At Tackle, Chester Pierce

The last post of my blog, tracing the early days of racial integration on Grounds (“The Desegregrated Heart”), sparked a number of fascinating recollections and discussions from our alumni. One was an exchange between two Psychology majors—Tom Pettigrew ’52 and Brawner Cates ’67—about the first integrated football team to play south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Scott Stadium, 1947. On April 15 of that year, Jackie Robinson played first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers against the Boston Braves. On October 11, Chester Pierce, an African-American, played tackle for Harvard against Virginia. It was the practice at that time for integrated college teams to leave their black players at home when they played in the South.

The trip to Virginia was not a pleasant one for Pierce. He was not allowed to stay in the same hotel with his white teammates; his pain was not assuaged when the University housed him in a nearby mansion. When he came to the team hotel for meals, he was not allowed to enter through the front door. In a show of solidarity, his teammates also entered through the kitchen. The night before the game, President Colgate W. Darden spoke at a pep rally attended by about 3,000: “Chester Pierce, a Negro, is a guest of the University of Virginia, and nothing would shame us more than having an unfortunate incident during the game.” And nothing untoward took place—except to Harvard: it lost to Virginia, 47-0. But history was made, and Pierce became the first black man to play football in the South against a white team—and later, the first to play lacrosse against Maryland and Navy. Like Jim Brown, Pierce excelled at both football and lacrosse.

But unlike Jim Brown, he did not go into the NFL. Instead, Chet Pierce went on to become one of the most influential psychiatrists of our time. After Harvard College and Harvard Medical School, he served on three faculties there: Psychiatry, Public Health, and Education. His research examined the impact of extreme environments and racism on human psychology. He also wrote on sports medicine and the effect of the media on blacks and children. He was elected president of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.

Pierce never talked much about the 1947 Virginia game, or for that matter, about his role in integrating collegiate sports. “I never talk about that,” he told a Crimson reporter, standing not far from Mass General, which today houses the Pierce Global Psychiatry Division, “I didn’t do anything.” He said in another interview that it was mere chance that he was a participant in that historic moment at Virginia; he was practically a bystander, he said, just watching things unfold before his eyes.

Chet Pierce’s absence of triumphalism reflects his profound insight into the catastrophic problem of racism at all levels in our society. He showed how racism operates on both the macro (political and institutional) level and the micro level. He labeled the everyday insults that black people suffer “micro-aggressions,” which he defined as the “subtle, stunning, often automatic, and non-verbal exchanges which are ‘put-downs’ of the blacks by offenders.” These put-downs, seemingly innocent, could slowly crush the human spirit under a devastating burden, leading to a lack of self-esteem and confidence, and eventually to shorter lives.

In the South, he saw de jure racism; in the North he saw de facto racism. He was careful to distinguish between these two distinct forms of racism, condoning neither. But he did see the de jure racism of the South as an institution in the throes of death, whether or not he had participated in its demise at Scott Stadium. Later in his life, he wrote that “one must not look for the gross and obvious. The subtle, cumulative mini-assault is the substance of today’s racism.”

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Pierce never felt completely accepted.  He had white roommates who were members of private clubs; the question of his becoming a member somehow never came up. In retrospect, he said, he regretted never being invited to join the Hasty Pudding Club—the one membership he thought he fully deserved, given his facility with composition, piano, accordion, and trumpet. Still, he continued to have great respect for institutions like Harvard and even Hasty Pudding, always taking pains to explain the distinction between whites acting as individuals versus as members of a dominant collective. It was also a way for him to protect himself, and not be disappointed by the unthinking racism of his fellow students. He remained vigilant against people who, even unknowingly, wreaked psychological havoc on minorities, keeping a record of these incidents—from the behavior of the bar owner in Cambridge who refused to let him in, to a professor at High Table in Lowell House who called out to him: “You, black man, where do you come from?”

Sixty three years after Chet Pierce played in the first racially integrated football game at Virginia, much has changed—for the better, and for the worse. The South has long since integrated, with the racial demography of the students at the University of Virginia looking not much different than that at Harvard. But if de jure racism is a thing of past, de facto racism is not—just as Pierce feared. Micro-aggressions still confront every black person, but there are new macro trends that are also disturbing.

Vesla Weaver, Assistant Professor in Politics in the College, writes in an important book, Frontlash: Civil Rights, the Carceral State, and the Transformation of American Politics, that the era of Civil Rights coincides with a massive expansion of the American criminal justice system. In 1965 there were 780,000 adults under correctional authority of any type; by 2008, that population had exploded to seven million, more than the entire population of Virginia. The black rate of incarceration increased at an even faster rate—four times the increase of whites. In 1974 2.2 percent of white males, 13.4 percent of black males, and 4.0 percent of Hispanic males could expect to go to prison during their lifetime. Today 33 percent of black men over 18 are under some type of criminal supervision. In her second book Professor Weaver argues that it is no longer simply a harsh social environment that leads to greater incarceration of black people, but, increasingly the other way round: the high rates of incarceration have huge negative impacts on the political incorporation and inequality of black families and neighborhoods.

