Up Next

Harvard’s Chester Pierce was trailblazer in his field and on the field

He played football against UVA in ’47 before career as educator and psychiatry professor

Chester Pierce’s inclusion among the racial trailblazers in American sports during the 20th century was relatively understated. The media glare – such as it was in autumn 1947 – faded almost immediately. No one worked more to keep it that way than the lean, elegant man from Harvard with a quiet manner and easy smile.

“I didn’t do anything,” was his explanation to me when the two of us met for lunch around the corner from Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital and near his longtime home across the Charles River in the city’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Given his long list of accomplishments after he played football for the Crimson and graduated in 1948, maybe he was right.

Maybe being the first African-American to play in a major college football game at an all-white university south of the Mason-Dixon Line, at the University of Virginia, only months after Jackie Robinson famously brought down baseball’s color barrier, just wasn’t that big of a deal. At least not to him.

Pierce died last Wednesday following a lengthy illness. He was 89.

After completing his undergraduate work, Pierce went on to Harvard Medical School and earned great acclaim for his work in psychiatry. Mass General’s Division of Global Psychiatry was renamed for him in 2009. He specialized in how people react to extreme environments and racial relations. That’s why a peak in Antarctica is named for him and he participated in a civil rights rally alongside actor Charlton Heston. His varied professional work spanned such disparate entities as advising NASA and helping to launch Sesame Street.

Dr. Chester M. Pierce in April 1972.

Chester Pierce in April 1972.

David Cupp/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Alan Stone knew Pierce both as a football teammate and in the field of psychiatry. Stone was Pierce’s substitute at two-way tackle and will retire next year following 46 years as a Harvard psychiatry professor.

“His personality was just so admirable,” Stone said. “There was a quality of dignity that was really impressive.”

Pierce granted a rare interview on the subject of the Virginia trip on the game’s 50th anniversary to a member of the Harvard family. Boston sportswriter George Sullivan said he was a teenage water boy for that ’47 Harvard team. Pierce recounted the experience to Sullivan for The New York Times in October 1997.

“I remember nothing different in that game from any other I played at Harvard,” Pierce told Sullivan.

College football at that time operated under what was euphemistically called a “gentlemen’s agreement” when a school from the South wished to host a racially integrated team from another region. It was more of a compromise: A visiting school would reluctantly agree to leave any black players home, and the home team would attempt to negate any competitive advantage by benching corresponding players of equivalent talent.

But cracks in that unseemly practice began to appear in the late 1940s, in no coincidence with many college football players having returned from World War II, where whites and blacks shared K rations, foxholes and the possibility that they might not make it home alive.

One such episode occurred when Penn State was scheduled to play at the University of Miami during the 1946 season, and the “gentlemen’s agreement” became an unavoidable impediment. The Nittany Lions’ roster included two black players, both juniors and both starters. Wally Triplett was a two-way back, Dennie Hoggard an end.

The Penn State squad was informed of the unofficial racial rule in advance of traveling and was allowed to vote on whether to accept the conditions and play at Miami. The vote was overwhelmingly to cancel the game. Steve Suhey, a guard who’d just returned to campus following three years in the Pacific with the Army Air Corps, emphatically endorsed the decision by saying the white players wouldn’t leave their black teammates at home because “We are Penn State!” That cry is now heard across Beaver Stadium on autumn Saturdays.

Ezra E.H. Griffith’s 1998 book Race and Excellence: My Dialogue with Chester Pierce noted that Pierce grew up on Long Island, New York, and was the first black to be chosen as senior class president at Glen Cove High. Pierce chose Harvard, Griffith wrote, because the school principal told him that he might not be accepted there.

Any attempts by people at Virginia to have Harvard agree to leave home Pierce, a senior, were apparently blocked by the Crimson’s athletic director, Bill Bingham. The Cavaliers relented, and Pierce boarded a train in Boston late on a Thursday night for a ride into history. (One injured Harvard player who missed the trip was end Robert F. Kennedy.)

