Blazing the trail

As a child, Levi Jackson ’50 was — as his older sister, Mable Coleman, described him — a “teeny little squirt.” Because of his size, when Jackson and his sister would walk the mile and a half back from school to their Branford, Conn., house, other kids would often chase him home.

But just 10 years later, that little squirt would be one of the best football players Yale had ever seen. Jackson was the school’s first ever black football player, and in 1948, he was elected the first black captain at Yale in any sport.

Levi Jackson ’50 was the first African American member of the varsity football team, as well as the first black athlete to captain a Yale varsity team. He led the Bulldogs to a 29–6 win in The Game in 1949.
Yale Athletics
Levi Jackson ’50 was the first African American member of the varsity football team, as well as the first black athlete to captain a Yale varsity team. He led the Bulldogs to a 29–6 win in The Game in 1949.
Levi Jackson ’50 chose to attend Yale instead of playing for the NFL’s New York Giants.
Yale Athletics
Levi Jackson ’50 chose to attend Yale instead of playing for the NFL’s New York Giants.

And after graduating from Yale, Jackson continued to challenge racial norms. He became the first African American executive of Ford Motor Company and helped blacks across the country to find jobs with the company. He also assisted blacks in opening up their own car dealerships, his daughter, Denyse Jackson, said. After Jackson’s death in December 2000, Ford Motor Company Chairman Bill Ford honored the former executive as someone whose “life was the clearest expression of a team player who played honorably and admirably and accomplished much.”

HOMETOWN PRODUCT

Jackson was born in 1926 and grew up as the youngest of six children. Coleman said their father was a cook and their mother was a stay-at-home mother. Jackson’s mother was unable to read or write but would tell her children from the moment they entered school that they would stay there until they graduated. Coleman remembers when her brother would come home from school and read stories from his first-grade reader to his mother, describing her brother as something of a mama’s boy.

Jackson attended Branford High School but later transferred to Hillhouse High School after two years. At Hillhouse, the five-foot-ten, 187-pound running back played under head coach Reggie Root ’26, a former Yale head coach and player for the Bulldogs.

Root encouraged Jackson to apply to Yale and play for the Elis. But Jackson enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduating high school and ended up at Camp Lee in Virginia with former high school and future Yale teammate Lenny Fasano ’50, Fasano said.

At Camp Lee, both players continued to compete in organized football games against other teams from around the country. Fasano said that because of the racial climate in the South, Jackson’s opponents would often take “cheap shots” at him because of the color of his skin. But Fasano said he and his teammates would not hesitate to come to Jackson’s defense out of their respect for him and his abilities.

“One of our players would go over to the other side and would say ‘We respect a good hard game, but if we see any foul play against Levi, we will retaliate,’ ” Fasano said.

YALE OVER PRO FOOTBALL

In 1945, Jackson’s Camp Lee team defeated the New York Giants 7–0 thanks to his 80-yard touchdown run, prompting Giants head coach Steve Owen to offer Jackson a spot on the team. He would have been the first African American to play in what is now the National Football League. (Although early professional teams had featured black players on their rosters, the league prohibited black players from competing from 1933 to 1946.) But Jackson declined the offer.

Coleman said their mother had always wanted Jackson to go to Yale, and that it was part of Jackson’s personality to do anything to please her.

“My mother dreamed of him going to Yale, and I think she had a big factor into it,” she said. “That was the only college really that we knew about.”

Jackson enrolled at Yale in 1946 and started garnering national attention even before he had played one down for the Bulldogs. He was the first black athlete to play on Yale’s varsity football team, and The New York Times printed an article describing the excitement around his enrollment at Yale.

“The 190-pound Negro fullback, the first of his race to ever play on the Yale varsity, has caused more excitement here than any ball-carrier since All-American Clinton Frank, and the season doesn’t open for two weeks,” the article said.

