How the Color Line Caused a 100-Year Break in Football between Iowa and Missouri
Mr. Bond recently received his Ph.D. in American History from the University of Wisconsin. His dissertation was entitled, “Jim Crow at Play: Race, Manliness, and the Color Line in American Sports, 1876-1916.” He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
The University of Iowa will face the University of Missouri in the 2010 Insight.com Bowl in Tempe, Arizona on Tuesday, December 28th. Many news outlets have reported that this will be the first meeting between the Tigers and the Hawkeyes since 1910, but what has gone unmentioned in these stories is the reason for that 100-year gap in this once heated rivalry: Archie Alexander.
“Alexander will not be allowed to play against Missouri,” the Daily Iowan, the student newspaper at the University of Iowa, wrote matter-of-factly on October 12, 1910. Archie Alphonso Alexander was a star lineman on the University of Iowa’s football team that season. His absence from the Iowa-Missouri football game in 1910 – which Mizzou won 5-0 – explains the long dormant rivalry between these two schools.
Born in Ottumwa, Iowa and raised in Des Moines, Alexander, at 6-2 and 180 pounds, was an imposing figure on the football field and an award-winning lineman. Alexander was also an African-American – the second black player to suit up for the Hawkeye varsity – and his race was directly responsible for the century-long football drought between these two schools from neighboring states. Iowa and Missouri – which would not admit any African-American students until after World War Two – had long wrangled over the subject of black players, and Mizzou’s absolute refusal to allow Alexander to take the field was the final straw for Iowa athletic officials.
From the inception of its football program, the University of Missouri had protested against integrated football teams. In 1892, as a member of the Western Inter-State University Football Association, the Tigers opted to take a 1-0 forfeit rather than play a conference game against the University of Nebraska and George Albert Flippin, its spectacular black running back. The following season, the Inter-State Association passed a new rule fining teams that did not play scheduled league games, and the Tigers swallowed their pride to play against Flippin in 1893 and 1894.
The University of Iowa was also a member of the Western Inter-State league, and its first black player was Franklin Kinney Holbrook, a bruising running back, who starred in 1895 and 1896. After an uneventful game in his first year on the team, Holbrook and his teammates traveled to Columbia for a game on Mizzou’s home field in 1896. Holbrook scored a touchdown for Iowa, but the game nearly descended into a riot and ended early in the second half.
Throughout the contentious affair, the Mizzou fans, according to an Iowa reporter, chanted “kill the nigger!” and other racial taunts, and they menacingly waved “canes, clubs, and wagon spokes” in the air. The Tiger players missed no opportunity to hit, foul, and punch Holbrook, whose “courageous demeanor,” in the opinion of the Iowa student newspaper, “excited the admiration of every fair-minded spectator.” After a Missouri player assaulted an Iowa professor watching from the sidelines, the Hawkeyes were awarded the victory. According to one observer, “four fellows… with shotguns” accompanied the Hawkeye team wagon “to keep the crowd from mobbing Kinney.” Iowa did not schedule Missouri again until 1902.
Missouri and Iowa competed uneventfully several times during the first decade of the twentieth century, because the Hawkeyes did not feature any black players in these years. Archie Alexander joined the varsity in 1909, however, and Missouri was quickly up to its old tricks. The Hawkeyes’s black lineman missed only one game that season, a home contest against Missouri on Halloween day, in which Iowa silently benched its lone African-American player on its own field.
In 1910, Iowa traveled to Missouri, and the Tigers again refused to allow an integrated contest. Iowa acquiesced to the demands of their rivals, and Alexander stood on the sidelines in Columbia as his teammates lost the game. Although the Iowa student newspaper largely ignored the color line, the Iowa City Daily Press lambasted University officials for “yielding their independence” and criticized the Hawkeyes for “ostracizing a gridiron star, a gentleman, and a good student, because of his color.” Alexander also missed the last game of the season, because Washington University of St. Louis similarly resorted to Jim Crow. The Daily Press roundly criticized the “indignity in St. Louis” and praised Alexander, who, in a thankless situation, “consented to the arrangement rather than make himself the center of a racial storm.”
Iowa dropped Wash U. in 1911 for Alexander’s senior season, but the University of Missouri was scheduled for a return match in Iowa City. Reluctant to, once again, play without their star lineman, Iowa administrators tried to convince Mizzou to assent to Alexander’s participation.
In November of 1910, Hawkeye athletic officials informed their counterparts in Missouri that Iowa would not “maintain the existing contract unless colored players can be used in case they are regular members of the team.” In an effort to defuse the controversy, University of Iowa President George MacLean exchanged letters with A. Ross Hill, the President of the University of Missouri.
MacLean proposed a compromise, writing that Iowa “would meet Missouri halfway and not play a negro in Missouri” but would insist on an integrated contest in Iowa City. “The public sentiment of this state,” the Iowa President said, “is about as strong that a negro must be admitted to play as it is in your state that he cannot play.” He concluded his letter by suggesting that “the old [saying] may apply: ‘When with the Romans do as the Romans do.’”
President Hill of Missouri curtly responded: “I tried to make the position of Missouri clear, and you have made clear that of Iowa.” Hill dismissed the concerns of the Hawkeyes and wrote definitively: “In that case there will be nothing for us to do but sever athletic relations, because Missouri will not play against any team that has a ‘nigger’ on it.”
Missouri and Iowa did not play in 1911, and their meeting on December 28th in the Insight.com bowl will be their first contest since October 15, 1910 when Archie Alexander sat on the sidelines in Columbia and watched his team lose to Mizzou 5-0. After a long and distinguished career as an engineer and politician, Alexander died in 1958 – the same year that Norris Stevenson became the first African-American football player at the University of Missouri.
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