When the first Black History Month celebration of the Ivy League did not include reference to Yale's Levi Jackson, New York Times sportswriter William Wallace decided to clear the air.
Levi Jackson was Yale's football captain in 1949 -- the first black to captain a Yale football team; the first to captain any Yale team, and the first to captain any team belonging to what we call Ivy League colleges although there was no formal Ivy League until 1956.
Furthermore he was a running back of rare quality. In his freshman season of 1946 he was a top-10 NCAA rusher whose darting speed brought crowds of 60,000 and more to the Yale Bowl.
He might have gone farther but for a pre-season knee injury in 1947 that took away some of that speed and elusiveness. Jackson played on for three more seasons good but not great as before.
His story is remarkable. Jackson was born and brought up in New Haven, a townie. His father worked as a steward at Yale's Faculty Club on Elm Street. He went to Hillhouse High School, where his football coach in his grand senior year was Reggie Root who pointed him toward Yale.
Root was a distinguished Yale graduate who had been head football coach in 1933 and afterward was a longtime freshman football and varsity lacrosse coach. During wartime 1944 he found ways to also coach the Hillhouse football team through a memorable season, thanks in part to Jackson's spectacular runs.
The next year found Jackson in the Army, playing football on the Camp Lee team in Virginia. The following year he was at Yale, a member of the Class of 1950 which was Yale's largest ever with 1,500 students, many World War II veterans.
Howie Odell, the head football coach, knew what he was getting. Although there were running backs backed up from the class of 1943 and on, Jackson went right to the front and stayed there. He and another freshman, fullback Ferd Nadherny, led Yale to a 7-1-1 record plus a No. 12 ranking in the APs final poll. Nadherny, the season before, had been the backup to renowned NFL Hall of Fame player, Marion Motley, on the Great Lakes Naval Training Station team which was No. 1 in the nation.
Was this 1946 team Yale's best ever? Some think so.
Jackson, upon graduation, was quickly employed by Ford Motor Company and became an executive in its personnel department. He made a point of returning for several team reunions until old footbal wounds, especially about the knees, brought on arthritis that made travel impossible. He was last on the Yale campus for the Class of 1950's 45th reunion in 1995.
So much for history.
Jackson's election to the captaincy of the Yale team in late November of 1948, caused a media furor which went entirely unnoticed on the Yale campus. This event came about only one year after Jackie Robinson's entry into major league baseball and two years before the National Basketball Association had its first black player. That happened to be Chuck Cooper, who as an undergraduate at Duquense, had played in the Payne Whitney Gym against the Bulldogs and without comment or notice.
Although desegregation had not even begun in the South, the sports pages of 1948 were aware of color and quick to report firsts like Robinson's and Jackson's.
The day following the announcement of Jackson's election was a busy one in Yale's sports information office at the Ray Tompkins House. The telephones rang and rang. Charles Loftus, the deft director, fielded one call after another from a wide variety of newspapers and magazines, several outside the mainstream of sports.
As Loftus' undergraduate assistant I responded to several of the calls also, answering basic questions about Jackson, his background and status at the university. It was a sweet story, easy to tell.
Now comes my major point.
Late in the afternoon I returned to my resident room, 847 in Branford College, and confronted Swede Larson, my friend, my roommate, and a senior on the football team who had participated in choosing next year's captain.
I said, "Do you guys have any idea whay you have done?"
"I mean Levi," I said. "That he's a Negro." (We didn't use the term black' back then.)
"The whole world wants to know about him being elected captain. I've been on the phone all afternoon."
Larson continued to look blank.
He finally said, "The voting took only about 10 minutes. There was no one else. It had to be Levi."
In the ensuing 50 years I have been so proud of those Yale players, of the university itself, of the campus climate that fall that brought about such a natural event the election of Levi Jackson without a thought or a consideration of his race, pigmentation. In 1948, two decades before New Haven's race riots!
I went on to become a sportswriter in New York and in future years dealt with countless stories that involved race, not all of them pleasant. There were more'firsts', then numbers, percentages, countless counting of blacks and whites, alsong with the ivevitable playing of various race cards.
My finest racial moment had been back at Yale the time that no one gave white or black consideration when it came to Levi Jackson sitting on the Yale fence for the routine captain's photograph, the white Y on the blue jersey over his human body.
[ed. note: This excerpt is from an article that originally was printed in the October 3, 1998, Yale football Gameday program. Levi Jackson passed away December of 2000 at the age of 74 following a long and successful career at the Ford Motor Company.]
— William Wallace