Clinton Ross and Nebraska’s near 40-year ban of Black athletes | Diversity & Inclusion

A scandal gripped the press, campus and administration of the University of Nebraska in October 1913.

A Black football player and budding law student was the target of an attempt to force the Huskers from fielding their finest lineman. Though the tremors of this controversy would be felt for the next 40 years, its place on the front page would only last a few weeks and be spoken of sparingly, if at all, afterward.

Clinton Ross, a native of Emporia, Kansas, began attending NU in 1911 where he played football for three years while studying. He was a key part of Nebraska’s offensive line in seasons where the Huskers only lost two games total.

Clinton Ross

His last season would not be so peaceful. Early on, the Kansas State Wildcats — the Kansas Aggies at the time — were a new member of the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association and protested his inclusion on the football team.

“Coach Lowman of the Kansas Aggies has filed with [Nebraska football head coach Ewald ‘Jumbo’] Steihm a formal protest against the presence of Clinton Ross, the colored left guard, in the Cornhusker lineup for Saturday’s game,” an article from The Daily Nebraskan on Oct. 9, 1913, reported. 

The Aggies’ grievance lay along the “color line,” a phrase enjoyed by the likes of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois to describe racial segregation post Reconstruction. Kansas State contended there was a “gentleman’s agreement” within the conference. This gentleman’s agreement, if present, would demand Ross’s exclusion from the team.

Nebraska denied the existence of the formal gentleman’s agreement emphatically, with The Daily Nebraskan stating in a letter from the editor on Oct. 31, 1913, that “the evidence does not prove it.”

The gentleman’s agreement, however, largely operated by way of implicit understanding. In fact, despite the lack of a Black player following Ross until the early 1950s, no explicit rule existed until 1946 which enforced racial segregation as the de jure politics of Nebraska athletics. Nevertheless, the gentleman’s agreement was a not-so-carefully veiled act of white supremacy. 

Gentleman’s agreements

A “gentleman’s agreement” referred to the exclusion of Black individuals from collegiate athletics: the forum in which organized sports were thriving most in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

These agreements would take place between northern and southern schools, where a northern school would agree not to play its Black athletes to spare the feelings of southern white citizens. However, northern schools themselves weren’t bastions of tolerance for Black athletes.

Charles Martin, emeritus professor of history at the University of Texas El-Paso, is one of the foremost voices on the anatomy of the gentleman’s agreement in collegiate athletics. He wrote the book “Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports,” published in 2010. 

“Despite the acceptance of these talented athletes, racism remained widespread on northern campuses,” Martin said in his book. “A few colleges still refused to accept African Americans as students, while others barred them from many extracurricular activities, including athletics.”

However, the North’s situation was comparatively better than southern society and higher education, in which Black citizens were excluded from established higher education and collegiate athletics.

The most consistent places Black people were playing sports were in historically Black colleges and universities — institutions which were primarily founded in response to segregation in the South, according to Martin.

Southerners were unwilling to play against the all-Black outfits of the HBCUs. While revulsion at the concept of fielding opposite a Black athlete was part of the incalcitrant white southerner, another key factor, which underlies the reason for the gentleman’s agreements, was southern pride.

In time, northern schools would come to accept more Black players despite early exclusion. At the same time, growing nation-wide color consciousness and consideration of the color line meant southern schools were still discriminatory.

While the South’s racism would seem to push it away from any integrated team, the proposition, which arose from the new southern nationalism and masculinity, of Dixie boys travelling north to defeat the old enemy was enticing grounds for propaganda, according to Martin. 

“As they crossed the Mason-Dixon line heading north, southern football teams carried with them the hopes and insecurities of their region,” Martin said. “Far more than the northerners, southerners saw such contests as a rematch of the Civil War and the Lost Cause.”

While northern schools were dominant at the start, according to Dr. Jeannette Jones, an associate professor of ethnic studies and history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, northern schools would accept exclusion as the cost of playing.

