Recently we took a look back at black pioneers of Hawkeye football. No other football program in the Big Ten – or in Division I-A football – can claim such an extensive a list of early African-American standouts. Still, every Big Ten football program has one or more racial trailblazers worthy of being remembered.
Unfortunately, a comprehensive list of African-Americans in Big Ten football from the pre-World War II era has never been compiled. It’s only recently that schools have seen fit to list and commemorate these pioneers. I wasn’t able to find a list of African-American football standouts for other Big Ten schools, but here are a few of the African-American trailblazers of Big Ten football.
African-Americans in Big Ten Football – Michigan
We start with the University of Michigan, because they were the first Big Ten school to feature an African-American football player (this is different from being the first African-American Big Ten football player, which I’ll explain later). George Jewett has the honor of being the first African-American to play football for a Big Ten school, suiting up for the Wolverines in 1890 and 1892. He narrowly missed being the first black college football player in 1890, following William Henry Lewis and William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson; these two players suited up for Amherst in 1889.
Jewett was a terrific player, starting at fullback for the Wolverines in 1890 and at halfback in 1892. He was regarded as one of the greatest players of his era and was called “the Afro-American phenomenon of the University of Michigan.” George Jewett would later suit up for Northwestern…more on that later.
Despite Jewett’s accomplishments, Michigan would only feature four African-American football players prior to World War II. It would be over forty years after Jewett left campus before another African-American earned a letter for Michigan’s football team, but that player would be one worth remembering. End Willis Ward starred for Michigan football from 1932 through 1934, narrowly finishing second as a junior in the 1933 Big Ten MVP race. As a senior, he was benched for a game against Georgia Tech, a controversial decision that many Michigan supporters objected to at the time. One of those who protested Ward’s benching was his teammate, future president Gerald Ford. It’s a bit unfortunate that many fans only remember Willis Ward for that incident, because he was by all accounts a fantastic athlete.
African-Americans in Big Ten Football – Northwestern
George Jewett has the rare distinction of being the first African-American football player at two Big Ten schools. Jewett graduated from Michigan in 1893 and wanted to attend medical school, but he met some resistance from the dean of medicine there at the time and left for Northwestern. While earning his medical degree at Northwestern, Jewett lettered for the Wildcat football team in 1893 and 1894.
Four years later, Alton Washington would become the second African-American football player at Northwestern…and the first known black Big Ten player. While several players at Big Ten schools predated Washington’s 1898 appearance on Northwestern’s team, the Big Ten didn’t exist then. The Western Conference (now known as the Big Ten) wasn’t formed until 1896; Northwestern, a charter member of the league, had the conference’s first black player when Washington played for them in 1898. Alton Washington would compete for Northwestern from 1898-1901, and Joe Lattimore would join Washington for the 1900 season to give Northwestern the conference’s first pair of black teammates. It’s unclear if either of these players earned a letter playing football for the Wildcats.
Northwestern had a fairly robust history of African-American participation on their teams in the early era of college football. Fritz Pollard actually tried out for the Northwestern football team in 1912, but he didn’t qualify academically and later wound up at Brown. Still, in 1927 and 1928, Pollard served as a backfield coach for the Wildcats, becoming the first known African-American assistant coach in the Big Ten. Two other notable African-American pioneers of Northwestern football include James Turner, one of the first 13 black players in the NFL, from 1918 to 1920 and Bernie Jefferson, who helped the Wildcats to a Big Ten title and later flew with the Tuskegee Airmen, from 1936 to 1938.
African-Americans in Big Ten Football – Minnesota
Bobby Marshall starred for the Minnesota football team from 1904 through 1906. He earned two All-American selections, just the second African-American to do so. He is often erroneously called the first African-American Big Ten football player (he was preceded by Washington and Lattimore), but he was the first known African-American to letter for a Big Ten football team. Along with Fritz Pollard, he was the first African-American to play in the NFL in 1920.
