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Fielding Yost’s racist call against a Black UM football player in 1934, and the fallout in 2021

Courtesy of Rentschler's Studio photograph collection, Bentley Image Bank, Bentley Historical Library

Back in 1934, the University of Michigan and Georgia Tech football teams met in a game at Michigan Stadium. Ahead of the event, Georgia Tech made a demand of the U of M athletic director, legendary football coach Fielding Yost: bench Michigan’s Black football player, Willis Ward, or Georgia Tech would refuse to compete. Yost agreed to the racist request and barred Ward from playing and from the stadium that day.

Almost nine decades later, after an investigation into Yost’s past actions concluded he committed racist offenses against his own players, an advisory committee to UM has recommended his name be removed from Yost Ice Arena, where hockey is played on campus.

Buddy Moorehouse, a journalist and co-creator of the documentary Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward, and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game, said part of the context of Yost's actions is his having been the son of a Confederate soldier. 

“There was no question that he wanted his football teams to remain all white,” Moorehouse said. “The entire time that he was there [as coach], there was never an African American football player on Michigan's team.”

Credit Courtesy of University of Michigan Alumni Association, Bentley Image Bank, Bentley Historical Library
University of Michigan football player Willis Ward, circa 1934.

He became Michigan’s football coach in 1901. He became the university’s athletic director in 1921. About a decade later, Ward joined Michigan’s football and track teams. Moorehouse said that, by the time Ward was a senior in 1934, he was one of the football team’s best players — along with his friend and teammate, future U.S. President Gerald Ford.

Then came the Georgia Tech game.

“Back then there was a terrible Jim Crow practice that said that teams from the South would refuse to play against any team from the North if the team from the North had an African American player. They would insist that that player be benched for that game,” said Moorehouse.

Yost decided that Ward would not only be benched for the Georgia Tech game, but also that he wouldn’t even be allowed in the stadium on gameday, said Moorehouse.

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“It caused a firestorm on campus,” Moorehouse said. “Michigan started getting inundated with telegrams and letters and postcards and phone calls from all over the country, from Michigan alumni primarily. And most all of them said that this is not what Michigan is — there's no way that Michigan should play this game if Willis Ward is benched.”

As word of the decision about the upcoming game spread, some groups on campus, including members of fraternities, suggested that Yost’s plan to bench Ward was the right choice.

Credit Courtesy of University of Michigan Athletic Department, Bentley Image Bank, Bentley Historical Library
UM football coach and athletic director Fielding Yost at a desk in the Athletic Administration building, circa 1940.

“They said that these are our guests from the South, and we need to respect them and their traditions,” Moorehouse said.

But, he added, many students and faculty, as well as fellow football players, expressed support for Ward.

“Ford actually said that he was going to quit the team in response to it,” said Moorehouse. “And Willis Ward told him that, no, this is not a battle that you have — this is a battle that they have with me. You need to go out and play, and you need to win the game, and you need to do it for the team and for me. And so that's what Gerald Ford did.”

Still, Yost’s racist decision — which he never addressed publicly — had a permanent impact on Ward’s life and athletic career, Moorehouse said. While at U of M, Ward was also a track star, with a shot at gold medals in the upcoming 1936 Olympics in Berlin. But after Yost prevented him from playing in 1934, things changed for Ward. 

Credit Courtesy of University of Michigan Athletic Department, Bentley Image Bank, Bentley Historical Library
UM football player Willis Ward catches a pass in practice.

“He was humiliated,” Moorehouse said. “He was so disheartened by what had happened with the Georgia Tech game that he decided he was going to quit sports altogether, and he never competed in the Olympics.”  

He went on to work as an executive at Ford Motor Company before becoming a civil rights attorney and later a probate court judge in Wayne County, Moorehouse said. Ward died in 1983.

The U of M committee recommending the removal of Yost’s name from the U of M ice arena will make its final proposal to campus leadership after June 7. Moorehouse said he hopes the university will recognize Ward’s experiences and accomplishments alongside its acknowledgement of Yost.

“Whatever we do with Fielding Yost on campus in the future, we need to make sure that we tell the story of Willis Ward alongside that,” he said. “Anything that we can do to get out the story of Willis Ward is a good thing.”

Stateside reached out to the University of Michigan for comment on this story. While representatives for the university did not weigh in on the recommendation, they said: “In 2020, multiple requests to remove the honorific name of Fielding H. Yost from the ice arena were received and referred to the President's Advisory Committee on University History for review pursuant to our established process in such cases. The committee’s preliminary recommendation comes after a year of study by the panel of university historians.”

University of Michigan holds Michigan Radio’s broadcasting license.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

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