Black History-UW Athletics
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African-American Pioneers by Sport 1900-1970
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In 1899, Julian V. Ware tried out for the varsity football team. Although he impressed in early season practices, he left the squad before appearing in a game. 19 years later, Madison-native Leo V. Butts became the first African-American to play varsity football for the Badgers, when he suited up for the 1918 squad.
Track star William Exum was the next known African-American to make the varsity football squad in 1929. After taking several years off from school, Exum also played with the 1934 football team. Unfortunately, academic troubles and a nagging ankle injury cut Exum's football career short, and it is unclear whether or not he appeared in a game for the Badgers.
Over these years, several African-American students also played on the UW freshman football team. W. Cecil Bratton starred for the frosh squad in 1923, and, in 1937, Lester Brownlee was one of the leaders of the freshman team.
In the late 1940s, running backs Cal Vernon and Bob Teague were the first two black athletes to earn regular playing time for the UW varsity. Madison's own Ed Withers, a crafty defensive halfback, was the first black Badger to win All-American honors in 1950.
The 1952 varsity squad was the last in UW history not to feature any African-American players. Throughout the rest of the 1950s, however, numerous blacks made the Badgers. Recognizing the importance of preserving equal opportunities for all its players, the athletic department in 1956 cancelled a game with Louisiana State University that would have barred African-American athletes.
Wisconsin continued to break barriers in the 1950s, when the Badger coaching staff tabbed Sidney Williams, a native of racially troubled Little Rock, Arkansas, as their starting quarterback in 1956. Williams was the first black starting quarterback in modern Big Ten history.
In 1966, long-time Texas high school coach Les Ritcherson became the first African-American to join the Badger coaching staff. Ritcherson, one of the first black assistants for a major college program, coached receivers and tight ends for four seasons.
Gregory Bond, Ph.D
History, University of Wisconsin