Minnesota’s second black football player did not appear on the team until the 1930s, but that decade had a few highlights for black Gopher athletes. Ellsworth Harpole lettered for the Gophers from 1931 through 1933. Dwight Reed played for two Big Ten championship teams in 1935 and 1937, but he’s probably best known for being benched for a game against Tulane and watching the contest from the press box. Horace Bell was an excellent player for the Gophers as well from 1936-1938.
Of course, Minnesota had a few unfortunate racial incidents during this era as well, particularly against Jack Trice in 1923 and Ozzie Simmons in 1934. But they were also one of the leaders in opportunities for African-Americans in the 1950s, culminating with Sandy Stephens being recognized as one of college football’s first great black quarterbacks in 1960.
African-Americans in Big Ten Football – Ohio State
Ohio State joined the Big Ten in 1912, but they had at least two African-American Buckeye football players before that. Fred Patterson earned three letters for the Ohio State football team from 1891 through 1893, just the second African-American to play for a Big Ten school (after Michigan’s George Jewett). Little is known about him other than the fact that he left Ohio State without a degree after not being satisfied with conditions in Columbus. A decade later, Arthur Carr played a season for the Buckeyes in 1904, although he did not receive a letter.
William Bell is often erroneously labeled as the first African-American Ohio State football player, but he was a terrific lineman for the Buckeyes from 1929-1931. There was considerable controversy when he was benched for two games, as a junior against Navy in Baltimore and as a senior against Vanderbilt. He sat out both games to avoid offending the southern sensibilities of the opponents. Bell went on to have an outstanding career in the Air Force, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Of course, you can’t talk about great African-American football stars at Ohio State without mentioning Bill Willis, the two-time All-American tackle in 1943 and 1944. Willis went on to help break the color barrier in pro football, signing with the AAFC’s Cleveland Browns in 1946 and going on to a Hall of Fame career. Jim Parker, one of the greatest linemen in football history who starred for the Buckeyes from 1954-1956, deserves a mention as well.
African-Americans in Big Ten Football – Michigan State
Michigan State’s first African-American football player was Gideon Smith; Smith played for Michigan Agriculture College (as it was then known) from 1913-1915. He had a solid career for the Spartans and then became the first known black lineman to play professional football, participating in one game in 1915. Smith later went on to coach football for two decades at Hampton University, stepping down as one of the greatest coaches in that school’s history.
James McCrary and Albert Baker were standouts on the Michigan State football team in the mid-1930s. Both men played for the Spartans in 1934, and both were left behind when Michigan State squared off in Texas with the Texas A&M Aggies. McCrary, in particular, appeared to have a promising football future ahead of him when his athletic career was cut short by injury.
The Spartans then only had one black player for a decade until halfback Horace Smith arrived in the program in 1946. But the real change for Michigan State would come with the arrival of Coach Biggie Munn. Michigan State joined Big Ten football in 1953, and Munn (and his successor, Duffy Daugherty) joined Iowa’s Forest Evashevski and Minnesota’s Murray Warmath as leaders in stockpiling the conference with African-American players throughout that decade.
African-Americans in Big Ten Football – Wisconsin
The University of Wisconsin doesn’t have a particularly notable history of African-American athletes that would differentiate them from many other schools on this list. However, Wisconsin might have better documentation of African-American athletes at their school than any other football program in the Big Ten.
In 1899, Julian V. Ware tried out for the varsity football team but left school without appearing in a game. Nineteen years later, Madison-native Leo Vinton Butts became the first African-American to play varsity football for the Badgers, when he suited up for the team during the war year of 1918.
William Exum, who starred for the Badger track team, was the next known African-American to make Wisconsin’s varsity football squad in 1929. After taking several years off from school, Exum also played with Badger football team in 1934. However, we have no documentation that Exum ever appeared in a game for the Badgers, as he was plagued by academic troubles and a nagging ankle injury.
Wisconsin has also identified a couple African-American players who contributed to their freshmen football team, including W. Cecil Bratton in 1923 and Lester Brownlee in 1937. But it wasn’t until 1948 that an African-American earned regular playing time for the Wisconsin varsity football squad, when running back Calvin Vernon lettered for the Badgers. Fellow running back Bob Teague lettered for the Wisconsin football team one year later, and in 1950, Ed Withers became the first African-American Badger football player to earn All-American honors.
