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1939 Track Article

- Photo of 1939 Track Team

In 1939, the University of Missouri invited the University of Wisconsin and Notre Dame University to a triangular track meet to be held in Columbia, Missouri in April of that year. UW Coach Tom Jones had coached at Mizzou before World War One, and two of his former pupils now coached the track teams at Missouri and Notre Dame. The athletic competition was to be accompanied by a banquet to honor Jones and his ex-players.

Photo of Ed SmithTwo weeks before the contest, however, Missouri athletic officials notified Coach Jones that the Badgers' star hurdler, Ed Smith, an African-American, could not participate in the meet. The Tigers welcomed the rest of the UW squad, but they explained that local customs in Columbia prohibited racial integration.

Smith, who specialized in short hurdle events, was a valuable member of the Badgers' squad, and he would go on to be the team's second-leading point-winner during the 1939 season. Before Coach Jones could decide how to respond to the exclusion of his star hurdler, the Daily Cardinal created a fervor on campus by publicizing Missouri's ultimatum.

The student newspaper harshly criticized the Jim Crow policies of Missouri and declared that "if the University of Wisconsin, long proud of its liberal heritage, allows the 'Southern Gentlemen of Missouri' to dictate race discrimination, it will be violating one of its sacred precepts and encouraging racial prejudice." The Cardinal concluded that UW had "not only the legal right but a moral duty to refuse to participate in a meet which is discriminatory before is begins."

Several days after Missouri's segregationist request, the UW faculty senate held its regular monthly meeting. At the faculty gathering, Dean of the Law School, Lloyd K. Garrison, grandson of famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, introduced a resolution condemning Mizzou's color line and requesting that Wisconsin withdraw from the proposed meet. The faculty resolved that "as a matter of principle [we are] opposed to the engagement of a University athletic team in an intercollegiate contest in which any member of the team is barred because of his race." [Full the full text of the faculty's resolutions click here]

It was not only the faculty who objected to the color line. In the following days, numerous campus groups passed resolutions supporting Smith's equal opportunity. Fraternities, sororities and other organizations held indignation meetings and called for Wisconsin to drop out of the track meet.

Faced with a storm of controversy, Coach Jones, UW President Clarence Dykstra, and the athletic board made one last attempt to save the track meet. Wisconsin asked Missouri to reconsider its stance and to allow Smith to accompany his teammates. When Mizzou refused to alter its demands and continued to draw the color line, Wisconsin withdrew from the meet, which was later cancelled completely when Notre Dame also declined to come to Columbia.

In the aftermath of the incident, UW received much praise for its actions. The Capital Times wrote that "there are in this state many Negro citizens, and they are entitled to the same rights as citizens that people of the other color enjoy. It would have been grossly un-American to have condoned the race prejudice and bigotry exhibited at Missouri by accepting an invitation with such strings attached."

Surprisingly, however, opinion on the matter was not divided strictly along north-south lines. Long-time Wisconsin State Journal sports editor, Henry J. McCormick criticized UW for breaking its contract and suggested that "for Wisconsin to accept an engagement at a southern school and then try to have the host institution change its rule smacks of bad faith."

On the other side, not everyone in Columbia, Missouri supported the maintenance of the color line. The captain of the Mizzou track and field team, John Munski, lamented that the competition had been cancelled and said simply, "I guess they are still fighting the Civil war here in Missouri."

By refusing to abide by Missouri's Jim Crow, the University of Wisconsin became one of the first northern schools since the World War One-era to stand up to southern segregationists. In the next few years, similar incidents at Harvard and NYU spawned student-led demonstrations decrying the color line of all-white institutions. These popular protests were the first baby steps in a movement that eventually resulted in the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision.

For Further Reading:

Miller, Patrick B. "Slouching Toward a New Expediency: College Football and the Color Line During the Depression Decade," American Studies Vol. 40, No. 3 (Fall 1999), pages

Miller, Patrick B. "Harvard and the Color Line: The Case of Lucien Alexis, Jr." Sports in Massachusetts: Historical Essays. Ronald Story, ed. Westfield, Mass.: Institute for Massachusetts Studies (1991), pages 137-160.

Gregory Bond, Ph.D.
History, University of Wisconsin

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