The president of Yale College recently issued a call for calm and mutual respect in the face of hard feelings based largely on issues of race.
When I arrived at Yale College in 1942, I was told the color line had already been broken. But I had no personal contact with a non-white undergraduate until after World War II when, after my Navy service was over, I was back in New Haven to finish college. I went out for spring football in 1946 and enjoyed playing fullback in the T-formation. I thought my prospects as a starter looked pretty good.
In the summer of 1946, I worked out regularly, which I badly needed after getting very little exercise while at sea in the Navy. Holding onto a ship that is leaping and plunging beneath you is exercise of a sort, but not the kind that equips you for the rigors of football. As my condition improved with the coming of autumn, I felt ever more confident about making the varsity squad.
There was only one factor I was overlooking: the approach, with summer’s end, of a legendary African-American member of the freshman class. His reputation preceded him; there were those who spoke of him only in awed tones. He had made such a name for himself as a high school ball carrier in New Haven that it was not surprising that his arrival for fall football practice at Yale was eagerly awaited. In those early post-war days, freshmen could play on varsity teams.
The name of this football star was Levi Jackson, and I soon learned that his favorite position in the T-formation was fullback, the one I had set my sights on. From there, you could run around either end, or through the line, or throw passes. As I watched Levi in practice, I began to realize what I was up against. He seemed to be uncatchable once in the open field. He could dodge, twist, turn, break tackles and outrun most any pursuer. Compared to Levi, I seemed to move in slow motion.
One stifling late-summer afternoon, our coach, Howie Odell, decided to put on a half-scrimmage. The offense would have all 11 players but the defense no secondary, only linemen. The drill was simply to open up holes in the defensive line so the ball carrier could get through. Levi and I alternated on offense and ran various plays. We both cleared the defense twice and made it to the goal line. Levi did the same three times, while I, thanks perhaps to a missed block, was tripped up on my third try. Coach Howie shouted out, “What’s the matter with you, Carey? Are you tired or something?” And I was demoted from second string fullback.
After practice, Levi approached me with a kind word of sympathy. He did wonders for my spirits, and I watched with pleasure as his touchdowns mounted during the 1946 and later football seasons. At the end of the 1948 season, the time came for the entire squad to vote on who should lead them as captain in 1949.
The word quickly passed among the players that the vote should be unanimous for Levi. But to the astonished surprise of all, it was not so. One player did not vote with all the rest. Amazement and even anger spread through the locker room. Who could have voted against Levi? It turned out that his own vote was the sole dissent. He would not vote for himself.
I am proud to have known and competed with Levi.