Section: Features

1949 football season cut short after a stand against racism

1949 football season cut short after a stand against racism

The 1949 Lords pose for a team photo. Their season was over early after Sewanee refused to play them due to Kenyon being interracial. | COURTESY OF TOM STAMP

On Saturday, Nov. 12, 1949, Sewanee: the University of the South and Kenyon were scheduled to play in a season-finale football matchup. Coming into the game, Sewanee was 4-2-1, while Kenyon was 0-6. Little did the players know, the two colleges’ administrators were locked in a debate that would ultimately prevent the game from taking place. On Monday, Nov. 7, Kenyon’s then-president, Gordon Keith Chalmers, sent Sewanee a telegraph informing them that he was cancelling the football game.

Per the New York Times’ Nov. 10 edition, Chalmers’ decision to cancel the game came from Sewanee’s reluctance to play against a racially integrated football team; Stanley Jackson ’52 and Allen Ballard ’52, Kenyon’s first two African American students, were both varsity football players for Kenyon. Seven decades later, the cancelled game between what at the time were two pitifully poor Episcopal colleges serves as a moment of resistance in the face of segregationist agreements between Northern and Southern schools to not play black players.

Ballard, a professor emeritus of history at SUNY-Albany who studied political science at Kenyon, remembers being approached and informed about the cancellation at breakfast a few days before the game.

“I don’t believe there was any team discussion about this … It was a fait accompli, that’s what I think,” he said. While Ballard says the team did not have any say over the decision, he agreed with Chalmers’ action.

Kenyon and Sewanee had played each other during the previous three seasons, during which both teams had only white players. While the 1949 game would have been in Gambier, the 1948 game took place in the segregated Jim Crow South. During this era, according to college football historian John Sayle Watterson in a 2001 essay on the cancelled game, Northern schools would formally agree vis a vis “gentlemen’s agreements” to appease Southern opponents by holding out their black players. Especially after World War II, game cancellations became more common as increasingly integrated Northern schools faced the risk of endangering their players by bringing them into contact with the South’s harsh segregation policies.

As far as a game in the North goes, no such “gentlemen’s agreement” existed between Kenyon and Sewanee. According to Watterson’s essay, the Sewanee athletic director at the time, Gordon Clark, alleged that there was a “verbal agreement” for the two teams to not use black players. Kenyon’s athletic director at the time, H.T. Passini, inquired about what Sewanee’s reaction would be to Kenyon fielding an integrated squad. Clark replied that he considered the exclusion of black players to be a part of Kenyon and Sewanee’s agreement, saying, “I hope that this will not cause either of us any embarrassment.” In a Nov. 2 memo to Passini, Clark said that Sewanee would no longer stay for a team dinner after the game, wanting to prevent any integration off the football field. While Sewanee agreed to play the game, they expressed anger that Kenyon had, in their minds, violated an unwritten agreement between the teams. Chalmers, who had seen Clark’s letter to Passini, telegraphed Boylston Green, Sewanee’s then-president, to call the game off. 

According to Sam Williamson, a historian who served as Sewanee’s vice chancellor and president from 1988 to 2000, said that he believed Clark, a staunch segregationist, was the primary driver of Sewanee’s actions. Clark had been in his position since the 1930s, while Green had been formally initiated as president during the same week that he cancelled the game.

“These people were pretty much set in their ways and segregation was the ruling law, and they adhered to it and probably espoused it and believed it deeply,” Williamson said.

In addition to Clark’s dominating presence, Williamson said that Green was not a very adept leader.

“He was a new boy on the block and he was not the smartest thing that came down the pike either, but that’s another story,” Williamson said. “So, anything Clark would have told him, he’d have to pay deep attention to for political reasons inside [of Sewanee].”

The cancellation sparked controversy in the Episcopal Church, with Southern critics caring less about the contradictory coupling of segrationism, racism and religion, and more about the reputation of the Church. Still others, though, decried Sewanee’s segregationist stance—the Episcopal Church did, after all, serve racially diverse congregations throughout the country.

For College Historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana Tom Stamp ’73, the Chalmers’ decision was intended as a statement of Kenyon’s values.

“I think that President Chalmers was genuinely trying to make a point about treating all of the students at Kenyon the same way,” Stamp said. He pointed out that it was Chalmers who decided to recruit minority students to Kenyon after a conversation with Langston Hughes. Hughes, after speaking at Kenyon, asked Chalmers why Kenyon was all white. This, according to Stamp, was a wake-up call for the president.

