Article on only African-American to play for Yost

Submitted by rdlwolverine on October 13th, 2009 at 9:37 PM
This month's Ann Arbor Observer has a great historical article on Belford Lawson, the only African-American to have been on the Michigan varsity under Yost. Unfortunately, I can't find it online, but for those of you in Ann Arbor that have access to this publication, I highly recommend it.


Section 1

October 14th, 2009 at 10:25 AM ^

I met him when I was a young kid. My grandfather, who was Yost's student manager, introduced me to Willis Ward. He was a great man. Especially great was the fact that in an era of rampant Jim Crow, and lots of racial discrimination even in northern states and the Big Ten, Ward was totally at home in the company of Michigan Men. I remember distinctly having lunch with him at the old Ferry Field parking area. Although still in the 1960's, it was a race-free environment, and Willis Ward (then a Wayne County Probate Court Judge) was royalty. And rightfully so.

There is only one monument to a student-athlete on the entire University of Michigan campus. And it isn't even for a Wolverine. It is the plaque at Ferry Field honoring Jesse Owens of Ohio State, who set four world records there one day in the 1930's. In their first meet together, Willis Ward, himself a great track man in addition to football, beat Jesse in two races.


October 14th, 2009 at 10:52 AM ^

Ward's story is a sad one, at least as far as his collegiate career goes. When we traveled to Georgia Tech, GT refused to play against him and (IIRC) we eventually caved and sat him for the game. Stung by the incident, Ward eventually quit sports altogether. Ward had been Jesse Owens's main rival. It could have been Ward winning gold medals in Berlin if not for this racist episode.

Section 1

October 14th, 2009 at 12:28 PM ^

First, the Georgia Tech game was in Ann Arbor I think. And yes it was a disgrace to Georgia Tech and also a highly controversial/dubious decision by Michigan/Yost to reluctantly agree to the Georgia Tech demand that Ward not play. As I recall the story, the bottom line for Yost was that Tech players said they would "kill" Willis Ward. Team members (including later-President Gerald Ford) and the students protested, but, as you say, ultimately they caved. Didn't we go on and beat Georgia Tech anyway?

Still, Willis Ward went on to law school, and a successful career in the law, and a judgeship. I can't recall the story about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but I don't think that Ward, while a great track man, would have been the Olympian that Owens was.

M Fanfare

October 15th, 2009 at 12:26 AM ^

Michigan beat Georgia Tech 9-2 that day, and it was Michigan's only win in the disasterous 1934 campaign. In those days, blacks weren't allowed at southern universities (other than the HBCUs) much less to play football at them, and when a southern university played an integrated northern school, there was a sort of "gentlemen's agreement" that the black plyers from the northern school would have to sit out, and in return the southern school would sit a few of their best players in order to "even things out."

As for Yost's role in the incident--I hate to say it but it's not exactly one of Yost's finer moments. Coach Harry Kipke was fighting tooth and nail for Willis Ward to be allowed to play, but ultimately Yost ordered Kipke to sit Ward out and he was even barred from being in the stadium during the game. Gerald Ford later credited the Willis Ward incident with being a catalyst for the disasterous 1934 season (though they were already 0-2 going into the game). Ford seriously considered leaving the team, but Ward convinced him to keep playing. To Yost's credit he had at one point forced the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago (where the Big Ten was founded in 1895) to allow Ward to stay there with the rest of the Michigan team (the hotel was whites-only), but overall Yost had a rather checkered track record when it came to race and was likely a racist for most of his life.