African-Americans in Big Ten Football – Indiana
The first African-American Hoosier athlete was Preston Eagleson, who played football from 1893-1895. Eagleson was a remarkable man, becoming the first African-American to earn a master’s degree from Indiana University in 1906.
The second (and third) African-American letterwinners in Hoosier football did not appear until 1931-1933, when Fitzhugh Lyons and Jesse Babb made the varsity squad. Lyons was a legitimate standout, starring against the University of Chicago in 1931 and 1932 despite missing several games due to injury. He also made headlines in 1932 when he was benched for a game against Mississippi State to avoid offending the southern school. Babb was a reserve halfback, but he did make his presence felt by scoring a touchdown in 1931 in a game against Northwestern.
The most notable African-American Hoosier player, though, was George Taliaferro, who starred for Indiana football from 1945-1948. Taliaferro was a College Football Hall of Fame player for the Hoosiers, making second team All-American in 1945 and 1947 and leading the Hoosiers in both punting and passing during his career. Taliaferro then made history by being the first African-American ever drafted by an NFL team as a 13th round pick of the Chicago Bears in 1949. Taliaferro declined the Bears’ offer, opting to play instead in the rival AAFC for the Los Angeles Dons. After one year with Los Angeles, he moved to the NFL, playing six seasons and making three Pro Bowls during his NFL career.
African-Americans in Big Ten Football – Illinois and Purdue
Of what I’ll call the “classic ten” Big Ten schools, Illinois and Purdue took the longest to integrate. The first known African-American Illinois football player didn’t arrive until 1944, but what a player he was. Claude “Buddy” Young played one spectacular season for Illinois in 1944 before spending a year in the military during World War II. After the war, Young returned to Illinois and picked up right where he left off, leading the Illini to the 1947 Rose Bowl and becoming the first African-American to score a touchdown in the Rose Bowl game in Illinois’ 45-14 victory.
Buddy Young then went on to have a remarkable ten-year playing career in pro football as one of the first African-Americans to reintegrate the league after World War II. After his playing career, he continued to break down barriers in the NFL, taking a job as the first African-American executive with the NFL.
Illinois began to load up on African-American football players in the 1950s. Maybe the most notable was J.C. Caroline, who led the nation in rushing as a sophomore in 1953. Caroline went on to have a ten-year career with the Chicago Bears and was later elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.
Of all the original Big Ten schools, Purdue is the one on which I can find the least information regarding the school’s black football pioneers. That’s not terribly surprising, since southern Indiana wasn’t a region terribly receptive toward African-Americans. The only information I could find on Purdue football’s history with African-Americans was that it took a student protest in 1947 to convince the school to integrate the team. That would make Purdue the last original Big Ten school to integrate, and I wasn’t able to find any information on – or even the names of – the men who had the unenviable task of actually integrating the squad. Then again, given the fact that there were certainly many other African-Americans in Big Ten football whose trailblazing contributions aren’t chronicled here, maybe that’s an appropriate way to round out this look at the original members of the Big Ten.
African-Americans in Big Ten Football – Nebraska
Now let’s take a look at the Big Ten newbies. We’ll start with Nebraska, a school that saw a real pioneering start with respect to African-Americans come to an abrupt halt.
The first black player to suit up for Nebraska athletics was George Flippin. Flippin played for the Nebraska football team from 1891-1894, and Flippin was a true star. I mentioned this in a previous post, but the University of Missouri forfeited a conference game against Nebraska in 1892 rather than play against Flippin. He was so admired by his Nebraska teammates that they voted him as the team’s captain in 1894, which would have made him the first known black captain of any major college football team. The wonderful gesture made by the Nebraska football team of 1894 was trumped by the team’s coach, Frank Crawford, who overruled Flippin’s election as captain. Crawford rejected the vote, stating the Flippin didn’t have the intelligence to be the team’s captain.
