With two dynamic black quarterbacks starring in the BCS championship game, now is a good time to take a break from the hype (pre-game and post-game) to have a brief history lesson on the first black college quarterback, Harvard’s William Clarence Matthews who played his first game in 1901. His exploits on the baseball diamond are well documented, but little is known about his football career. The fact that he played professional baseball, and was almost signed by Boston’s National League baseball team in 1905, has trumped his football status.
To be clear, when I say the first black quarterback I am referring to players who played at predominately white institutions. Black schools that had football teams had black quarterbacks. Before starring at Harvard, Matthews, the Alabama native, helped organize the first team at Booker T. Washington’s famed Tuskegee Institute. According to Matthews, although players at black schools held the “same interests and excitement” for football that white students had, there was a major difference between the black institutions and white schools; “The Negro schools [had] the game minus the business of foot-ball.” “In Yale, Harvard or Princeton,” Matthews suggested, “the player [had] to undergo the strictest discipline, which comes under the general head of ‘training.’ This element, which by the way is very essential to the best development, is eliminated in the Negro schools and partly accounts for the lack of foot-ball ability.” In other words, the black colleges did not treat football like an exploitive business. Moreover, because of Jim Crow, black schools lacked the necessary funds for training, facilities, and equipment to compete with the top white institutions. They also didn’t have to deal with the overt racism from teammates and opponents, as Matthews found out.
After starring at Tuskegee in both baseball and football, Matthews graduated in 1897 and transferred to Philips Andover, where he became a two -sport star and captain of the baseball team. Despite his success on the gridiron and the baseball diamond, Matthews could not escape racist teammates. One baseball teammate, a southern man, refused to eat at the same training table as Matthews. Because this teammate transferred to Yale to play baseball, Matthews chose to attend Harvard. He made the right decision. Although, Harvard was no bastion of integration, the school had a history of black athletic success and some tolerance. In 1859, for example, they hired the first physical culture teacher in the nation, a black man named Aaron Molineaux Hewlett. From 1859-1871, Hewlett taught PE, sparring lessons, and coached baseball and rowing. Only one black student attended the school during Hewlett’s tenure. During the 1890s, William Henry Lewis, the first black All-American, starred on the football team and coached the team. Lewis’s success paved the way for Matthews. In the fall of 1901, Matthews earned acclaim on campus when he became the first black college quarterback. Against Bates, Matthews “put up a good game at quarter… He jumped into popularity at once. His playing was applauded and his work was watched with the greatest interest for he is one of the smallest men that has ever played on a Crimson eleven.”
While Harvard adored him, most schools hated the thought of competing against a black man. In his first baseball season, 1902, the University of Virginia refused to play Harvard if Matthews played. Unfortunately, Harvard cowardly sat their star infielder. For the next fifty years, most northern schools sat their black stars when playing Southern teams. Fortunately, the Virginia contest was the last time Harvard backed down to racism during Matthews’s tenure. They forced teams like Georgetown and West Point to play them with Matthews or forfeit the game. Playing the game, however, put Matthews in danger. Plenty of opponents despised playing against a black man, especially players at Yale.
By 1904, Yale footballers had grown tired of having to face their black opponent and decided to teach Matthews a lesson. Yale, always known to have more southerners than Harvard, repeatedly asked Harvard to sit Matthews for their game on November 21. Despite pleads and warnings from the legendary Yale coach Walter Camp, the father of football, Matthews played. According to one report, with the headline that read “Yale Nearly Kills Negro,” the Yale players “hammered and slugged him so hard that he was knocked out and had to retire from the game. It is said that they would have killed him had he stayed.” Moreover, “one player grabbed him around the neck and twisted it so hard that Matthews’ life was in danger.” Yale was not the only team that hated Harvard for playing a black man. Princeton and Yale reportedly discussed forming a new football league excluding the integrated Harvard. Princeton, whose players’ viciously targeted black Dartmouth player Matthew Bullock the previous fall, told Harvard to get rid of Matthews too. In 1903, when Princeton played Dartmouth, the Princeton Inn refused to let Bullock stay in their hotel. On the field, Princeton players attacked Bullock, telling teammates “remember what you are to do with the nigger.” After the third play, a Princeton player jumped on Bullock and dislocated his shoulder. When confronted, the racist attacker said “We’ll teach you not to bring niggers down to play against us.” Bullock, a star end for four years, graduated from Dartmouth and eventually became the head football coach at Amherst. In 1909, he left the north to coach at the black school Atlanta Baptist.
So what happened to Matthews? The two-sport star was more than just an athlete. Matthews was the true definition of scholar-athlete. “In addition to his being an athlete of the first rank,” one 1904 report stated, “Matthews is also a student of high standing and a man of positive exemplary character.” In fact, he was enrolled in the Harvard Law School when the Yale incident occurred. Matthews, the epitome of the scholar athlete, continued to succeed on the baseball diamond and in the classroom and played professional baseball while earning his law degree. In 1913, President Taft admitted Matthews to the Bar of Massachusetts. The ex-star athlete also involved himself in party politics and by 1924 he was head organizer of the “colored section” of the Republican National Committee. The following year President Coolidge rewarded him for his work and loyalty and appointed Matthews Special Assistance to the Attorney General of the United States. Unfortunately, the athletic star that made his way from Tuskegee to Harvard died in 1928 at the young age of 51 in San Francisco, California.