“Lonely As Hell”
By James Tobin
The reality was so massive that all a person of good will could do was make token gestures.– Willis Ward
Chapter 1 Black Retrospect
In our own time, there are so many African-Americans in college sports that we easily overlook a stark fact of the past: Before the late 1960s, black college athletes were exceedingly rare. At most colleges there were very few black students at all. And at schools that did lower the “color bar” just a little—including Michigan until close to World War II—formal rules or informal understandings kept nearly all black students out of sports.
That began to change in the 1950s and especially the mid-1960s, the high-water mark of the civil rights movement. As the number of black athletes climbed at U-M and elsewhere—even the segregationist Deep South—a white graduate student at Michigan named John Behee (pronounced BEE-hee) began to wonder about those who had played for U-M earlier in the century. His questions led him to some two dozen of the 187 African-Americans who lettered at Michigan before 1972. His list included such stars as DeHart Hubbard, the 1924 Olympic champion in the long jump, and Willis Ward, who in the early 1930s became the first black student to make Michigan’s varsity football squad since the coming of Fielding Yost, the southern son of a Confederate soldier who banned blacks from the gridiron throughout his years as coach, 1901-23 and 1925-26.
Behee spoke at length with these men not long after the Black Action Movement closed the University for 18 days in 1970—a strike that led the Board of Regents and President Robben W. Fleming to set the goal of providing enough financial aid to expand black enrollment to 10 percent. (The financial aid promise was kept, though black enrollment has never reached that goal.) Their remarks and reflections—from Hubbard, then nearing 70, to Ron Johnson, still in his 20s, who in 1968 became Michigan’s first black football captain—are preserved on tape at U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.
One could wish the conversations had gone on longer and extended to many more black alumni. But these talks comprise at least a fragment—a fascinating one—of the African-American experience at U-M.
Chapter 2 One of One Percent
“I was just a student, that’s all. I didn’t ask for any favors because of athletics. I didn’t need any.”
William DeHart Hubbard (1903-1976) was a great figure in the history of American track and field—a record-setter at Michigan in the sprints and long jump and the 1924 Olympic gold medalist in the long jump. He was the first African-American to win gold for the United States in an individual sport.
Born and raised in Cincinnati, he enrolled at Michigan in 1921 with the backing of an influential alumnus from West Virginia, Lon Barringer, who became aware of Hubbard’s athletic promise and his high academic achievement in high school.
Barringer helped Hubbard over two obstacles. One was financial—Hubbard’s family couldn’t afford the cost of college. So Barringer found a scholarship competition sponsored by Hubbard’s hometown newspaper, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and recruited alumni to help Hubbard win it.
The other obstacle was Fielding Yost. He was just at the end of his long tenure as football coach, but he remained Michigan’s athletic director, and he wanted no blacks in Michigan uniforms—none in football uniforms, anyway. He was prepared to make an exception or two in non-team sports, and in Hubbard’s case, he opened the door.
In his conversation with John Behee, Hubbard recalled a milieu far removed from the postwar movement for civil rights. In his day, blacks had been a tiny minority at U-M—fewer than a hundred in a student body of more than 10,000. So he was one young black man in a demographic slice of one percent, and it is hardly surprising that—by the standards of later black activists—his views were cautious and accommodationist. That approach was hardly unusual among black Americans of Hubbard’s youth, many of whom saw radicals like the back-to-Africa leader Marcus Garvey as hopeless dreamers. Hubbard spoke from the up-by-your-own-bootstraps school of black empowerment that Booker T. Washington had represented in turn-of-the-century times. Skeptical of black militants of the 1960s, he told of making his way at Michigan on his own steam and without much thought for the white majority.
His white professors ranged from friendly to neutral, he said.
“In general, I guess I was just a student, that’s all. I didn’t ask for any favors because of athletics. I didn’t need them.
“I do remember one English professor telling me: ‘You don’t need to worry, because anybody who can jump 25 feet [in the broad jump] can pass this course.’”
At the time of the interview—the early 1970s—people were talking about a recent series in Sports Illustrated titled “The Black Athlete: A Shameful Story.” The writer, Jack Olsen, reported that many black athletes suspected their schools had used them for their athletic prowess but neglected them as students. Behee asked Hubbard what he thought of that notion. Hubbard was having none of it.
“Wouldn’t that depend upon the individual?” he asked. “Wouldn’t it depend upon why he went to school in the first place? Wouldn’t it depend upon what he wanted to do and how badly he wanted to do it—whether he had learned to prepare himself to do something when he got out? Wouldn’t it depend upon that?”