Flippin was followed at Nebraska by William N. Johnson in 1900, Robert Taylor in 1905, and Clint Ross in 1913. Unfortunately for aspiring black Nebraska football players, the Cornhuskers joined the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association. With schools like Oklahoma and Missouri in the league, the MVIAA frowned upon the presence of African-American athletes. As a result, Nebraska endured a forty-year drought of African-American football players. After Ross in 1913, another black player wouldn’t appear on the Nebraska football squad until Charlie Bryan and Jon McWilliams joined the team in 1953.
On a related note, Iowa State had a similar relationship with African-Americans. Because of the enduring story of Jack Trice at Iowa State in 1923, many fans mistakenly believe that Iowa State had a large number of pioneering black players. On the contrary, only one African-American athlete – Holloway Smith in 1926 and 1927 – would play for the Cyclone football team until Harold Potts and Henry Philmon in 1952.
One last Nebraska African-American trailblazer worth mentioning is Bill “Thunder” Thornton, who lettered from 1960-1962. As a linebacker and halfback, Thornton developed into a star and finally received the accolades Flippin was denied. Thornton was voted as Nebraska’s team captain in 1962 and was allowed the accept the honor as the Cornhuskers’ first African-American captain.
African-Americans in Big Ten Football – Penn State, Maryland, and Rutgers
It took Penn State a surprisingly long time to integrate their football team; the first African-American starter and letterwinner for the Penn State football team was Wally Triplett in 1945. Triplett stood out for the Lions from 1945-1948 and then made pro football history. When George Taliaferro turned down the Bears’ offer to join the NFL in 1949, Triplett became the first African-American draftee to actually play in the NFL that same year. Triplett made history by going from the Nittany Lions to the Detroit Lions, embarking on a four-year NFL career.
As long as it took Penn State to integrate, it took Maryland even longer. Bear in mind that Maryland had a history in the ACC with distinctly southern schools. With that in mind, the Terrapins didn’t integrate their football team until 1963! That year, Darryl Hill became the first black football player in ACC history, and he endured a remarkable amount of prejudice as he became the first black player to travel to many segregated southern campuses. Hill received vicious treatment and even death threats before a game against the University of South Carolina, but he overcame all of it to go down as one of the most talented players in Maryland football history.
Finally, Rutgers actually had an African-American standout much sooner than Penn State or Maryland, a man who won’t be soon forgotten. Paul Robeson was an All-American at Rutgers in 1918, just the fifth black player in college football history to earn All-American honors. He then went on to become one of the first 13 African-Americans to play in the NFL. Still, Robeson is probably best known as a singer, entertainer, and political activist who championed and advanced the cause of civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s.
These are just a few of the men who helped paved the way on the gridiron for others to follow. Today, everyone has an opportunity to show what they can do on the football field, regardless of skin color. These pioneers of Big Ten football weren’t afforded that same luxury, but despite that, they overcame the widespread discrimination of their environment to achieve amazing things.
Tagged with: African-Americans in Big Ten football • Albert Baker • Alton Washington • Arthur Carr • Bernie Jefferson • Biggie Munn • Bill "Thunder" Thornton • Bill Willis • Bob Teague • Bobby Marshall • Buddy Young • Calvin Vernon • Charlie Bryan • Clint Ross • Darryl Hill • Duffy Daugherty • Dwight Reed • Ed Withers • Ellsworth Harpole • Fitzhugh Lyons • Forest Evashevski • Frank Crawford • Fred Patterson • Fritz Pollard • George Flippin • George Jewett • George Taliaferro • Gerald Ford • Gideon "Charlie" Smith • Harold Potts • Henry Philmon • Holloway Smith • Horace Bell • Horace Smith • J.C. Caroline • Jack Trice • James McCrary • James Turner • Jesse Babb • Jim Parker • Joe Lattimore • Jon McWilliams • Julian Ware • Lester Brownlee • Murray Warmath • Ozzie Simmons • Paul Robeson • Preston Eagleson • Robert Taylor • Sandy Stephens • W. Cecil Bratton • Wally Triplett • William Bell • William Exum • William Henry Lewis • William N. Johnson • William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson • Willis Ward
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