The University of Michigan’s Report on Fielding Yost’s Legacy

by | Jun 7, 2021 | Uncategorized | 1 comment

In 2017 the University of Michigan commissioned the President’s Advisory Committee on University History, charged with investigating the legacies of those whose names adorn buildings on campus. 

The committee is composed of eight tenured professors led by Terry McDonald, whom I’ve known for 37 years. When he was the director of Michigan’s undergraduate history honors program I was one of his 12 charges, each of whom produced a 100-page thesis. Terry went on to become the dean of LS&A, Michigan’s largest college, and is now the director of the Bentley Historical Library. He was also one of five professors to whom I dedicated my sixth book, Fourth and Long: “To my mentors at the University of Michigan, who taught me how to do this.” 

I believe the committee did an excellent job with its first assignment, assessing the merits of leaving C.C. Little’s  name on a major building.  Little served four years as U-M president, leaving little to show for his tenure but controversy. He went on to become a national leader of the eugenics movement, a racist and scientifically unfounded theory of selectively breeding humans, and the leading scientific spokesperson for the tobacco industry. With almost no positive contributions to U-M to speak of, Little’s fundamental intellectual dishonesty – the antithesis of a great university’s mission – was not merely a bug, but the feature of his career. The committee wisely recommended removing Little’s name from a building, and the name of former professor Alexander Winchell, whose books are still cited by white supremacists, from a section of West Quad. Both moves were long overdue, in my judgment. 

The committee’s report on Fielding Yost, which I urge you to read, runs 36 pages, and cites many of the people who’ve written extensively about Yost. Chief among them, in my opinion, is John Behee, whose doctoral thesis became the first objective, thorough book on Yost’s strengths and weaknesses, Fielding H. Yost’s Legacy to the University of Michigan, in 1971. Since that entailed exhuming Yost’s most public act of racism, the infamous Willis Ward-Georgia Tech game, which few readers remembered 50 years ago, that took genuine courage. While his work, published by Ulrich’s Books, did not receive wide circulation, the quality of his research and analysis was deemed worthy of a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.

In 1996, using Behee’s books, other sources, and interviews I conducted, I wrote the first third of a book on Michigan football history, titled, A Legacy of Champions. My section, which ran 59 pages, focused on Yost. 

YOST’S CONTRIBUTIONS

A few facts were immediately obvious. During Yost’s tenure at Michigan, from 1901 to 1926 (skipping 1923), Yost was arguably the greatest coach of his era. In Yost’s first four seasons at Michigan, 1901-04, the team never lost a game, winning four straight Big Ten titles, and four national titles – the first team outside the Ivy League to win one. Many of his records still stand, as has Michigan’s reputation as a clean program. Yost’s former employers at Nebraska and Kansas, respectively, wrote that Yost “teaches only straight-forward, legitimate football,” and “He insists on cleanfootball.”  His teams’ fair play on the field set his program apart from many others.

Yost didn’t pretend to follow the Big Ten’s loose off-field recruiting and academic guidelines when he started at Michigan. According to legendary journalist Edwin Pope, “He completely disregarded rules in early talent searches [recruiting]. Later he regretted his carelessness and became an advocate of stringent scholastic standards for athletes.  But he never liked to be kidded about these violations.” 

Yost went on to become the nation’s most important athletic director. As former U-M athletic director Don Canham told me, “We’ve got the first field house ever built on a campus. We’ve got the first intramural building. We’ve got the largest stadium in the country. That was no accident. That was Fielding Yost.” Canham could have added Michigan’s baseball stadium, track, golf course, and one of the nation’s first athletic facilities devoted to women. 

Yost served Michigan for 40 years, making a larger mark on the university than all but a few leaders. As I wrote in Legacy of Champions, “Yost’s ego was almost superhuman, but so was his charm; his ambition was grand, but so was his vision; his stubbornness was remarkable, but so was his ability to change. Yost’s most prominent quality, however, had no counter force: his love for Meeshegan [as he famously pronounced it] and all it could be.”

