Lincoln-Howard Classic in the near future.

NEXT: More on Lincoln’s historic past and upcoming future (Part Three).