The Courage to Change, Pt.2

By By Mike Hudson
Updated: February 8, 2012

Part Two

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.

02:15:12 Michael Hudson, a reporter with the Roanoke (Va) Times, can be reached at mikeh@roanoke.com.