At his retirement banquet, broadcast live by NBC radio, he said, “My heart is so full at this moment and I am so overcome by the rush of memories that I fear I could say little more.  But do let me reiterate… the Spirit of Michigan.  It is based upon a deathless loyalty to Michigan and all her ways; an enthusiasm that makes it second nature for Michigan men to spread the gospel of their university to the world’s distant outposts; a conviction that nowhere is there a better university, in any way, than this Michigan of ours.”

YOST’S RACISM

Unfortunately, that’s not the whole story – far from it. As I wrote 25 years ago, “It could be argued that most of Yost’s faults were benign flaws, maybe even necessary evils. But one of Yost’s blind-spots had no redeeming qualities: he was a racist.”

In 1996, this came as news to most readers. I assumed I would be excommunicated from the “Michigan family,” and declared persona non grata for life. Still, if that was the price for refusing to overlook Yost’s racism, I was prepared to pay it. Terry McDonald had taught me well. 

But a funny thing happened: nothing. I received not one negative letter or comment. The book was well received, as were later excerpts. Clearly, I should have had more faith in Michigan fans. I have learned many times since that, even when they are presented with uncomfortable facts, if the data are well-supported, they will accept them. This, to me, is the “Michigan difference”: Wolverines fans are intensely loyal, but their loyalty is not blind. 

The evidence for Yost’s racism is substantial, including his roster, and the 1934 Georgia Tech game. In 1996, (when the term “black” was not capitalized), I wrote the following: “When Ann Arbor high’s own George Jewett earned his third varsity letter on the Michigan football team in 1892, he could not have known it would take forty years for another black player to earn the next one. In fairness, as late as 1938, of the 1310 senior photographs in the school yearbook, only three students are black. Nonetheless, there is no question the complete absence of blacks on Yost’s [football] teams was intentional.” There were two exceptions, but neither earned a varsity letter. 

“The man who finally repeated Jewett’s accomplishment was exemplary in many ways. Willis Ward graduated near the top of his Detroit Northwestern class, performed at a world-class level in sports, and enjoyed the respect of those who knew him. Still, to get him on the Michigan team [head coach Harry] Kipke reportedly came close to a fist-fight with Yost in his office. With the considerable support of Kipke and others, Ward made the team in 1932 and even earned honorable mention on the All-America team the next year.”

After the Wolverines won national titles in 1932 and 1933, Yost scheduled Georgia Tech at home for the third game of the 1934 season, on October 20. The Georgia Tech coach was a good friend of Vanderbilt coach Dan McGugin, Yost’s closest friend. McGugin had played for Yost’s first teams in Ann Arbor, he married Yost’s sister-in-law, he entered into many business ventures with his former coach and lived in the same town, Nashville, as Yost did nine months a year until he become athletic director in 1921. In the meantime, with Yost’s help McGugin became Vanderbilt’s head coach, by far the most successful in Vanderbilt history.

But scheduling the Georgia Tech game came with a horrible catch. At that time no Southern schools allowed African-Americans to play on their teams, nor play against African-Americans. So, when a Northern team played a Southern team, it was customary for the Northern team to bench its African-American players, and the Southern team, in turn, would bench players of comparable skill to compensate.

Yost decided Willis Ward would sit out that game, but he was stunned by the outrage that followed– including that of star center Gerald Ford. He and Ward had been roommates on the road, likely the first interracial roommates of the era. 

“Willis was probably my closest friend on the football team,” Ford told me, in one of the few interviews he gave on the game. “[We] were the leaders of the team.”  

Ford was so upset by Yost’s decision he debated quitting, but ultimately decided to play. Michigan won, 9-2, but the team was never the same, finishing 1-7, still the worst record in 142 years of Michigan football. 

“Our morale certainly wasn’t made any better,” Ford told me. “We had a terrible time.”  

“The team was hurt,” Ward said in 1983.  “It was a horrible thing.”  

It not only hurt the team and the university, but naturally Ward himself. As Ward told Behee, “Withholding me from the Georgia Tech game was like a kick in the gut. It was wrong. It will always be wrong. And it killed my desire to excel.”

Making an already bad situation worse, Yost hired Pinkerton detectives to identify student protest leaders, including five Jewish students. The following summer President Alexander Ruthven expelled three of them for their central roles. 

