Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Racial Conflict on the Episcopal Gridiron: Kenyon, Sewanee, and the Canceled Game

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Racial Conflict on the Episcopal Gridiron: Kenyon, Sewanee, and the Canceled Game

Article excerpt

On 7 November 1949, President Gordon Chalmers of Kenyon College sent a telegraph to the University of the South at Sewanee. He informed them that he was canceling their football game only five days before the teams were to play. His reason: Sewanee's alleged reluctance to play a desegregated Kenyon team, or more precisely, the athletic director's unwillingness to stay for a post-game dinner. As a result of Sewanee's actions, Chalmers said, he feared an embarrassing episode.

Immediately the news of the canceled contest was noted in the sports pages of major newspapers and later in editorials that ran in Episcopal publications. The implication that the small Episcopal college in Tennessee was reluctant to play against a co-denominational institution in Gambier, Ohio because the latter had two African-Americans on their team immediately threw the ball into the lap of incoming vice-chancellor Boylston Green of Sewanee. In the controversy that followed, the causes of the incident became obscured, and because the two colleges were mere blips on the gridiron screen, the episode was soon overshadowed and largely forgotten. Yet the attitudes provide an insight into the changing racial atmosphere of postwar America and tensions that would create divisions in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the 1950s and 1960s.1

The imbroglio involving the two Episcopal schools had several aspects that did not fit the character of many racial flareups in gridiron matchups of the 1930s and 1940s. Neither team had black players on their teams in 1948, but after a brief hesitation upon learning of Kenyon's desegregated squad Sewanee had agreed to play against Kenyon. Whereas the two teams had played in Sewanee the previous year, the game was to take place in the nonsegregated Gambier; there would be no Jim Crow laws or racial taboos that would interfere with the contest. Moreover, all of the Sewanee players had consented to play, though the athletic board had specified that any members of the team who had strong objections to playing against blacks could opt out of the game.

Like most southern teams, Sewanee's had traditionally required that northern opponents sign an agreement or give a verbal pledge to refrain from allowing "Negroes" to compete. Normally Sewanee incorporated this stipulation in the game contract, but the two athletic directors had evidently agreed or mentioned that there would be no nonwhite players; neither team had black players in 1948. Though some predominantly white northern schools had one or two black players, those few teams that fielded blacks in the starting lineup had to think twice in the 1930s and 1940s about throwing their players to the wolves. In 1937, New York University's Ed Williams competing against North Carolina was so badly injured that his college career was ended. As late as 1951, Johnny Bright of Drake who led the nation in total yardage had his jaw broken in a wanton act of brutality playing a game against Oklahoma A & M (later Oklahoma State). Drake withdrew from the Missouri Valley Athletic Conference, and Bright had to quit college football because of the injury.2

The practice of the gentleman's agreement or holding out a black player to appease a southern opponent reached its peak in the years between the world wars. In 1935, the University of Michigan agreed to hold out Willis Ward, a champion sprinter, in a game against Georgia Tech played at Ann Arbor. The legendary former coach, now athletic director, Fielding Yost, who himself hailed from West Virginia and had lived in Tennessee, hired Pinkerton detectives to pick out leaders of a rumored pregame rally; like an anti-labor industrialist, he also enlisted students to break up the demonstration that never occurred. A Michigan law professor and future NCAA officer described Michigan's action "as customary courtesies which well-bred hosts are expected to display toward their guests." A Michigan alumnus retorted that he might take his "Spitz" dogs out of the house if the guests objected, but he surely would not banish his daughter. …

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