Hubbard pointed to Ned Gourdin, a black (and Seminole) long-jump champion at Harvard in the early ‘20s who had parlayed his first-class education into a highly successful career as a lawyer and jurist.
“If a guy goes to school just because he wants to be an All-American in football, or just because he wants to make some money out of it, that’s something else again. And that same guy wouldn’t have been any better off if he’d gone to Harvard or Fisk or any other place.”
When Behee pressed Hubbard to criticize his treatment at Michigan, Hubbard shied away. On road trips, he said, he roomed alone by choice, not because the authorities did not want him to bunk with white teammates.
“Wasn’t it part of a racial pattern?” Behee asked.
“More or less, yeah,” Hubbard conceded.
He agreed with Behee’s contention that it would have been good to have black coaches. Otherwise, he made few concessions to Behee’s critical view of race relations in pre-war Ann Arbor.
Black social life was restricted to a tight circle. Black men boarded with black families or lived in one of three black fraternities—Alpha Phi Alpha; Omega Psi Phi, which was Hubbard’s house; or Kappa Alpha Psi. The handful of black women at U-M lived in a boarding house arranged by the University; they were not allowed in dorms. There were so few black women, Hubbard said, that “each one could have had a dozen boyfriends if she wanted to. We had enough social life, I guess. Every now and then there’d be some event in the Negro community downtown.” He said he had no interest in the social life of white students. “They would have the big—what do you call it? the ‘J-Hop’ or something—and we just didn’t bother about them…
“Back in my time there was some discussion here and there—very little, very informal—about some of these problems that existed. But there was no attempt at any organized movement, no demands like they’re talking about now. It just seems to me that the students today [in 1970]—they really search for something to protest about. I get impatient with them.”
He had only limited sympathy for the Black Action Movement.
“You must remember that when I went to school, there was not the emphasis on black-white relationships, on equal opportunity, that there is today. When I was in school in Ann Arbor, and a hundred of us were black, we were lost in the ocean there.”
Since before he entered college, he said, “I knew that I wanted to do something to help my race.” After winning his Olympic gold medal in the summer of 1924, he returned to Ann Arbor for his senior year. But he could not complete the field work in a social work course—he did not say why—and when he flunked the course, he left U-M before getting his degree. He had a young family and felt the need to earn a living. Success on the civil service exam in Cincinnati led to 15 years as an instructor in the city’s recreation department. After that came a long stint with the Federal Housing Authority and a finale as a housing consultant.
“I’ve never been a pessimistic individual,” Hubbard said. “I’ve always been sort of optimistic. I prefer the lighter and brighter side of things. And that may reflect itself here. There may have been problems, but I just didn’t know there were problems. I wasn’t looking for problems. I didn’t have time to look for problems.”
“When I was in school in Ann Arbor, and a hundred of us were black, we were lost in the ocean there.”– William DeHart Hubbard
Chapter 3 Yost’s Rule
“The reality [of racial discrimination] was so massive that all the person of good will could do was make token gestures.”
The most notorious episode in the history of black athletes at Michigan is that of Willis Ward (1913-1983), a star end of the early 1930s who was forced to sit out a game because of his color. Recruited by Coach Harry Kipke, Ward became the first African-American to make Michigan’s varsity football team since the 1890s. But in 1934, Ward’s senior year, Georgia Tech vowed that if he took the field in a scheduled game in Ann Arbor, the Georgia players would refuse to play. Michigan buckled under the threat, and Ward stayed home that afternoon.
The story became more than a passing controversy only in later years. That was because one of Ward’s teammates and friends was Gerald R. Ford. He had believed that Ward should be allowed to play against Georgia Tech, and during a long career in state and national politics, Ford often told the tale as evidence of his support for African-Americans.
Because Ford became president, the 1934 Georgia Tech game is remembered now chiefly in terms of his stand for Ward—how much he did or didn’t do to support his friend, whether he should have done more. But the real drama played out behind the scenes, and Ford was only a bit player. The main actors were Ward himself and Coach Harry Kipke.
* * *
In the late 1920s, Willis Ward was an outstanding student and a superstar athlete at Detroit Northwestern High School, an academic powerhouse where nine of 10 students were white. In track he set records in the high and low hurdles and the world scholastic record in the high jump two years in a row. In football he was a unanimous choice for the all-state team.