“These agreements became ways to have relations with those teams and those other parts of the sport without actually adopting it as a formal part of the school,” Jones said. “It was really about, for those schools, expedience, and this idea of having no rancor involved. It’s very expedient for people to keep the system going, and if you sacrifice Black athletes, you sacrifice Black athletes.”

The informality of the agreement also helped northern universities tone down the publicity surrounding it. In several cases of northern or midwestern schools shelving Black players in accordance with the gentleman’s agreement, no public reason would be given for their absence, according to Martin. When Black players were excluded, it could cause serious uproar on campus.

As a result, racial exclusion in athletics was the de facto law between the North and South for all of the 1920s and the majority of the 1930s. 

The Midwest and the spectre of conflict

Amid the grand conflict of North versus South, the crucible of the Midwest experienced the gentleman’s agreement in a relatively similar way. Nebraska was one of the teams that carried a Black athlete before gentleman’s agreements came into fashion across the United States.

That man went by the name George Flippin, a halfback who played on Nebraska’s football team from 1891-1894. Flippin was the center of a different controversy, similar in case to Ross, where Missouri protested Flippin’s inclusion on the team. As opposed to the Kansas result, Missouri conceded the game before ever playing it.

George Flippin

George Flippin

In the early days of the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association, Missouri was one of the most ardent supporters of segregation within collegiate athletics in the Midwest, according to Martin. The MVIAA would eventually form the Big Eight, and from that, the Big 12.

Dr. Bruce Pauley, professor emeritus at the University of Central Florida, found the implication of the institution of a gentleman’s agreement in the 1920s from Lincoln Journal Star articles and other sources.

“Sometime in the 1920s, at the insistence of representatives of MU and [Oklahoma], a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ among members of the MVIAA concluded that teams having Blacks on their rosters would be ‘unwelcome in both Colombia and Norman,’” Pauley said. “Therefore, de facto if not de jure, there was a color line in the MVIAA and its successor after 1928, the Big Six.”

A conference-wide ban on Black players was established by the end of the 1920s with the founding of the Big Six, according to Pauley, but this doesn’t necessitate Nebraska being integrated up until that point. And, after a series of protests late into the fall of 1913, Ross would end up being the last African American player for Nebraska for 39 years.

Fall 1913

The circumstances of Kansas State Aggies’ head coach Guy Lowman’s protest were immediately questioned by the public. In 1911 and 1912, Nebraska played Kansas State with Ross on the roster, and both went by without any protest from Lowman.

Then, in October, the Kansas State coach filed an official complaint against Ross’ inclusion. A reason for this was the Aggies’ status as a new member of the MVIAA, as Lowman’s protest lay on the basis that, in the MVIAA, there explicitly existed a gentleman’s agreement. This explains why, too, the Aggies did not protest in the two years prior. Yet, The Daily Nebraskan refuted that possibility in its Oct. 9, 1913, story on the matter.

“This is the Aggies first year in the Missouri Valley Conference and one would naturally suppose that they abide by its rules,” The Daily Nebraskan reported. “But there is nothing said in the Conference rules that would draw a color line. Hence their request seems not only unreasonable but unfair.” 

The matter went mostly silent after The Daily Nebraskan reported on it on Oct. 9. The game was played Oct. 11, 1913, where the Huskers handily routed the Aggies, with Ross on the field.

The affair was settled. Nebraska went on to win games against Haskell Indian Nations University and Iowa State comfortably, victories which would extend a winning streak that would only end in 1916. Then, in early November, letters were written to track coach Guy Reed and other prominent Nebraska officials. 

Reed was confronted by the management of the Kansas Jayhawks, a team Nebraska was scheduled to play. The Jayhawks thought they proved the existence of the unwritten agreement and why Ross should be excluded.

