The year is 1947. Jackie Robinson signs a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. President Truman signs an Act of Congress, beginning the Cold War. India and Pakistan gain independence from the British Empire. The world is changing.
But some parts of the world are slower to change than others. Jim Crow laws in the American South require black people to use different facilities from white people, from schools and restaurants right on down to drinking fountains. They certainly don't allow black athletes to play against white athletes. Not until Harvard's football team challenges UVA's racist policies by bringing Chester Pierce to the field.
Take a sneak peek at author Gloria Respress-Churchwell's author's note to learn more:
After talking with Dr. Chester Pierce and discussing his life with him, I wrote this story. The details about Chester’s childhood, college years, how collegiate football worked, the restaurant scene, and Chester’s response to the black fans are based on actual events. I changed some details and invented the dialogue, bathroom scene, and the play called “Follow Chester” to create a sense of what it might have been like for him to travel to and play in the South while Jim Crow laws were in place.
Charles Follis, known as “The Black Cyclone,” was the first black professional football player (with the Shelby Blues from 1902 to 1906). Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall were the first black players in what is now the National Football League (NFL); they played in 1920. In 1933 NFL owners decided that there would be no more African American players. This lockout is attributed to George Preston Marshall, who became owner of the Boston Braves (later the Washington Redskins) in 1932. Marshall refused African American players, and he pressured the league to maintain the same policy.
A breakthrough occurred in 1946, when Cleveland’s NFL team, the Rams, moved to Los Angeles and wanted to play at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The LA Dons, from the All-American Football Conference (AAFC), also applied. The Coliseum Commission and black sportswriters (Los Angeles Tribune sports editor Halley Harding in particular) pushed the NFL to integrate as a condition of the lease. Both the Rams and the Dons announced they would. Kenny Washington and Woody Strode signed with the Rams. In the same year, Bill Willis and Marion Motley signed and played for the Cleveland Browns.
Even though professional football was integrated, colleges in the South didn’t allow black players until the 1960s. Black students who wanted to play football usually went to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Grambling State and Jackson State.
Chester Pierce made history in 1947. UVA thought Harvard would sit Chester out and expected they wouldn’t bring him at all. There was an unwritten college-football agreement that said when integrated college football teams played schools in the South, they wouldn’t play their black players. The all-white Southern team chose a player of equal talent to sit out the game.
When Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier in 1947, Harvard knew history was on their side.
An article in the Harvard Crimson said, “Virginia officials scheduled the game hoping Harvard would voluntarily exclude Pierce. But Crimson Athletic Director Bill Bingham insisted on Pierce’s participation, and Virginia relented.”
Many newspapers and magazines covered the game. Boston Globe journalist Jeremiah Murphy (who was a UVA student at the time) described a significant moment: “Chet Pierce turned and faced the segregated black crowd behind the end zone. He was about 6-feet-3 and 235 pounds. He stood there for a second and then held up his right hand and saluted the black crowd. They stood up and applauded.”
Dr. Chester Pierce always said he didn’t do anything special. I have never spoken with a humbler man, especially given all his vast accomplishments. Although Dr. Pierce passed away in September 2016, his family and I talked, and they are pleased about this book.
Dr. Pierce’s courageous story can speak to all of us: Adversity develops courage! Confidence lives in each of us! My hope is that Follow Chester! will inspire young readers to seek out additional information about Dr. Pierce and other such heroes.
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