In his interview with John Behee, Ward recalled that even sympathetic high school teachers of the 1920s seldom put black students on the college-preparatory track, at least in part because so few black families could afford the cost. But Ward’s teachers groomed him for college because it was obvious not only that he could succeed in the classroom but that he could win athletic scholarships to cover his costs.
In Ward’s senior year in high school, word went around Detroit that he was choosing between Dartmouth College and Northwestern University. He had learned he could go to Michigan on a track scholarship—“Charlie Hoyt, the track coach [1930-39], never believed in all the [racial] nonsense”—but he wanted to play football, too, and Yost’s prohibition against black players was well known.
Then several powerful alumni—Judge Guy Miller of Detroit; James Murfin, a Republican politician and U-M regent; and Frederick Matthaei, a Detroit industrialist—interceded. Yost was still athletic director, but the young Harry Kipke, a star in three sports in the early ‘20s, was now football coach. As a boy in Lansing and a student at Michigan, Kipke had played baseball alongside blacks, including the outfielder Rudolph Ash, who went on to play in the Negro Leagues. And Kipke signaled these key alumni that as football coach he was prepared to defy Fielding Yost.
So Judge Miller invited Willis Ward for a talk in his chambers in downtown Detroit. The youngster reminded the judge of Yost’s color rule, whereupon the judge said, in Ward’s recollection: “Well, will you help us break this rule?”
The young man was willing. But there was a second obstacle—his father, a factory worker at Ford Motor Company.
“He didn’t think I ought to play football,” Ward said. “He didn’t believe that one white kid would block another white kid for a black kid to make a touchdown. He just… the world didn’t function that way; they would gang up and do me up.”
So Kipke came to see Mr. Ward. “Kipke told my father that if I came up there, he’d have no regrets. He’d be sure that his boy would be happy.” Mr. Ward was impressed and gave his consent.
So Willis went to Michigan. In his freshman year he was the NCAA champion in the high jump. In his sophomore year he joined the varsity football team and started at end in four games.
Fielding Yost made no immediate move against Ward, while Kipke took the heat from critics and gave it back.
As Ward heard the tale, “Kipke would be down at the Detroit Club or the DAC [Detroit Athletic Club] or the University Club with a bunch of whites saying: ‘Well, what are you using a Negro for? Michigan was great without ’em!’”
Ward learned of moments when Kipke, encountering white critics in a restaurant or a bar, would take off his coat and offer to take the disagreement outside.
“He was perfectly willing to fight—physically fight—because he was going to do it [integrate the team]. He had the backing of strong alumni, and he was doing what he felt was morally right… He was like, I suppose, Branch Rickey [the Brooklyn Dodgers owner who would recruit Jackie Robinson to break the color line in major league baseball] and many coming down the line—that maybe the majority kept them from doing what they wanted to do, but if they ever got in a position to do something, they’d do it. And he was in a position to do something. And assuming that I had the talent to make the team and contribute to it, he was not going to let color get in the way of it. There was every evidence that he believed this.”
Kipke got Ward a job at the Parrot Café, a student hangout. When the owner thought too many students were dropping in just to talk with the towering star from Detroit, he told Ward to start using the back door. Instead, Ward quit, and Kipke found him another job washing dishes at the Michigan Union.
Like DeHart Hubbard a decade earlier, Ward was part of an all-but-invisible black minority in Ann Arbor.
“It was lonely,” he said. “Lonely as hell…. I guess the black kids were so poor, in the main, that they couldn’t even afford to go to Michigan, and the ones who could afford to go, and who were qualified, were so few in number that it never created a problem, particularly. There wasn’t enough of them there to even pay attention to.
“And the attitude generally was one of tolerance, excepting those rare instances where a professor had a personal desire to do something [helpful] in this area. But by that same token, you had also an equal number who didn’t believe that you ought to educate blacks, anyway. So it equalled out.”
In 1932 and 1933, Ward stood out on two undefeated Michigan teams. When the team traveled, he roomed with his teammates in hotels.
Then, in 1934, Fielding Yost scheduled a football game for Ward’s senior year with all-white Georgia Tech, a school that would refuse to take the field against any team that treated a black player as the equal of whites. When the Georgia Tech coach agreed to play only if Michigan would bench Willis Ward—and offered to bench a white Georgia player of comparable skills—Yost dallied and delayed.
“When Yost booked the Georgia Tech game, originally, most people felt that I would play because it was going to be played up at Ann Arbor,” Ward remembered. “Now, these were the solid Michigan rooters who had seen me perform on two undefeated Michigan teams. It was just unconscionable that I wouldn’t play. It was just unheard of.”