In his work, Chet Pierce was interested in extreme environments—both physical and psychological. He argued that, for psychological and physiological adjustment, it was much more difficult to be a ten-year old inhabitant of Harlem than to be a forty-year old astronaut in outer space; there was simply not enough societal support for that youngster in Harlem. He often observed that whites in power fail to consider the impact that their decisions have on black people, arguing that it was essential for black intellectuals to focus on black interests with clarity and sustained commitment—something he did all his life.

P.S.: That Harvard-Virginia game was a home game in more ways than one. Pierce’s father was from Portsmouth.

17 Responses to “At Tackle, Chester Pierce”

  1. This is an excellent article that shows how far we still have to go to eradicate racism in the United States. As it happens, I went to a junior high and high school in Pleasantville, New Jersey, from 1954 to 1958. I had black friends and played football with them on a fully integrated team where they were welcomed. But de facto racism was evident in the lunchroom and in the private attitudes of many whites. For my senior year in high school (1958-59), I transferred to a small school on the Quantico Marine base in Virginia where my father worked. We had one black football player, and because of him, the coach had a very difficult time finding schools, almost all of them private, for the team to play in the Virginia of massive resistance. Of course, at the University there were as yet no blacks in attendance. We have come a long way since then, but the journey is not yet complete.

    J. D. Hunley

  2. Jack Cowardin Coll '76 says:

    This is a very fine essay. Some of the facts you include are dismaying, but making mention of them is very important. Thank you.

  3. Stephen N. Doniger says:

    Interesting that President Darden felt it necessary to say that having an “unfortunate incident” take place at the game would not be good for the University.
    I enjoyed the article except that likening Jim Brown to Chet Pierce is truly “unfortunate”. Brown was a serial abuser of women and a racist.I knew him growing up and his athletic prowess is his only redeeming feature.


  4. Janis Rovner says:

    Very inspirational! It is so important for UVA, as the premier public university in the South, to continue to set an example for all other universities in taking responsibility for its past and providing a role model for the future. Thank you.

  5. L. M. Johnson says:

    Dean Woo –
    I enjoyed reading this piece. Very interesting!

  6. Franklin Jackson CLAS '83 says:

    This is a thoughtful article that provides motivation for further study and dialogue. I appreciate Dr. Woo’s approach to a subject that generates strong emotional reactions.

    The micro-aggressions do serve as a constant source of stress for members of the non-dominant community. It is good to hear that there is some recognition of these phenomena. Hopefully, the type of discussion that is started here can continue and not just be a part of the recognition of Dr. King’s holiday.

    My hat is off to Dr. Woo for her insight and her willingness to go beyond where some may be comfortable.

  7. Adrienne Wichard says:

    This is one of my favorite little-known stories about U.Va. football. You can see more about that pivotal game–including archival photos of the players, commentary from U.Va. historians, and present-day interviews with both Chester Pierce’s Harvard teammates and the Virginia players who welcomed Mr. Pierce to their field–in the newly released documentary “Wahoowa: A History of Virginia Cavalier Football,” a film by U.Va. alum Kevin Edds:

    It’s stunning to uncover the ways that Virginia not only pioneered the breakdown of color barriers in the South, but also impacted the evolution of the sport as it’s played today.

  8. Esther Adams (Ed '01) says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this powerful piece of history and for discussing its continued importance and relevance today.

  9. Bradford Young says:

    I take issue with part of your piece because it includes the kind of mindless assertion against which a high-end university should teach. Your storytelling is sweet, but then you add the unsupported line: “But if de jure racism is a thing of past, de facto racism is not—just as Pierce feared. Micro-aggressions still confront every black person, but there are new macro trends that are also disturbing.”

    Not every black person that meets me runs into “micro-aggressions.” I was born, like you, well after the Brown decision in 1954. My father was a Freedom Rider, jailed in Jackson, MS, in August of 1961 for eating at a lunch counter with a black man. Understanding humanity through my Christian faith, I know a black man is at his core another fallen child of God carrying within him the dignity inherent in having been made in the image and likeness of God. If you cut him open, he bleeds red like me and you. Nothing about his blackness or my whiteness makes him better or worse than me. It is our characters that matter.

    Having no sense of participating in white liberal guilt, I have seen the cost of government imposed minority set-asides. The men and women getting a leg up are not sure they earned their status, and the men and women seeing others getting a leg up for some external characteristic like the color of their skin question the validity of promotions obtained that way. A hand up freely given by one person to another is a noble form of affirmative action, but affirmative action imposed by the State ultimately fails to match the dignity of the human persons involved.