Pierce was greeted by a burst of flashbulbs when he stepped off the train. Said Stone, who stood nearby: “I got my picture in Time magazine through no accomplishment of my own.”

These events were followed keenly by the Boston Globe. The newspaper reported that Virginia’s university president, Colgate W. Darden Jr., mentioned Pierce at a UVA pep rally: “Chester Pierce, a Negro, is a guest of the University of Virginia, and nothing would shame us more than having an unfortunate incident during the game.” Darden’s plea was followed by cheers from most of the students, the Globe noted. Some in the crowd waved Confederate flags and sang Dixie.

When Harvard’s traveling party arrived at the Monticello Hotel, the Crimson’s head coach, Dick Harlow, was told Pierce could stay on the property but not in the actual hotel. Accommodations had been made in a separate building, a mansion. Harlow only agreed to that after insisting that some of his white players also stay in the mansion.

Besides the lodging quandary, there was the issue of dining. While Pierce was allowed to eat with the rest of the team in the hotel’s dining room, he wasn’t permitted to enter through the main entrance. Again, Harlow simply had all of his players come in through the alternate entrance that had been identified for their teammate.

In Pierce’s 1997 interview, he said Harlow also insisted on having Pierce walk alongside him when the team walked from the visitors locker room out to the field. “A very nice and courageous gesture by the coach,” Pierce said.

Stone recalled hundreds of blacks watching the Crimson practice that Friday from hills around the field, with shouts that he couldn’t identify as compliments or insults. By most accounts, the worst of the fan behavior that day consisted of obscenities and racial slurs yelled from among the 22,000 in attendance. Harvard’s starting fullback and captain, Vince Moravec, was lost in the first quarter to a season-ending leg injury. With Moravec likely went any chance of the visitors pulling an upset. Virginia outgained Harvard 250 yards to 63 and coasted to a 47-0 win.

The New York Times placed the Associated Press’ account of the game in the bottom right corner of the front page of its Sunday sports section. The most newsworthy aspect of the game, according to the story, was the Crimson suffering its worst loss since Harlow came aboard in 1935. Four paragraphs in, Pierce’s appearance was cited as “probably the first time a Negro had played against a Southern team on a Dixie campus.” The story further stated Pierce played well and was applauded when he left the game. The Boston Globe’s game coverage referred to Pierce’s presence as “almost forgotten.”

One of Virginia’s players was senior running back Ray Brown, nicknamed “All the Way Ray.” Brown admitted that he doesn’t remember many details about that game other than the Cavs’ winning margin was lopsided and “there were no problems whatsoever” between the UVA players and Pierce.

In the 1997 Times story, Pierce said, “I don’t recall a hint of anything racial on the field. I remember nothing different in that game from any other I played for Harvard … It was no big deal and took no courage by me.”

Pierce graduated from Harvard Medical School and was the founding president of the Black Psychiatrists of America. Stone said Pierce’s stance on race relations was that blacks should talk to blacks about it and whites should talk to whites instead of interracial discussions.

In 2007, Pierce returned to Charlottesville for a reason that had nothing to do with a football game played 60 years earlier or his skin color. He was awarded the university’s Vivian Penn Distinguished Lecturer’s Award for “lifetime achievement in the field of health disparities.”

Two years later, Mass General honored him with a ceremony at the Harvard Faculty Club. In the lengthy bio that appeared in the event’s printed program, mention of the 1947 game was tucked near the bottom, confined to one sentence.

Gregory Fricchione, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital psychiatry division, said the section’s namesake was revered not only for his professional standing but also for his demeanor and personality.

“He was a remarkable, remarkable human being,” Fricchione said. “He was the epitome of manhood. He was the kind of guy you wanted to grow up to be.

“For a man with such talent and accomplishments, he was also the most modest man. He was humble about his contributions, which were many.”

Those accomplishments included, whether Pierce would agree or not, that October 1947 afternoon in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Jeff Miller is a member of ESPN.com’s personalization team. He works from Texas, and his book detailing the racial desegregation of major college football in the Lone Star State — The Game Changers by Skyhorse Publishing — is scheduled for release in October.