By: Angel Nathan, Bicentennial Intern, Class of 2019, Doctoral Student, Higher Education & Student Affairs, Bloomington
Indiana University (IU), located in Bloomington, is an institution with a celebrated but complex racial past. Bloomington’s strong Quaker influence shaped a history with an aversion to slavery and the promotion of African American education (Wood, 2014). This may have played a role in the institution’s early acceptance of Black students in the late 19th century.
Although IU allowed access to students despite their racial identity early in the institution’s history, both internal factors within the university as well as extrinsic influences in the city, state, and nation continue to play a role in the endurance of low enrollment of minority students in this predominately white Midwestern public institution.
To see how such factors operated, we can turn to IU athletics, which supplies a thought-provoking example of the Black student experience on a higher education campus.
Preston Eagleson, as the first documented African American to participate in intercollegiate athletics in 1893, is a touted figure in IU’s institutional history. Eagleson’s participation in IU athletics before the turn of the 20th century led to the current depiction of an historic open environment for Black athletes.
Further investigation of this institutional saga, however, reveals an interesting counter narrative. The career of an organized group of Black students and Bloomington community members—the self-proclaimed “University Team”—offers a different historical perspective on this organizational claim. Additionally, this student-run organization leads to questions regarding an institution’s role in evaluating its amenities beyond majority needs.
Indiana’s state government founded Indiana University in 1820 as the State Seminary, officially changing its name to Indiana University in 1838 (Woodburn, 1940). The State Seminary began as a small public institution content with educating local pupils in English or Latin grammar to prepare them to attend one of the nation’s existing colleges or universities (McMains, 2010).
David H. Maxwell, president of the seminary’s board of trustees, used his political connections and business background to convince legislators that the institution’s original charter intended for the seminary to evolve into a university (McMains, 2010), setting the stage for IU to develop into the institution supporting not only local, but also state and nationwide students.
As the institution grew so did its student activities and organizations. The athletics department became a salient organization when it joined the Big Ten Conference in 1899 (Hammel and Klingelhoffer, 1999). Even before that time, however, there were sports teams on campus for the baseball, football, and basketball programs (About IU). Football, which was organized in 1886, was one of the first athletic programs to allow Black students to participate alongside white students in a student organization.
The photo shown is of the 1895 team, which included Preston Eagleson.
The First and Beyond
Although it is hard to pinpoint the first African American who attended IU, archival evidence shows that Black students attended the institution as early as the 1880s. Recent findings in the diary of Theophilus A. Wylie, a professor of natural science and ad hoc administrator between the 1830s and 1880s, revealed that in 1882 Harvey Young, a young Black man from Indianapolis, was the first African American to attend the institution (Theophilus Adam Wylie Papers, 1814-1992).
Subsequent presidential records supported that Black students attended IU into the 1890s with David Starr Jordan noting in a message to the Board of Trustees in November of 1890 that three Negro students were enrolled at the institution (Jordan, 1890).
The first Black student who graduated from IU was Marcellus Neal in 1895 (Bridgwaters, 1981). Preston Eagleson, a classmate of Neal, is credited as being the second Black graduate of IU in 1896. He later went on to be the first African-American to receive an advanced degree from IU in 1906 (Gilliam, 1985).
Eagleson’s name appeared on the IU varsity football roster for the 1893-1895 football seasons (Gilliam, 1985). In addition to his athletic participation, he won oratorical contests on campus. He became the first of many Eaglesons to attend IU (Gilliam, 1985).
The celebration of Eagleson’s successful break in the color barrier for African American’s is a significant accomplishment. Less well known is that it took nearly a third of a century before the second African American football player, Jesse Babb, appeared in a team photograph, in 1931 (see 1931 IU football team photograph).
Did the small but growing African American population on IU’s campus lack an interest in varsity athletics? Were options not open for students of color to participate in the burgeoning sports programs?
A definitive answer is not yet available to the question of why Black students were not represented in the football program. However, alternatives existed. The University Team, a student-run group (but lacking IU sponsorship), fielded a football team and provided an extracurricular space for Black students during the early 1900s.
The University Team
The University team, called by the local newspapers IU’s “colored eleven” or the colored men of the University, consisted of a group of African American IU students along with members of the local Bloomington community (Gilliam, 1985).
It is unclear when the team was initially formed, but newspaper articles highlighting the team’s athletic performance date from 1914. During that time, the team was one of the best in the colored football league, winning the colored state championship in 1914 (University Colored, 1914).
The 1914 group of men consisted of a founding members Guy Grant and Ezra Alexander and members Ellis Stewart, Frank Summers, and George Johnson of the fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi, an internationally recognized Black student organization founded on IU’s campus in 1911.
This organization, founded as Kappa Alpha Nu, was a Greek society operating on IU’s campus as early as 1903, formed to strength the Negro voice on campus (The Alpha Kappa Nu Greek Society, 1903). As a result, archival data indicates that Alpha Kappa Nu is considered to be the first African American fraternity at Indiana University.