“Guy Reed … received a letter from Manager Hamilton of the Jayhawks, stating his grievances and asking for immediate consideration,” The Daily Nebraskan reported on Oct. 31, 1913. “He stated that there was a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that negroes would not be played in conference games, despite any claim to the contrary.”

There’s also reports of a meeting between teams having taken place at some time, though when exactly is unsure, in which a gentleman’s agreement, or color line, was debated.

“At the last meeting of the MVIAA Conference Missouri and Washington universities were strenuously active in bringing up the question of the color line in athletics. Dr. Clapp, the Nebraska representative, objected and no official claim was taken,” The Daily Nebraskan reported. “The Kansans claim, however, that an agreement was arrived at, and that Nebraska is now evading the spirit of the agreement.”

Despite Lowman’s and the Kansas Jayhawks’ insistence that the agreement existed, Nebraska did not face any punishment from the conference for its inclusion of Ross. Therefore the agreement, whether or not it existed, was not enforced in the conference in 1913.

After all, the details of the agreement appear not to have been made public at the time, were it to exist. Chancellor Samuel Avery appears to challenge the conference as well, at this time.

“[Avery] will request the Board of Regents at their next meeting to pass a rule that the right of students of the University of Nebraska to participate in any athletic contest, intercollegiate or otherwise, shall not be abridged on account of race or color,” The Daily Nebraskan reported. “And, furthermore, that Nebraska will not remain in any athletic association or conference where such right is abridged.”

Avery, too, spoke for the entirety of the Huskers’ media-facing staff on the issue. One notable example was the aforementioned Dr. Raymond G. Clapp, who denied that an agreement was made.

“The matter of the color line was discussed, and several representatives were in favor of it, but no agreement of any kind was arrived at,” Clapp said in an article.

The matter of the second complaint was settled in early November, with the athletic board of Nebraska rejecting the protest. The athletic board found no evidence of a gentleman’s agreement in the MVIAA. Kansas accepted the ruling of the Nebraska athletic board. Nebraska, on Nov. 15, beat the Jayhawks 9-0.

As the matter was settled, Nebraska was still threatened by the influence of the committed segregationist Missouri.

“This is a question that has been hanging for some little time,” The Daily Nebraskan reported on Nov. 5, 1913. “And has been settled to the full satisfaction of every one in the valley with the probable exception of Missouri and Kansas.”

Nebraska had played against Missouri practically every year since the two had been founded as football programs, even after the issue with Flippin. Yet, from 1913-1917, the two stopped playing.

And though the likes of Avery, Clapper and Steihm had strong words in favor of integrated football teams, yet not a single Black student suited up for the Huskers until 1952. According to Martin, the issue of Missouri’s scheduling and Nebraska’s integration was likely intrinsically linked.

Avery’s promise to leave any institution which enforced segregation proved to be a lie. Nebraska went along with the arrangement for quite a long time — more avidly than other prominent midwestern schools. In the Big Ten, for example, no conference-wide segregation was de jure law, and the benching of Black players would only happen when playing against southern teams, according to Martin. Nebraska stayed quiet after 1913.

39 years later

In 1946, the Big Eight sought to make segregation an official policy. 

Why, after years and years of exclusion, the conference found it necessary to introduce specific language is unknown. The most likely reason is, in the midst of significant challenge, an unwritten rule was not a solid enough basis for the Big Eight’s ends: continued segregation, according to Martin.

“In 1946, following inquiries about the continued exclusion of African Americans in sports, the conference unanimously adopted a policy that was only slightly less restrictive than the previous unwritten understanding,” Martin said in “The Color Line in Midwestern College Sports, 1890-1960.”

Students of UNL, more than the administration, fought vigorously to allow Black players onto the football team. And, with mounting pressure against the ban, it was struck down. In November 1947, the Student Council objected officially to the 1946 legislation. 

Charles Bryant, an offensive guard, arrived in 1952. He was the first Black player since Ross to play for Nebraska, 39 years before.

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