Pierce Makes Strides for Racial Equality in College Athletics

There are 122 players on top-ranked Louisiana State University’s football roster. Sixty-five of them are African-American. Compared to the rest of the nation’s top teams, there is nothing remarkable about that number.

What is remarkable, however, is that in our not-so-distant past, African-American football players were barred from stepping foot on the field at all-white universities south of the Mason-Dixon Line, let alone attending and representing those same schools.

A lot has happened since then to change the way race is viewed in sports, and it has taken both time and hard work. But, as is always the case with such prolonged and significant processes, we look for individuals and specific moments to represent the work of many more unheralded heroes. We look for leaps to represent baby steps. Jesse Owens taking gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics; Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball; Michael Jordan becoming the most recognizable athlete in modern history. One such moment, and one such individual, in the progression of racial equality in intercollegiate athletics, came from an unexpected source: Harvard.

On October 11, 1947, Chester M. Pierce ’48 and the Crimson football team headed south to face the University of Virginia Cavaliers in Charlottesville, Virginia. UVA dominated the game from start to finish, sending Harvard back to Cambridge as recipients of a 47-0 drubbing.

Pierce, who then stood 6’4” and weighed 235 pounds, recalled in an interview with the Boston Globe in 1997 that “[he] remember[ed] nothing different in that game than any other game [he] played at Harvard.”

Even though Pierce claimed the game passed without incident, the racist sentiments of the time did have an effect on the trip. In Mark Bernstein’s 2001 book, “Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession,” Bernstein noted, “When a Charlottesville hotel manager insisted on lodging Pierce in a black hotel, Harlow moved the rest of the team there, as well. When a local restaurant owner made Pierce use the rear door, the entire Harvard team followed. When the Crimson entered the stadium on Saturday afternoon, Harlow ran in next to Pierce, staying on the side closest to the stands so that any debris thrown might hit him instead. Despite catcalls from the bleachers, the game passed without incident.”

Though it was the worst loss in then-coach Dick Harlow’s tenure with the Crimson, there was something else uncommon about Pierce’s performance that day. Pierce was the first African-American to play in a college football game south of the Mason-Dixon Line at an all-white university.

Harvard finished its season with a 4-5 record and has since headed south of the symbolic line just three times—all against William & Mary, and never since 1993.

After Commencement, Pierce went on to attend Harvard Medical School and is currently a professor emeritus of education and psychology at his alma mater. He founded and chaired Black Psychiatrists of America and was the President of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurobiology. He even consulted with PBS on the creation of Sesame Street.

Though he is humble and dislikes the attention given to his participation on that cold October day over 60 years ago, claiming in a 1997 Boston Globe interview that “it was no big deal and took no courage by me,” Pierce has been a champion in the fight for racial equality.

In the Class of 1948’s 25th Anniversary Report, Pierce noted that “Most of my convictions revolve about the outrageous effects of racism.”

As is the case in most desegregated institutions, integration in sports did not negate racism. In the New York Times bestseller “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” Bill Rhoden laments the progression of the black athlete as a “journey from literal plantations to figurative ones.” He points, somewhat convincingly, to the leadership structure in leagues, both professional and amateur: old, rich, white guys running the show, with young, black men putting on the show.

Inflammatory rhetoric aside, racism remains an issue in sports; regardless of which side of the Mason-Dixon you lie on.

Despite its longitudinal superiority, Boston is not without its own history of racism pervading into the athletic realm: The Red Sox were the last MLB team to field an African-American player, waiting until 1959, apparently as a direct result of then-owner Tom Yawkey’s desire; and the Celtics have long been considered the “white-team” of the NBA.

While Pierce claimed that “if there were racist things being said in the stands, I didn’t hear them,” he was not immune to racism while in Cambridge. A Crimson article from March 10, 1947 describes how Pierce and another African-American, Hallowell Bowser ’44, were denied entry into a local establishment, ‘Club 100,’ based on their skin color. Indeed, charges of racism have spread to the football field for the Crimson. In the 141 years since the first African-American graduated from Harvard, the Crimson has yet to start an African-American at the symbolically important quarterback position.

This, however, has more to do with personnel than institutional choice. Harvard has a long history of racial integration on the football field starting with the first African-American captain, William H. Lewis ’95 way back in 1893. The next African-American to captain an Ivy League football team was Levi Jackson of Yale, 57 years later.

Lewis was also the first ever black All-American, and was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009.  He went on to become the first ever African-American US Assistant Attorney General in the Taft administration.

Lewis died just 14 months after Pierce took the field in Charlottesville. Pierce, who was the only African-American on his squad in the 40s, turned 84 earlier this year. And now, 64 years later most of us don’t think twice about the racial composition of the Crimson, or any other team in college football. Baby steps.

—Staff writer Alexander Koenig can be reached at akoenig@college.harvard.edu.

Tags