A Touchdown For Equality

By Rashid Faisal, Ed.D.
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In 1890, George Jewett became a student at the University of Michigan and changed history, becoming the school's first African-American football player and varsity letterman. Through two enormously successful seasons, Jewett led with courage, resilience, and tenacity--both on the field and in the classroom.

By the time George Jewett--U-M's first African-American football player and letterman--joined the team, the university was concentrating on its Midwestern rivals, including the University of Wisconsin, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and the University of Minnesota.

Intelligent, athletic, sociable, and well-liked, George H. Jewett Jr. embodied what twentieth-century U-M football Coach Bo Schembechler called a "Michigan man."

 

After a storied career at Ann Arbor High School (nows Pioneer High) Jewett enrolled at U-M in 1890 with aspirations of attending medical school and playing varsity football. There, he became a trailblazer, solidifying the tradition of academic and athletic excellence that has come to define the university.

In the late nineteenth century, football spread from its original home in the northeastern region of the United States--where Rutgers and Princeton Universities faced off in the first-ever game of college football on November 6, 1869--to Midwestern and Southern colleges and universities. A tradition of excellence that would come to define University of Michigan (U-M) football started on May 30,1879, when the Wolverines defeated Racine College in the first college football game in the Midwest.

During the 1890s, U-M was one of the nation's largest universities, with more than 2,000 students attending in the year 1889. The previous decade, the school played East Coast powerhouses--such as Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and Cornell Universities--and the University of Pennsylvania.

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University of Michigan 1879 Team

A Star Scholar-Athlete
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 This photograph of the 1891 Amherst squad shows Jackson in the back row with Lewis immediately in front of him, holding the football.

 

The father of George Jewett, George Jewett Sr., was a part of the African-American migration to the Midwest during the decades after the Civil War. The Jewett family, originally from Bowling Green, Kentucky, settled in Ann Arbor with hopes of escaping Southern racism and discrimination.

Although racism was less violent in the Midwest, the Jewetts--along with other African-American families--were subjected to discrimination in many areas of life, including employment, housing, public accommodations, recreation, and education. Like many of the early African-American migrants to Ann Arbor, George Jewett Sr. possessed a skilled trade. He opened his own blacksmith shop upon settling in the city. In April of 1870, George Henry Jewett Jr. was born to George Sr. and his wife, Letty, a laundress.

At Ann Arbor High School, now Pioneer High School, the younger Jewett excelled in the classroom, captained the debate team, and was selected as class valedictorian in 1889. He spoke German, Italian, and French in addition to English--language proficiencies that would serve him well later in life as an entrepreneur.

Jewett was also a star athlete and captained the track, baseball, and football teams. In track, he earned the distinction of being the fastest sprinter in the Midwest after winning the Amateur Athletic Union's 100-yard dash.

After a stellar high school career, Jewett enrolled in the literature department at U-M from 1890 to 1893. A successful scholar-athlete--and the son of a well-to-do blacksmith who set an early example of entrepreneurship--Jewett aspired to attend medical school while also playing football for the U-M Wolverines.

In 1890, Jewett joined U-M's football team--becoming not only the school's first African-American football player but also the first African American to play in what would later become the Big Ten Conference. Jewett was almost the first African American to play college football. He was preceded in 1889 by Amherst College's William Henry Lewis and William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson.

During the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, a handful of African-American athletes donned football uniforms at Northern and Midwestern colleges and universities. Though they experienced racial discrimination and social isolation, those early pioneers advanced the cause of racial equality by proving their courage and grit against European-American opponents.

 
The 1890 Season

By historical accounts, Jewett was one of the greatest players in U-M football. In the November 8,1890, issue of the Indianapolis Freeman, he was called "the Afro-American phenomenon of the University of Michigan football team" based on his superior performance on the football field, or gridiron.

In the 1890-1891 and 1892-1893 seasons, Jewett started at halfback and fullback. He was U-M's leading rusher, scorer, and kicker--and on his way to becoming the first African American in the school's history to receive a varsity letter in football. Michigan football historians have argued that Jewett ranks with the all-time U-M greats, such as William Heston and Tom Harmon.