And Jackson didn’t disappoint. In his first varsity game, against Kings Point Merchant Marine Academy, he notched one 59- and one six-yard touchdown run in a 33–0 win for the Elis. Coleman said the crowd would often start replacing the words of the Yale fight song with her brother’s name.

“It was a pleasure to see him play, and they would sing, ‘Levi Levi Levi Yale,’ ” she said. “It was just a remarkable experience.”

Indeed, during his Yale career, Jackson broke or tied 13 Yale records.

49–1

Jackson was elected the first black captain of any Yale sports team by his teammates in November 1948 in a landslide 49–1 election. The only vote against Jackson was his own, Fasano said.

Despite the team’s lack of racial diversity at that time, Fasano said they never saw Jackson as any different from them.

“He was a gifted athlete,” former teammate Vic Frank ’50 LAW ’53 said. “More importantly, he had a wonderful sense of humor. He was courageous on the field and a pleasure to be with.”

Fasano remembered a time when the team was invited to an event at a country club. Once the team arrived, the club’s owners told the team that no blacks were allowed. Fasano said that without hesitation, the team decided to leave the club in a show of support for Jackson. As far as the players were concerned, the entire team was a family, Fasano said.

Jackson’s election was also considered special outside Yale at the time. Newspapers across the country, such as the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times, covered the story.

“It never dawned on us that we were ahead of our time,” Fasano said. “We liked [Jackson], he was one of us. It wasn’t because he was black. He was part of the team… It was just a family and we voted for the one we thought was the best, the one that we liked to play under.”

After the Bulldogs lost to Harvard 20–7 in 1948, Jackson led the Bulldogs to a 29–6 victory in The Game in 1949. In what would be the final game of his career, Jackson scored a 34-yard touchdown as well as an eight-yard receiving score for the Elis.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN DETROIT

After graduating in 1950, Jackson accepted a job with the Ford Motor Company, later becoming the first African American to hold an executive position with the company.

After the Detroit race riots in 1967, Jackson was instrumental in leading Ford’s efforts to work with the city to improve the quality of life of African Americans and bolster Ford’s hiring of minorities, Denyse Jackson said. Soon after the riots, Jackson became a member of the newly formed New Detroit Committee, which strove to address the issues that had sparked the violence, according to the organization’s Web site.

Jackson’s daughter, Denyse, said the problems revealed by the riots were important to her father.

“It was like the whole city was on fire,” she said about the riots. “It was a scary time when you watched it on television, but that’s why I appreciated my father so much because he took us right down to where the riots started and explained a lot about the inequalities. He explained why [the riots] started, why people were angry.”

Jackson was also instrumental in creating Ford’s Minority Dealership Training Program, Denyse Jackson said. He told the Chicago Tribune in 1971 that most blacks opened dealerships in the inner city while whites opened them in the suburbs. Opening a dealership in the inner city was more costly than in the suburbs because of higher insurance rates, Jackson said at the time, arguing that customers preferred to go to the suburbs where white dealerships could charge lower rates. Through education, he planned to help black dealership owners to overcome these challenges. He also said that because whites were sometimes reluctant to work under black managers, it was essential for the Minority Dealership Training Program to train black men to work at dealerships.

In the end, Jackson’s efforts helped to hire 10,000 new Ford workers from the city of Detroit, according to a Yale Alumni Magazine article. He was eventually appointed Ford’s Urban Affairs Manager.

“I saw in him someone I didn’t see in anybody else,” Fasano said. “He was a very, very fine person. He was really ahead of his time.”

Previously in the series:

“Star left tracks in record book,” Feb. 4, 2010

“Beyond just basketball,” Feb. 11, 2010

After Yale, giving back, Feb. 18, 2010

Comments

  • Berzelien

    Jackson was also the first Black Yale student to be admitted to a Secret Society, Berzelius. BZ was also the first society to admit women. CTI!

  • _1_Y_1_

    @Berzelien – that’s just not true. Manuscript, Elihu and Elmo’s were the first to admit women. Elihu actually tapped the first Black Yale student. 344