    I fail to see that you made a clear connection between the increase in crime and Civil Rights. The efforts by radicals to take AFDC and use it to destabilize the “system” (see Cloward and Piven) had the pernicious effect of wrecking the black family structure. Read Dr. Walter E. Williams for more on that. Undomesticated men whose economic utility is linked to their fecundity will engage in socially destructive behavior and procreation. You may have data series which line up chronologically, but that does not equate to causality. The average height of an American male has increased since the passage of the Civil Rights Act; I doubt your professor would argue those data are linked, but she does link data that support her hypothesis.

    We need rigor in analysis of cultural and political phenomena. The starting point should perhaps be a full self-analysis and disclosure of the analyst’s perspective. I stated earlier I feel no guilt about racism because I grew up in a country where official racism was stopped. You carry the heritage of the institutionalized racism by Japanese toward Koreans, which I know to be closer to Nazi views of Jews than American views of Blacks. We also need to be careful about mislabeling: that people generally feel more comfortable with people like them is not an evil, it just is a reality. Judgment, as Dr. MLK, Jr., said in his 1963 speech, should be based on the content of a man’s character rather than the color of his skin or some other external feature. The preference for soul food or country pop music or skull caps or ball caps is not indicative of a person’s character, and we should celebrate the wide variety we enjoy in this country and tolerate others’ preferences we do not share.

    The school of Arts and Science has historically had a healthy helping of common sense about many of the mania that sweep across academia, and I have every confidence Virginia will not succumb to the foolishness of group identity cultural analysis that has corrupted so many formerly auspicious academic institutions in the U.S. Chet Pierce was correct to say he was not the central figure in his historic athletic event; Colgate Darden dared to break a color line and remind his peers of the standard of behavior to which they would be held. Mr. Pierce’s bravery should not be ignored, but nothing would have happened if the old white guy had not been willing to stand up for his much younger, African-American, brother.

  10. Anthony Guy Lopez says:

    I do enjoy learning about the various “firsts” in U.Va. history, thanks again Dean Woo for providing this discussion. What is especially helpful in this piece are the insightful theoretical analyses offered here that helps us to understand American racism as it is experienced through subtle “micro-aggressions” yes, but also in terms of what U.Va. Prof. Vesla Weaver has identified in her analysis of the institutional aggressions represented by the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans in the U.S. That such work is supported at U.Va. through its faculty and students is a credit to the institution. I just wish that U.Va. would provide a similar institutional support base for the work of American Indian scholars and the study of indigenous peoples in general. Not only does U.Va. have virtually no American Indian faculty members in its entire history, it also has no idea who the first American Indian graduates were. There seems to be no institutional memory of such things nor does there seem to be a will or plan to develop one. Many of our peer institutions have long since developed programs and departments that make it their mission to understand Indigenous Peoples’ contributions and knowledges. What is it about U.Va. that its leadership and professors keep casting its history in terms of Black/White relations? At some point these oversimplified historical strictures become micro-aggressions that serve the continued marginalization of American Indian scholars and scholarship at U.Va. I would ask how much better would Vesla Weaver’s work be presented if it were expressed not just in terms of the high incarceration rates of African-American people but also Hispanic and American Indian peoples? Certainly the rates of incarceration of federally recognized American Indians are very similar to that of African Americans, yet somehow, our explications of this work in a U.Va. environment glosses over the necessity of understanding why this is so. This is not the case in other learning environments where there are scholars employed who would turn and ask Prof. Weaver or Dean Woo the question of where in the American experience are the American Indian nations?

  11. Paul Larsen '70 says:

    Dr. Woo,

    I enjoyed your article very much and was interested to find out more about Chester Pierce. I came across this quote said to be written by him in 1973.

    “Every child in America who enters school at the age of five is mentally ill, because he comes to school with an allegiance toward our elected officials, toward our founding fathers, toward our institutions, toward the preservation of this form of government that we have. Patriotism, nationalism, and sovereignty, all that proves that children are sick because a truly well individual is one who has rejected all of those things, and is truly the international child of the future.”

    As I have not been able to confirm that Dr. Pierce did indeed write this, nor have I been able to find where he wrote it, perhaps you could enlighten me on if this represented his beliefs at the time or if the passage is taken out of context.

    Thank you in advance.