1890-1891 UM football team photo. Jewett is in the center. (Photo: Bentley Historical Library)

U-M opened the season against Albion College. Jewett played in the first football game covered by the U-M newspaper, The Michigan Daily, thrashing Albion 56 to 10 on October 11,1890. He scored four touchdowns and kicked two goals for touchdowns to account for 20 of U-M's points.

On October 25,1890, U-M faced and defeated Albion again--this time by a score of 16 to 0. During the game, Jewett faced racism from the opposing team and fans. He was repeatedly piled on and endured frequent late tackles that were intended to injure him. Jewett responded by slugging one of the Albion players in the face.

The Albion fans went wild after Jewett's retaliation. Violent racial epithets rang from the Albion side of the stands. Crowds from both sides surged onto the field and threw blows. A riot was prevented by police intervention.

In spite of the racially charged atmosphere, Jewett put on another masterful performance, scoring a touchdown and then kicking a field goal to lead U-M to a shutout victory.

In the early years of football, violence leading to serious injury or death was not uncommon. African-American players were specifically targeted with physical violence from opposing players. In spite of the racial etiquette demanding that African Americans quietly submit to racially motivated roughhousing and abuse, Jewett gained a reputation for being quick-tempered and retaliatory--and in some cases, he actually initiated the violence.

Jewett was disqualified in a 0-to-10 loss against Cornell University for punching his opponent in the jaw during a game in which tempers flared on both sides of the ball. Jewett, determined to prove he was the better player and just as manly as his European-American opponents, was willing to breach racial etiquette by engaging in fisticuffs with the opposite team, even at the risk of prompting a riot.

The 1890 season proved successful, with the Wolverines compiling a 4-1 record and outscoring opponents 129 to 36. U-M's only loss was to Cornell University in the final game of the season. Jewett was the team's most valuable player. Throughout the season, he earned 50 points total by scoring 11 touchdowns, worth 4 points each, and kicking 3 goals for touchdowns, worth 2 points apiece.

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Michigan Daily, November 10, 1891

 
 
 
Leaving U-M

Over the 1892-1893 season, Jewett attempted to enroll at the U-M medical school but was rebuffed by Dr. Victor Vaughan, dean of the Medical School. During a period of U.S. history characterized by the widespread acceptance of African Americans as both intellectually and physically inferior to European Americans, Vaughan gave lectures on eugenics and the forced sterilization of the "unfit" at U-M. Vaughan, informed by racist beliefs in the inferiority of African Americans, insisted that Jewett could not play football and attend medical school at the same time.

Prompted by that encounter with Vaughan, Jewett made the decision to transfer from U-M to pursue medical studies at Northwestern University. Since few schools were willing to admit African-American students regardless of their qualifications and academic achievement, people of color seeking medical education were mostly limited to the Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. Jewett was able to continue his studies at Northwestern a time when African Americans faced difficult prospects at predominately white universities.

While earning his medical degree at Northwestern, Jewett was a fullback, halfback, and kicker for the Wildcats. He lettered for two seasons--1893-1894 and 1894-1895--before completing his medical degree. Because of his decision to transfer to Northwestern, Jewett has the rare distinction of being both the first African-American football player to attend two Big Ten universities and the first African American to play in the Western Conference--the precursor to the Big Ten.

1891 - Two stone hospital buildings open on Catherine Street – the eastern one with 65 beds for the main Medical School and the western one with 40 beds for the homeopathic school. They stood on the site where the Taubman Health Sciences Library and Medical Science II building entrances stand today. (Photo courtesy of Bentley Historical Library)

From Doctor to Entrepreneur

After graduating from Northwestern's medical school in 1894, Jewett entered the medical profession during a period in which the disparity between health care for African and European Americans was wide. Following a brief stint as a doctor in Chicago where he struggled to find stable employment, Jewett returned to Ann Arbor. He coached at Michigan Agricultural College--now Michigan State University--Ypsilanti Normal College, and Olivet College. He also worked as a janitor at U-M's School of Music.

In 1899, Jewett opened a successful dry-cleaning and pressing business called The Valet. Located at 410 South State Street, between The First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor and Newberry Hall, Jewett's business thrived--delivering clean, pressed clothing to waiting customers from a well-appointed carriage.

