“The reality was so massive that all a person of good will could do was make token gestures.” –Willis Ward
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.