Then, as the football season approached, Ward heard that Harry Kipke had agreed in advance to keep him out of the Georgia Tech game. Shocked and heartbroken, he warned Kipke he might quit if the rumor was true.
“I wrote Kipke a letter that word had come back that I would not play in the Georgia Tech game. And I said I’d just never heard of a lineup being made before the day of a game. Now, bear in mind, here’s Kipke who had fought this battle to get this black kid an opportunity…
“Then he gets this letter from me saying, ‘Coach, what about it? Are you really calling the lineup now?’ I’m heartbroken, frustrated, maybe I’ll quit and so forth.
“And so he drives down to see me, and we had a conversation, and he says, ‘Well, Willis, I played you because I thought it was right. You were good enough. It was right. But for the problems that a coach goes through playing a black athlete today, if you quit now, it’s not worth the struggle. And I won’t play a black athlete again.’”
Ward thought it over. He decided to stay on the team.
When this intrigue became public, students rallied and signed petitions insisting that Ward be allowed to play. But nothing changed.
Ward himself was struggling. His studies slipped and he found it hard to get through practice.
“It was not the fact that I was not made captain of the football team or the track team that destroyed my will,” he said. “It was the fact that I couldn’t play in the Georgia Tech game. All of a sudden now, the practice that you did because it was the thing to do to be good—a tremendous amount of burnt-up energy—all of a sudden becomes a work of drudgery. My desire to work was substantially affected when the word got out that I would not play in the Georgia Tech game.
“We’re getting into motivation here. This is very seldom talked about, but it’s so important in trying to understand the attitude of black kids today [in 1970], and how the hurt to your personality can be so piercing.”
At home he paid another price.
“When the Georgia Tech game came, it was the first time that when I would come back home to Detroit, instead of me being the hero to everybody—the kids I grew up with, people who’d watched me grow up—they wanted to know whose side was I on, the white folks’ side or their side. And for the first time a smile comes off my face.”
Michigan beat Georgia Tech, 9-2, for its only victory of 1934. Apart from the Tech game, the Wolverines scored 12 points all season, all of them by Willis Ward.
Ward had attracted the attention of Henry Ford, who gave him good jobs to help him get through college and urged him to work for the company after graduation. But Ward chose law school instead, and he went on to a distinguished career as a lawyer, chairman of the Michigan Civil Service Commission, and probate judge in Detroit.
Certainly Ward had wanted to play that day and thereby call Georgia Tech’s bluff. But he did not criticize his coach. He implied that Kipke had done about as much as white supporters of that era could do.
“The reality [of racial discrimination] was so massive that all a person of good will could do was make token gestures.
“It was a whole rotten mess, a long time in its creation. I think, people being what they are, it’s going to be a long time correcting it.”
“He didn’t think I ought to play football. He didn’t believe that one white kid would block another white kid for a black kid to make a touchdown.”– Willis Ward
Chapter 4 Private Doubts
“When you’re involved in athletics, you tend to forget many of the tensions that surround us in life.”
From the start of his life to the end, Lowell Perry (1931-2001) was a star.
As a youth he joined the Boy Scouts and the National Honor Society. At Ypsilanti High School he lettered in football, basketball, baseball, and track. At the age of 16, he led his football team to the Class B state championship.
In three seasons as a starting end at Michigan, he set pass-receiving records that stood for more than a decade. He was All-Big Ten, All-Midwest, and second-team All-American. An R.O.T.C. cadet, he graduated with a major in history. Then, in an era when the armed services fielded competitive teams, he joined the Air Force and was voted the outstanding football player in the U.S. military.
In 1956, the Pittsburgh Steelers signed Perry. In his first play as a professional, in an exhibition game against Detroit, he ran 93 yards for a touchdown. Then, after 14 catches in six regular-season games, his pelvis was crushed and his football career was over.
Undaunted, he became one of the first African-American assistant coaches in the NFL, a lawyer, an executive at Chevrolet and Chrysler, a commentator for CBS, commissioner of the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission under President Gerald Ford and director of the Michigan Department of Labor under Gov. John Engler. He and his wife of 46 years raised three children.
It was by any measure a great career in the mainstream of American life—a success story inconceivable for blacks of any generation before Perry’s.
Yet Perry’s years at Michigan were shadowed by distinctions based on race—not so much in the football program, but elsewhere on campus.
