The Courage to Change, Pt.1

By By Mike Hudson
Updated: February 8, 2012

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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.