Chalmers, who knew the principal of Ballard’s high school in Philadelphia, recruited Ballard, alongside Jackson, to enroll in the fall of 1948. Ballard remembers Chalmers fondly.

“He was a great educator and he built a very fine school and he was very true to his values,” Ballard said. “He was a wonderful man.”

While Ballard trusted Chalmers’ decision to cancel, he chose to take advantage of the unexpected day off. Ballard and Jackson rode with a friend and mentor of theirs who lived in Mount Vernon down to Columbus for the evening.

“We went to a nightclub, to a blues nightclub, and we had a great time,” Ballard said.

As for the news of the game cancellation, Ballard remembers it being a big deal for Kenyon, making headlines not only in the Collegian but also in the Columbus Dispatch and the New York Times. While in Columbus, the news of the cancellation arose only once.

“I just remember one little incident: Stanley and I were in this trolley car … Some guy turned around and he was reading Columbus paper—I think [the game cancellation] was in the Columbus paper—and Stan said, ‘See this guy here’—he pointed at me—and said, ‘He’s the one they’re writing about,’” Ballard said. “I don’t know why Stan said that, but it was funny.”

The game against Sewanee would have been Kenyon’s last that season. Instead, Kenyon’s final game took place the week before against Hobart College, a 41-7 loss for the Lords.

Since the cancellation happened so late in the semester, Ballard says his mind was simply on other things at the time.

“We had final exams coming up,” he said, “so we just settled down and did our work.”

Even so, the name Sewanee carries a certain ring with it for Ballard.

“When I see Sewanee, I don’t have great feelings about it, and that’s about it. I think it was bad for them, and good for Kenyon,” Ballard said.

While Kenyon’s president stood up for Ballard and Jackson in this instance, Kenyon suffered from less public forms of segregation. Ballard, who would serve as student council president, was not allowed to join any of the fraternities at Kenyon. According to the Black Students at Kenyon archive, Ballard and Jackson would instead go to parties at Ohio State University that were hosted by historically black fraternities. The archive also cites that Ballard and Jackson did have to live under segregation when the Lords travelled to the South for sports.

Meanwhile, Williamson wrote in his 2008 book Sewanee Sesquicentennial History: The Making of the University of the South that the game cancellation foreshadowed shifting changes in the South. In fact, segregation at Sewanee was challenged in 1953 when the institution admitted John M. Moncrief, Jr., a black Episcopal priest, into a summer program for clergy at Sewanee’s seminary. Williamson said that real progress did not begin to happen at Sewanee until 1961, when students began getting involved in the civil rights movement and when, as Williamson put it, new, left-leaning faculty replaced “the old guys,” who were “dying off or retiring.”

Williamson reflected that athletics programs’ strict adherence to segregation was a loss in the South. Even though Sewanee was not particularly proud of its team, football in the South and in the United States was and is a major cultural institution. Bear Bryant, the famous University of Alabama football coach, is storied to have said, “If we really want to integrate the South, all we have to do is integrate the football teams.” In fact, in some states in the South it was even illegal to have integrated crowds at football games.

Williamson, who was a football manager during his student days at Tulane University, believes that athletics officials in the 1950s could have made a big difference in changing racist attitudes in the South.

Referencing university presidents and athletics administrators, Williamson said, “These guys knew they were sitting on something that could change the social life [of the South], but nobody was willing to take the first step to do that.”

Several hundred miles north, the first steps at integrating black men at Kenyon were exactly that: first steps. Only nine black men graduated from Kenyon in the 1950s. After Chalmers’ sudden death in 1956, the Colleges’ modest efforts towards inclusivity waned further and only four black men would graduate in the 1960s, still barred from much of Kenyon’s social life.

As for Ballard, academic success at Kenyon was soon followed by achievements elsewhere. He earned a Fulbright to the University of Bordeaux in France, where he also served in the Army. Ballard then enrolled in Harvard University’s Soviet Union Regional Studies Program, earning a Ph.D. in government in 1961. Before a long career at SUNY-Albany, Ballard was a professor at Boston University, Cornell University, Dartmouth University and the City College of New York, where he served as the first black dean. He credited his football days with teaching him the value of getting back up even after a loss.

As for his time at Kenyon, after dropping their final game of the 1949 season, Ballard and company came on strong in 1950, finishing with five wins, one tie and zero losses. Noticeably, for the first time since 1946, Sewanee was not on the Lords’ schedule for that season, and they would not be again until 1964, the year that Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.


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