  12. Paul Reavis says:

    Thank you, Dr. Woo, for this very interesting account of just one very talented and multi-dimensional African American who passed this way during the turbulent years leading into the civil-rights movement. It’s a privilege to read about this young man’s experiences, his depth and character, and to understand that so many others had his common experience, whether they were scholar athletes or ditch diggers. One of the most important lessons for a Caucasian/Cherokee guy like myself is to realize the importance of being one of those who stepped forward to cross the social mores line and stand with Mr. Pierce against the racism of the era. It begs the importance of doing the same today against personal-level and group-affiliated and systemic racism as it exists in our everyday lives and local and national experience. Race-baiting in political rhetoric is now rampant, barely concealed beneath the surface, and backed by mammoth funding from the corporate world and the greediest segment of our wealthy populace. History is being made daily, and each of us has a place in this history whether we want to recognize it or not, and now-Dr. Pierce’s story is a stark reminder that all isn’t well these days, just as it wasn’t in his day. Thanks for putting this stimulating article before us for our thought and reaction, Dr. Woo and UVA. -Paul Reavis, Classes of ’68 and ’81, UNC-Chapel Hill

  13. Thomas Lee says:

    I am a black-Seminole Indian from America. I have a MS in Quality Assurance from the School of A&S and Industrial Engineering from San Jose State University. My daughter attends your school and I find two things that scare me about UVA. The high crime rate and the fact that students at UVA are limited to declaring their Majors of choice. The requirements for doing so sucks. Maybe blacks are part of that problem but I do not think so. In the world we now live in, we need not focus on race and Americanism, but how to educate the Scientist, Pilots, Doctors, Dentist, and Professionals of the future. Where we fall short is that instead of concentrating on that, we look at things that will never change or make a difference. No matter how many immigrants come to America, there is no law that says that I have to accept the fact that there is racial discrimination in every country that send those immigrants. During the Vietnam War I served with the Marines and when I first arrive in the Philippines with my white shipmates I were told that there was a white side of town and a black side of town, that has not changed. Educating the youngsters of today is the only way to make MLK dream becomes a reality in this world not just in America. We can continue to live side by side in America but not like each other as they do in Singapore. As stated, it continues because no one addresses the real problem that plague America and people of every race creed and color. (Ignorance).

  14. Meredith Woo says:

    Dear Paul,

    This is cited as coming from a keynote address to the Association for Childhood Education International (Denver, April 1972). I can’t verify whether he actually said it. I inquired with people who know Pierce and they find it difficult to believe that he would have made a sweeping and odd statement like that, and that it would be out of character for him.

  15. John Rainey ed. '74 says:

    The article was very interesting and informative. As UVA tried to catch up in the late 60′s, it is noteworthy to say that 1970 was the first year that the school offered scholarships to African-Americans. John Rainey, Kent Merrit, Stanley Land and Harrison Davis pioneered the sticky waters of racism on both levels. However, you do not see a blimp on the radar because they were on a mission to not just play sports but to prove yet again that Blacks were very capable of achieving success in a predominately white controlled environment. Subtle racism was what we called it. Check it out.

  16. Joseph Maiolo says:

    Joseph Maiolo
    U. Va. Grad. Arts & Sciences, 1968

    “Harvard was the first integrated football team to play south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Scott Stadium, 1947,” and Norton, Virginia’s Little League baseball, in 1951, was the first in all of organized sports in the South to have integrated teams.

    In 1951, a local businessman, Charles Litton, brought Little League to town. When tryouts were held, black boys from the “Southside” came, and a few, without questions or problems, were selected. We played the regular season without racial incidents; and at the end of the season, when the All-Star team was chosen to play in the state playoffs, two of the black kids made the team. Norton’s team was the only one in the southwest to Charlottesville; there were several Little League teams in Charlottesville and east.

    Little League officials made the decision that there would be an east-west final game. Charlottesville won the Eastern title, and we in Norton, being the only team, were to play Charlottesville for the state championship–in Charlottesville. But when the powers-that-were-then found out that we had two black players, they told Mr. Litton that the black boys could not play in Charlottesville. Apparently, politicians, including the governor, had their say as well: no black players would be allowed. Mr. Litton would not back down, and so the powers decided that Charlottesville would play us in Norton. (Charlottesville retained home team status.)

    We had a professional baseball diamond in town that summer, and it was a great day, a great game–for us. We won, 12-3.

    Norton supporters chartered an airplane to fly us to Fairmont, West Virginia, for the regional playoff game; and when we arrived at the hotel where we had reservations and the owner saw our two black players, we were turned away. We finally found a church whose minister had cots put up for us that night. . .and Fairmont sheallacked us the next day.

  17. Maceo Willis says:

    Thank you, Dr. Woo for this historical piece. I also would like to say ‘good points’ to Mr. Hunley, although I advise you to check Google or UVA records to find one of your classmates (and my father) A. Leroy Willis (CLAS ’62), the first African American to live on The Lawn and to graduate from the UVA College of Arts and Sciences. James Meredith usually gets most of the credit for integrating Southern universities, but he entered University of Mississippi in 1963. FYI, my twin sister Nia and I were the first Black ‘Legacy’ students to graduate (CLAS ’93).