In the dormitories: “In the housing situation at that time they were certainly pairing off on a racial basis. My first year I stayed in one of the dormitories and it was certainly not by chance that my two roommates were black.”
In social life: “I’m going to tell you quite frankly—I think the athletic department would have frowned a great deal upon it if they thought that their black athletes were cavorting with white girls. I really think they probably would.”
In the classroom: “I always remember one situation—it was in a history class. This professor was a great, learned authority in the area of the Civil War and was a great professor, I’m sure. But he made the statement about how, during the Civil War, when they came out with the Emancipation Proclamation, black folks at that time felt it meant freedom from everything—freedom from responsibility, he says, ‘and there’s kind of a carry-over today when many black folks just feel that all they have to have is a pork chop and be on the beach.’ And when he said that, I wanted to get up after the class and say something to him. But you’re talking about 1951 or 1952. I’m sure that had anybody said that during the ’60s, he might have been stoned.”
Under Coach Benny Oosterbaan, Perry saw no evidence of bias in the football program. On the road, white and black players roomed together, as they did when the team stayed together in Ann Arbor on nights before home games. Perry lost the vote to become team captain to a white player, but he told John Behee, “I’m not prepared to say that it was on the basis of race.
“Certainly all the black players were pushing me for the captaincy,” he laughed, “and that might have been one of the early black caucuses!”
After three years at quarterback in high school, he had hoped to be in the backfield at Michigan. But Oosterbaan played him at end.
“I probably would have had some reservation about why I became an offensive end at that point,” he said. “But we were a single-wing team at that time at Michigan. It called on the quarterback to do a lot of heavy-duty blocking. I wasn’t the biggest. I was about 180-some pounds, and to clear out that hole at tackle as a blocker—that wasn’t my pitch. [Otherwise] I would have had some serious reservations when I was switched from quarterback to end. But I was happy with the switch after it took place.”
So for Perry, Michigan in the early 1950s was a place of great success in public and hushed doubts in private.
“Naiveté in the area of race is probably protected in the area of athletic participation,” he said. “When you’re involved in athletics, you tend to forget many of the tensions that surround us in life. What avenues are open or aren’t open kind of get lost in athletic competition. It’s not that we weren’t aware of it—don’t get me wrong—because I’ve always been aware of that situation. You’re made aware of it by your folks and your everyday living.”
“I think the athletic department would have frowned a great deal upon it if they thought that their black athletes were cavorting with white girls.”– Lowell Perry
Chapter 5 Epilogue
“King came before being black and white.”
In the mid-1960s, under Coach Bump Elliott in football and Coach Dave Strack in basketball, the major programs at Michigan began to recruit black players in significant numbers. African-American representation on those teams soon far exceeded the percentage of blacks in the student body as a whole.
In 1968, a moment came that dispelled any notion that Fielding Yost’s view of black athletes still carried weight at Michigan. It was when Ron Johnson, an All-American running back, was voted Michigan’s first black captain by a class of 15 seniors, six black and nine white.
John Behee interviewed Johnson several years after his graduation, when he was playing for the Cleveland Browns. Quiet by nature, Johnson had little to say about race at Michigan. But two moments he remembered were further evidence of a change in racial attitudes.
One came on the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the spring of 1968. The team was in the midst of its spring practice session. Upon the news of King’s death, white players came to Johnson, their captain, and said they thought practices should be suspended for a while. Bump Elliott agreed, and said he would leave it up to the black players to decide when practice should resume.
“Everybody accepted that,” Johnson said. “There wasn’t any problem over that. That was a situation where King came before being black and white.”
He also remembered a small incident in a game against Indiana. Perhaps it was more telling still. Certainly Willis Ward’s father would have raised his eyebrows.
The Wolverines on the field that day included Cecil Pryor, a black linebacker from Corpus Christi, Texas, and Ed Moore, a white linebacker from Youngstown, Ohio. Just after the usual violence at the line of scrimmage, Moore heard a white Indiana player say a few words in Pryor’s direction that included the N-word.
In the next moment, the Hoosier player found his vocabulary under direct assault by the 210-pound body of Ed Moore.
“So I’m not saying there was any great love between the two factions,” Johnson said. “But it shows there wasn’t any great tension.”
Sources included tape-recorded interviews made by John Behee that now are housed in the Bentley Historical Library, and Behee’s privately published book, Hail to the Victors (1974). Interviews were transcribed by the author. Minor editing was done for the sake of continuity.