The Valet was successful because Jewett served an integrated clientele. He took advantage of his network at U-M and his popularity as a former gridiron great to form a client base that included African Americans, European Americans, and immigrants. Jewett could be spotted tooling around Ann Arbor--impeccably dressed in a derby hat, spats, and a well-tailored suit--using his fluency in German, French, and Italian to communicate with his immigrant customers in their native tongues.

Jewett died suddenly at the age of 38 from heart disease on August 12, 1908, while working in his shop. Jewett left behind his wife, Lillian, and two sons, 6-year-old George H. Jewett III and 8-day-old Richard. Jewett was buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Ann Arbor.

The year of Jewett's death, Fielding H. Yost was in his eighth year as the coach of the Wolverines. That year, not a single African American played on the U-M football team. When Dr. George H. Jewett earned his varsity letter as a member of the team, no one could have predicted that it would take 40 years for another African American to earn the same honor.

For more information email the author Rashid Faisal at faisal@umich.edu

Lillian (Zebbs)Jewett, wife of George Jewett, c. 1895.

(Photo: Bentley Historical Library)

George Jewett c. 1895, after he left the U-M to attend Northwestern University.

(Photo:Bentley Historical Library)

George Jewett Forest Hill

Forest Hill Cemetery in Ann Arbor.

1899 City Directory

Jewett's Second Season

Jewett did not play in the 1891-1892 season--though whether that was because of racial tensions or because he wanted to focus on his studies is unclear. In his absence, the team compiled a 4-5 record. After defeating Albion College twice the previous year with a Jewett-led team, U-M lost to Albion for the first time by a score of 4 to 10 at the Washtenaw County Fairgrounds, the U-M football team's first home field. Jewett's superior speed, skill, and toughness were missed during that season.

However, Jewett did return for the next season as a starter and halfback for every game. He led the Wolverines to a 7-5 record in the team's first year as a member of the newly formed Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the Northwest, consisting of U-M, the University of Minnesota, Northwestern University, and the University of Wisconsin. The 1892-1893 lineup was the first U-M team to win seven games in a season.

At the conclusion of the famed Michigan-Oberlin game of 1892, Oberlin College's coach, John Heisman, described Jewett as a "superior athlete." And rightfully so--Jewett scored four touchdowns in the game, including a disputed, unopposed 45-yard touchdown run that sealed the win over the previously unbeaten Oberlin team.

That same season, Jewett led the Wolverines to an 18-to-0 victory over the famed Amos Alonzo Staggled football team of the University of Chicago. Jewett scored two of U-M's three touchdowns and set up the third by tossing a lateral to a teammate. Football historians credit Stagg with developing the lateral pass among many other game tactics.

In 1954, Ralph Stone, who was one of Jewett's fellow Wolverines during the 1890s, complimented Jewett's performance on the field: "Without the benefit of blockers to clear a path for him, he could dodge, wriggle, twist, pivot, and whirl through the opposing team."

The 1892-1893 team photo for the University of Michigan (U-M) football team. George Jewett, the only African American on the team, sits in the third row from the top, second from the right.

The 1892-1893 team photo for the University of Michigan (U-M) football team. George Jewett, the only African American on the team, sits in the third row from the top, second from the right. (Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library)

John Heisman
John Heisman, described
Jewett as a "superior athlete." Aside from the trophy that bears his name, Heisman is perhaps best known today as a pioneer of the forward pass
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Coleman Jewett and the Family Legacy
Coleman Jewett, 1994

A quintessential son of Ann Arbor, Coleman Jewett, passed away on January 23, 2013,  Born to a family that has been in Ann Arbor since the 1850's, the son of Richard Jewett and Iva Dean, Coleman was a huge presence in the Ann Arbor educational, recreational and social service community. He is pictured on the left at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market in 1994 and on the right, Coleman Jewett Reads in the Dunbar Center Library on 4th Avenue, September 1944

 

He was a well known Ann Arbor athlete, educator and craftsman, and grandfather of Michele Jewett Trigg and Michael Jewett, the host of 89.1 Jazz heard on weekday afternoons on WEMU radio. (photos:oldnews.aadl.org)

Coleman Jewett, 1944