'Gordon's heart was full to overflowing with feeling on account of the attitude of the team and said that he wished to do all in his power to help them win and that if he was allowed to play it would be with all his best efforts not only for college spirit, but on account of the manner in which he had been befriended'

Fall 1998

The Team That Tackled Old Jim Crow

by Robert F. Wernle

Wabash has a tradition of fielding strong athletic teams, and strength of character has always been a part of the spirit of the school's motto of "Wabash Always Fights." One memorable example of such a group was the Wabash football team of 1903.

What set this team apart from those of other colleges in Indiana, besides the moral courage of its members, was a young African-American student named Samuel S. Gordon '06. Gordon joined the team five years after the landmark opinion of the Supreme Court in Plessey vs. Ferguson which enunciated the separate but equal doctrine for black Americans-this was the legalization of "Jim Crow" laws in America. Blacks were ordered to the back of the streetcar, and Crawfordsville set up Lincoln High School, a separate school for blacks.

In the midst of America's apartheid era, Gordon, a recent arrival from West Virginia and the new choir director at the town's African Methodist Episcopal Church, stepped onto the football field at Wabash.

The first Wabash game of the 1903 season was late in September with Shortridge High School of Indianapolis. When the Wabash left tackle was injured late in the game and Wabash Coach Tug Wilson sent in Gordon as his substitute, the Shortridge captain made a scene. With Wabash ahead, he refused to continue with a black man in the lineup. He led his team off the field and forfeited. It's said that Gordon kept his sense of humor that day, commenting that he was sorry that the game had to be called on account of darkness.

The following week after chapel the Wabash student body held an emotional football rally. Let the Crawfordsville Journal of September 24, 1903, tell you the rest:

"Coach Wilson was called upon and in a few words told the prospects of the team In relating the talk he had with Gordon, Wilson said: 'Gordon came to me and told me of his hopes of playing and the pleasure and delight and the more than kindly feeling he had for the boys in the manner they stood up for him in the unpleasantness of last Saturday's game. Gordon's heart was full to overflowing with feeling on account of the attitude of the team and said that he wished to do all in his power to help them win and that if he was allowed to play it would be with all his best efforts not only for college spirit, but on account of the manner in which he had been befriended.'

"After Coach Wilson closed his talk there was such a scene in the old chapel as seldom if ever was witnessed before. The blackened rafters shook with the roars of applause and cheers that rang out."

Two days later, Wabash defeated Manual Training High School of Indianapolis 21-0. Gordon scored two touchdowns.

But there was trouble brewing. Before the game scheduled with Rose Polytechnic Institute, Wabash manager Eller received a telegram saying that Rose, as an institution of learning, had no prejudice against Gordon. They did, however, draw the color line on social relations, and they regarded football as a social sport. If Wabash could not get along without Gordon the game would be cancelled. The Crawfordsville paper and the Terre Haute paper traded salvos. A Journal headline read: "Poly Draws Color Line and Shows Yellow."

The coach, the manager, and the Wabash team huddled. Gordon wanted them to play without him. When he was injured in a scrimmage Monday, it seemed the game would go on-Gordon wouldn't be able to play because of the injury, and he urged the team to play Rose Poly. Then Wabash College President William Kane heard of the problem. He ruled that unless there was an understanding that Gordon could play, the game should be canceled. Manager Eller wired Terre Haute: "Our position with Rose is the same as with other teams. Gordon must be allowed to play." As that telegram clicked out through the key at Western Union, the soul of Wabash was never more exalted. The game was canceled.

More trouble came two weeks later. Hanover College notified Wabash that if Gordon were on the team, it would cancel its October 24th game. Gordon resigned from the team. Even though Hanover later recanted and conceded that Gordon should play, he said that he did not want to cause any more disturbance. He added that he knew that the boys would have stood by him and this he appreciated, but he would not play varsity football.

The resignation lasted three games. He was back in the lineup when Wabash lost to Earlham College on November 14. And he suited up when DePauw arrived for the big game on Philistine Field on November 21. When the DePauw team saw him, they refused to come out of the locker room. The crowd shivered in the November cold for an hour while the managers, coaches, athletic advisors, and players argued about whether Gordon would be allowed to play. After a bit, the spectators learned what the problem was. A group of five Methodist ministers went into the DePauw locker room and pleaded with the team and their faculty advisor, exhorting them not to bring disgrace upon Methodism and upon DePauw. Finally, General Lew Wallace, a pillar of the Crawfords-ville community, got into the act. As a result of his influence, the DePauw team finally conceded the right of Wabash to play Gordon and the teams took the field. Wabash won 10-0. After all the turmoil, Coach Wilson kept Gordon on the bench.

The next Thursday was Thanksgiving. There before the largest crowd in the history of Philistine Field, Wabash lost to Notre Dame 34-0. Gordon played all 50 minutes at right half. The Fighting Irish raised no objection. A team that had not been scored on all season, Notre Dame outweighed Wabash almost 20 pounds to the man. The Crawfordsville newspaper called it a "victory in defeat."

In those days, the Wabash team was not yet the "Little Giants" but were called "the Little Men." Nine victories and three defeats was a pretty fair football record, but their real triumph was how they stood by their teammate.

Sam Gordon left Wabash the following summer. He served with the American Expeditionary Forces in France during World War I and was decorated with the Croix deGuerre. He became superintendent of the West Virginia Industrial School for Colored Boys, a correctional institution. He died in 1964.

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