99 Years Ago Today, Paul Robeson was excluded from the Rutgers Football team

Paul Robeson, Rutgers SophomoreOn this date in 1916, sophomore Paul Robeson was removed from the Rutgers Football team for a game scheduled to celebrate the sesquicentennial celebration of the founding of Rutgers (1766-1916). It wasn’t that Robeson didn’t have the juice; he was one of the team’s best players. But Washington and Lee University of Lexington, Virginia, refused to play against a Black player, a player they considered racially inferior. And they made that known.

Rutgers caved to their demand. James D. Carr, an 1892 Rutgers graduate and only the second African-American ever to attend RU, sent a letter to the Rutgers president William H. S. Demarest. Quoting:

Is it possible that the honor of Rutgers is virile only when untested and unchallenged? Shall men, whose progenitors tried to destroy this Union, be permitted to make a mockery of our democratic ideals by robbing a youth, whose progenitors helped to save the Union, of that equality of opportunity and privilege that should be the crowning glory of our institutions of learning?

Robeson was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa and a Commencement speaker. Valedictorian of his class. He went on to be named a football All-American, twice, and a lawyer. He became one of America’s best known singers, actors and speakers and was known throughout the world.

But on this day, 99 years ago, he was separated from his football team at Rutgers, when some visitors from Virginia had trouble recognizing that the Civil War was over.

A little New Jersey history I didn’t know till today, courtesy of the (Howard) Zinn Education Project.

Comment (1)

  1. Marion Mahoney

    I found out about this situation when investigating the similar one that Washington and Lee attempted at Washington and Jefferson College in 1923. My grandfather, Robert Martin Murphy (graduate manager, administrator of the college, and student solicitor) ignored the request, so it came down to an ugly situation at game time. Charles Pruner West was a beloved member of the team, and had been for three years. The previous January, he replaced Ray McLaughlin (injured quarterback) in the Tournament of Roses game: W&J vs California Golden Bears. Score: 0-0. Pruner was, in fact, just honored posthumously and inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame as the first black QB to play in Pasadena. What I wonder, and I have asked Washington and Lee, is WHY they signed the contract in January 1923 to play W&J when it was well known they had Pruner West as a player.


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