YOST’S ERA

The committee correctly defines this ugly episode, one of the worst in the University’s long history, as the central problem of Yost’s legacy, including his failure to cancel the game after it had already become clear it was going to be an issue. One of the report’s strengths, in my opinion, is confirming that Michigan’s students, faculty, and alumni did not consider Yost’s decision ‘business as usual,’ even by the far different standards of the time, but deeply offensive. Students protested, alumni wrote hundreds of letters, and faculty members freely expressed their profound displeasure to Ruthven’s administration. 

The report claims that, “The controversy received little attention in the white press.” But, as I wrote in A Legacy of Champions, “… even Time magazine featured the controversy prominently. It also sparked bitter debate among students, and created a morale problem on the team. The attention Yost’s decision received surprised and embarrassed him.”

Although former athletic director Don Canham felt it was generally unfair to judge his predecessors without considering the times they lived in, when I interviewed him in 1996 he said, “Pulling Willis Ward out of the [Georgia Tech] game was bad.  [Yost] should have known better by then. I think Yost got caught up with his friends in the South. But the negative p.r. from that incident opened up opportunities for blacks in the future.”

Trying to assess this incident’s place in the era it occurred is more complicated than it first appears.  

The report accurately points out that other Northern teams decided not to play by the Southern schools’ “gentlemen’s agreement,” including New York University and Washington & Jefferson. 

But three years earlier, on October 10, 1931, Ohio State invited Vanderbilt, coached by Yost’s best friend, Dan McGugin, to play in Columbus. Ohio State agreed to follow the so-called “gentleman’s agreement” by benching one of their star players, William Bell, because he was African-American. Ohio State’s students, faculty, and fans organized no protests to speak of, and the game passed with little notice. So little, apparently, that Ohio State felt comfortable inviting Vanderbilt back to Columbus for a rematch in 1933, one year before the Georgia Tech-Michigan game. (Ohio State had no African-Americans on its team from 1932 to 1939.) Before Michigan’s Georgia Tech game the next year, Yost’s correspondence with Ohio State’s football coach, athletic director, and president convinced him that benching Ward would go equally quietly.

In Behee’s doctoral thesis-turned-book, which is highly critical of Yost’s decision, he writes, “Yost was travelling very much with his times. The Commissioner of the Big Ten, John L. Griffith, sympathized with Yost… Precedent was certainly on Yost’s side…”

The committee seems to confuse Yost’s all-too-common actions for the community’s all-too-uncommon reactions. That is, it wasn’t Yost’s horrible decision that was unusual for the era, sadly, but the Michigan community’s protests – much to the community’s credit, of course. 

Even at that, the community’s response fell far short of the uniform outrage it would spark today. As the report notes, “The majority of the staff at the Michigan Daily also supported the administration. Although they printed letters both in support of Ward and in favor of his benching, the Daily’s editors ultimately elected to side with the Athletic Department. They criticized the University for being ‘extraordinarily stupid’ in scheduling the game, but also attacked the NSL [National Student League] for being concerned more for publicity than Ward’s well-being and argued that the line-up ‘was the concern of the coach and no one else, and that an attempt by any organization to force the playing of any individual is out of place.’ That appears to have been the attitude of many students toward the controversy.”

The University itself made similarly regrettable decisions. Among other racist policies, in 1934 the University still refused to let African-Americans room with white students in the dorms. As late as the early 1960s, the Dean of Women, Deborah Bacon (no relation, I’m pleased to report) would send a note of warning to a white woman’s parents if their daughter was seen socializing with a black man. Unfortunately, such policies were common across the Big Ten, where no league basketball teams rostered a single African-American until 1948, 14 years after the Georgia Tech game.  

This is not to dismiss the rank odor of Yost’s bald-faced racism. But it does call into question the Committee’s assertion that Yost’s deeply wrong-headed decision fell far outside the norms of the day. It did not. 

COUNTER GESTURES

For what it’s worth, Behee and others did find examples of Yost performing gestures which ran counter to his racist history. As I wrote in A Legacy of Champions, “He successfully lobbied to get black track star DeHart Hubbard into the University; he volunteered his influence and Field House to support an athletic exhibition to raise funds for the Dunbar Center, a local organization that promoted social betterment for African-Americans [calling Joe Louis and others to secure their support]; and he started Benny Friedman, a practicing Jew, at quarterback in the mid-twenties, then helped him become athletic director at Brandeis University.

