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First Black All-American College Football Player Honored, Belatedly

William Henry Lewis, holding the captain's tassle at far left, in a group portrait at Amhert. (Courtesy of Evan J. Albright)

William Henry Lewis, holding the captain's tassle at far left, in an Amherst College team portrait. (Courtesy of Evan J. Albright)

BOSTON — Last week in New York City, the College Football Hall of Fame inducted its class of 2009.

William Henry Lewis was among the 18 men honored. To describe his induction as “belated” would be an understatement. Lewis played his football at Amherst College and Harvard University in the early 1890s, and at those two schools, according to Evan Albright, who has written extensively about Lewis, he began accumulating a long list of achievements and distinctions.

“He was the first black All-American football player, for heaven’s sake,” Albright said. “He was the first African-American to captain a predominantly white team, which he did at Harvard. He also captained the Amherst squad when he was there. He wrote one of the first books on football, a primer on college football. And he was the first paid coach that Harvard ever had for its football program.”

Under the eligibility rules of that time, Lewis could play for Harvard while he was attending the law school there, even though he’d played as an undergraduate at Amherst.

After his playing and coaching days were over, Lewis moved on to achieve various other distinctions. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him assistant U.S. attorney for Boston. A few years later, President William Howard Taft made Lewis an assistant attorney general, which, according to Albright, continued Lewis’s list of firsts.

“It was, at the time, the highest federal office ever achieved by an African-American, and, in fact, it was the highest office ever achieved by an African-American for more than 40 years,” Albright said.

“I think it wasn’t until the Eisenhower Administration that someone received a higher post in a presidential administration. It was very controversial.”

William Henry Lewis (Courtesy of Evan J. Albright)

William Henry Lewis (Courtesy of Evan J. Albright)

Well over 100 years after William Henry Lewis helped Harvard win 22 games while losing just two, the matter of African-American coaches on at the top level of college football is still controversial.

Richard Lapchick is director of the Devos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida and has written extensively about matters of race and sport.

“College football has been the most problematic of all the positions,” Lapchick said.

“I co-authored the autobiography of Eddie Robinson with Coach Robinson, and when I met him in 1997 for the first time, one of the things we discussed was that there were only eight African-American coaches in Division 1-A, now called the FBS, and when I delivered part of his eulogy 10 years later at Grambling State, I had to mention that in that 10 years, the numbers had gotten worse. There were only going to be five African-American head coaches that next year.”

As of Thursday, that number was up to 13. Perhaps the improvement will endure, but Lapchick hopes writers and historians will continue to celebrate the stories of African-Americans who achieved firsts.

A couple of years ago, Lapchick wrote a book about African-American athletes who had broken barriers as pro or college players. The response at the schools where the athletes had played surprised him.

“Whether it was the Ivy League schools, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, or ACC, 70 percent of the schools had no idea who their first African-American student athlete was, and they all went back and found them, and began celebrating them on their campuses as a result of figuring out this was probably a pretty good idea.”

The time for celebrating, or re-celebrating, the achievements and distinctions of William Henry Lewis came this month at the induction ceremonies of the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame. Evan Albright is among those applauding that development.

“I thought it was a wonderful thing that they did, that they went back and found Lewis,” Albright said.

“I mean, he was the most famous African-American, at one point, in the United States. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, particularly when he was appointed assistant attorney general of the United States, and he had an amazing life.”

Now that “amazing life” has become at least a little less obscure thanks to the efforts of the College Football Hall of Fame.

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