In the News…
Local newspapers during the early 1900s provide some context for understanding the local communities’ view on the university’s growing athletic culture. The Indiana Daily Student and the Bloomington Evening World provide two differing perspectives. Both media sources regularly highlighted the University Team’s competitions in their publications from 1914-1915. In total thirteen articles were gathered regarding the athletic accomplishments of this group of young men.
Newspaper clippings from the time period indicate that the group used Jordan Field, the same facility where the IU varsity football team competed. An admission fee of twenty-five cents was charged to patrons of the event in Bloomington, but it was unclear if these funds went to the students or were a charge for facility use (Turkey Day, 1914). However, the University Team was not sponsored by IU, and used donated equipment as well as items loaned from other local teams (Gilliam, 1985).
Mentions of the University Team in the Indiana University student and local Bloomington papers regularly appeared alongside announcements regarding IU’s varsity football team. This supports the idea that the IU community was not only aware of the University Team, but also supported their competitions. Although there seemed to be support for the team, it was clear that there was a racial division in the institution’s football history.
A 1916 issue of the Indiana Daily Student made mention of the lack of Black players on intercollegiate football teams. The article previewed IU’s upcoming football opponent Tufts College. Among the other comments regarding IU’s possible challenges in facing Tufts there was an indication that the opposing team’s Black student-athlete could be a problem since, “it has been a good many years since an Indiana team faced an opponent with a negro in the line-up” (Team “unknown”, 1916, p.4). This quote draws reference to the lack of representation of Black players not only on IU’s team, but also among the teams in the Big Ten IU faced in competition.
The University Team provides a historic example of the importance of looking beyond barrier-breaking “firsts” to the larger sustaining climates within higher education. Whether by choice or systematic barriers, Black males did not appear in the IU varsity team football photo for thirty-five years following Preston Eagleson’s graduation in 1896.
Additionally, student and local newspapers indicated a lack in Black players not only on IU‘s team but also on the opposing teams they played.
The history of the University Team challenges the conventional institutional narrative of equal access within athletics by providing a counter example. Although more research is needed to understand some of the internal institutional and external societal factors that led to the organization of the University Team, this group shows how a student organization can fill a gap in institutionally provided services.
However this example also poses the question, is it purely the student’s responsibility to fill the gaps in an institution’s services that exclude certain students? This question centers the institution’s role in evaluating its services and systems beyond majority needs.
As the nation attempts to make higher education more inclusive to a growing diverse student population, this case study encourages institutions to consider how a focus on celebratory milestones omits institutional dialogue for continued growth past an institutional first.
A focus on this institutional “firsts” neglects the larger context and the endurance of institutional racism. There was no explicit policy to bar African Americans students from playing on the IU team between 1896 to 1931, but the lack of Black faces meant that procedures were in place that hampered their participation.
Higher education institutions seeking to make their campus more diverse and inclusive should pay attention to history to see how open policy and good intentions are not enough to ensure an inclusive environment.
(1914, November 13). Game Saturday looks dark for both teams. The Indiana Daily Student, p.3.
(1914, November 13). Two colored teams meet tomorrow afternoon. Bloomington Evening World, p.4.
(1914, November 14). Game on Jordan Field. Bloomington Evening World, p.1.
(1914, November 14). Varsity takes light work after hard week: Coach Childs slackens usual afternoon grind for regulars by omitting scrimmage: Colored teams play today. The Indiana Daily Student, p.1.
(1914, November 16). Indiana colored men defeat Indianapolis. The Indiana Daily Student, p.4.
(1914, November 23). Colored Men to play: Indiana team to meet Muncie Athletics here Saturday. The Indiana Daily Student, p.1.
(1914, November 23). Turkey day football game. Bloomington Evening World, p.1.
(1914, November 25). Play game tomorrow: Colored students will meet Muncie Athletics on Jordan Field. The Indiana Daily Student, p.1.
(1914, November 25). Two football games for Thanksgiving Day. Bloomington Evening World, p.4.
(1914, November 30). University colored men are state champions. The Indiana Daily Student, p.4.
(1915, November 22). Colored team to play: Local men will meet colored Y.M.C.A. Thanksgiving Day. The Indiana Daily Student, p.3.
(1915, November 24). Tomorrow afternoon a colored football team from Indianapolis will meet a colored Bloomington eleven on Jordan Field. Bloomington Evening World, p.1.
(1915, November 29). Colored students lose to Indianapolis team. The Indiana Daily Student, p.3.
(1916, October 28). Team “unknown” last year looms up as strongest foe: They wanted opponents “worthy” of our strength – well here they come, and step lively lest they romp away with a few more touchdowns. The Indiana Daily Student, p.4.
About IU. Our favorite story: The history of IU. Retrieved from https://www.indiana.edu/about/history/index.html
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Indiana University. (1931). Jesse Babb [photograph], Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection (Image number P0021964) Indiana University, Bloomington.
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This is an excellent article. The investigation into the history of the welcoming and acceptance of black athletes at IU was both thorough and interesting. To learn that the catalyst for bringing additional black athletes into the program was winning, rather than inclusion is appalling. I’m certain that many colleges and universities have behaved similarly when it came to welcoming black athletes. Please continue to enlighten us on the history of black athletes in PWI. It is past time to be honest about our history.
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