“This is not to suggest Yost became a pillar of social justice. But, for the son of a confederate soldier born six years after the Civil War, the examples above do indicate Yost at least recognized the changing times, and had begun to change with them.” 

In considering examples like the above, the report’s authors say, “We do not agree with all the propositions in those works,” but they do not indicate which propositions in which works they disagree with, or why. 

The report also ignores a potentially important portion of Ward’s last interview, given to David Pollack of the Ford Project, on September 8, 1983, a few months before Ward died of cancer. On page seven of the twelve-page transcript, Ward describes a scene at a Chicago hotel where someone, most likely either head coach Harry Kipke or Yost, demanded that the hotel allow Ward to stay there with his teammates. Thus, Ward became only the second African-American to do so, after the great singer Marian Anderson. According to Ward, “____ flip-flopped from being a segregationist.”

There are valid questions about this interview. As stated, we can’t be certain about the year and subjects he’s describing. But because Kipke already eagerly recruited Ward, it is most likely Yost whom he describes as having “flip-flopped from being a segregationist.” 

The past week I talked with just about everyone I know who has researched the Yost-Ward story, including Ward’s grandson, Buzz Thomas. He believes his grandfather’s account of Yost’s attempts to reform are accurate. “My grandfather came from a generation that would have accepted people’s change of heart and change of mind,” Thomas told me, “and viewed it as progress.”

This is not to claim any of the compensating information diminishes the damage Yost did to the program, the university, or Willis Ward himself. Although Ward went on to law school, an impressive career at Ford Motor Company, and finally served as a probate judge in Detroit with distinction, the incident broke Ward’s spirit. 

Despite beating the great Jesse Owens on at least a few occasions, and being urged to try out for the 1936 U.S. Olympic team that would compete in Berlin, where Owens would dominate, “…that Georgia Tech game killed me,” Ward told the Associated Press. “I frankly felt they would not let black athletes compete. Having gone through the [Georgia] Tech experience, it seemed an easy thing for them to say ‘Well, we just won’t run ’em if Hitler insists.'”

As late as 1976, Ward recalled of the Georgia Tech game, “It was like any bad experience—you can’t forget it, but you don’t talk about it. It hurts.”

The damage Yost inflicted was real, and lasting. 

The full cost is difficult to assess. After George Jewett played in 1891, how many African-Americans were denied the opportunity to play football for Michigan during the half-century when only two played for U-M: Ward , then Julius Franks in 1940? How did this public debacle make students of color feel about applying to Michigan, or staying there? The chilling effect of Yost’s racism is impossible to gauge, but the ripples were likely very broad indeed.

A MODEST PROPOSAL

The panel concludes, “Based on the findings of our historical analysis and reflection on our principles, we recommend unanimously that the name of Fielding H. Yost be removed from the Yost Ice Arena.”

This is not surprising, and you can make a strong case for the conclusion based on the Willis Ward ordeal alone. But the recommendation raises as many questions as answers, few of them simple. 

First, if Yost’s name comes off, it’s reasonable to assume other names will be coming off university buildings, too. For all of Yost’s deep flaws, he was not a felon. Alfred Taubman was, convicted of price fixing at his auction house, Sotheby’s – a habit which helped him amass the fortune used to donate several buildings to the university.  The faculty, staff, and students in the physics building have already petitioned to remove current regent and state GOP Chair Ron Weiser’s name from the former Dennison Hall for his recent remarks encouraging misogyny and violence, and the University just announced Weiser’s name is staying. The Cook Law Library and the Paton Accounting Center names might be short-lived as well; Cook’s writing indicates he harbored anti-immigrant xenophobia, while Paton was demonstrably anti-Semitic.

Taking their names off may well be for the best, and perhaps Michigan should get out of the business of trading donations for naming rights altogether. But this raises a second question: will these decisions create a double-standard of scrutiny, with a more stringent one for those who built the university through their efforts, and a lighter one for those who donated money? A donor’s estate can threaten to pull the donation, while a builder’s heirs can’t very well threaten to take down the buildings.

But the biggest question I have is what the report’s conclusion says about how Michigan is going to relate to its past going forward. The world is messy, our past is checkered, and people are complicated – and those heavy compounds are difficult to break down to their base elements. 

As Oscar Wilde said, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” 

That doesn’t mean we should shy away from pursuing the truth, but a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision on a sign doesn’t account for that complexity, and is not worthy of the world’s foremost public university.

I would be no more comfortable seeing Michigan merely keep Yost’s name on his building than I would seeing Michigan simply take it off. Neither would do justice to the multi-layered issues here, nor reflect the multifarious reality of Yost’s work. Either action would offer the illusion that Michigan is done with this issue. It’s not, nor should be.

I’ve only had a couple weeks to think about this, but there are a number of possibilities – and hopefully we’ll hear many more once the University community puts its collective mind to the task.

Here are my ideas:

-Start by naming Michigan’s track for Willis Ward. This is not pandering. Ward was a world-class track star who could do it all, a decathlete before he was a football player, who could well have made Olympic history with Jesse Owens if not for the damage the Georgia Tech game created. It is long past time, and would be only the second facility on campus to be named for an African-American.

-Keep Yost’s name on the ice arena, or take it off, but devote a sizeable room inside for a museum of Yost’s and Ward’s lives and the ordeal that will forever link them. Explain the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between. 

When presenting Yost’s checkered career, spare nothing. Don’t dismiss any of it. Own it, all of it, every day that building is open. This must include Yost’s decision to sic the Pinkerton detectives on the protestors, and Ruthven’s decision to have them expelled. (Michigan should also grant all three expelled students honorary degrees posthumously – another gesture long overdue.)

-Upon the museum’s opening, sponsor a symposium to discuss all of the above. 

-Create a class, “Racism at Michigan,” and study the subject in earnest. 

This is Michigan. There are plenty of experts on campus who know how to make compelling, intellectually honest presentations of complicated subjects, through a variety of media. This is an argument for more, not less. 

CONCLUSIONS

Yost’s combination of qualities is troubling. How do we handle this? As Ann Arbor’s own Ken Burns said, “You have to look at the whole person.” 

I have used that phrase since I started teaching my class on the history of college athletics at the University of Michigan 15 years ago. In it, we explore Yost’s achievements, then discuss the fact that he had no African-Americans earn varsity football letters in 24 seasons, and then we spend considerable time reading and discussing the Willis Ward case. When I give the Willis Ward lecture, we don’t flinch from any of it, and we don’t ask the students to reconcile what cannot be reconciled.  

All of it is true. That’s the problem. 

It turns out Michigan students are not children. They can handle ambiguity, complexity, and paradox. They understand people are complicated, that good people can do bad things and bad people sometimes do good things – just one reason I don’t envy the committee members trying to place Yost in one box or the other. 

My students would likely have a wide range of well-supported opinions about this, and I wouldn’t presume to guess what the ratios might be. But I have been impressed by their ability to handle conflicts in all their complexity, and I hope we can, too.

Let me be clear: if the university ultimately decides to take Yost’s name off, I won’t protest. When I asked professor Tyran Steward, one of the foremost authorities on Willis Ward, and Buzz Thomas, Ward’s grandson, both of whom are African-American, what they would like to see happen, they both said Yost’s name should come off the building. As a friend of mine said a few years ago, “I’ve been Black all my life, and I have to think about it every day.” I have the luxury of not thinking about my race every day. These two men do not. I believe Professor Steward’s voice should carry more weight than mine, and Thomas’s more still.

Whatever is decided, I’d rather work at a university that is honest enough to admit it was built by deeply flawed people than one that pretends it has never been the beneficiary of imperfect leaders. 

If I’ve had a lover’s quarrel with my alma mater, my love has always been stronger than my quarrel. I cannot help but remain devoted to an institution whose seal promises only: Artes, Scientia, Veritas. 

Art, Knowledge, Truth. 

Let those be Michigan’s guiding lights. 

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1 Comment

  1. Robert Sykora

    One of your best articles ever – thoughtful, nuanced, and heartfelt. Thank you for your contributions to the Michigan legacy.

    Reply

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