Today is Jackie Robinson Day, a day to celebrate America's first black athlete who broke the color barrier in 1947. If you asked most kids and adults about Robinson they would be able to tell you who he was, what he went through, and what he accomplished. His story is taught in schools, and highlighted on television, and his legacy is celebrated by the nation every April 15th.
But what many people don't know is that Boston College had a situation that also challenged the thinking of the time, and included a black athlete that many people have never heard of. Enter Lou Montgomery, a Brockton born African American, who was a star running back in the state. After debating between going to school at UCLA, or stay close to home, he decided the latter and enrolled at BC in 1938. This decision made Montgomery the first black athlete in any sport to play at Boston College.
During his freshman year Montgomery was relegated to the freshman team and was promoted to the varsity team his sophomore year under Coach Gil Dobie. But it wasn't until his junior year under Frank Leahy that Montgomery's skills were truly utilized. Under Leahy, Montgomery became a star, and would get a chance to play for a legendary BC team.
BC was a powerhouse in 1940, a Top 10 school that was in talk for not only the major bowls but also of a National Championship (imagine that). In order to get the Eagles noticed by the AP, BC had to stack their schedule with some of the national powers including Florida, Auburn and Clemson who were all of course located south of the Mason-Dixon line. However, the South was still deeply entrenched in the Jim Crow era, and were not scheduling teams that had black athletes. Having a black athlete like Montgomery put BC in a tough predicament, do they take the moral high ground and ignore the racist southern teams, or do they make a "Gentlemen's Agreement" and bench their star running back in search of glory.
Unfortunately, BC decided on making the Gentlemen's Agreement and chose to schedule the Southern schools and this prevented Montgomery to play in some of BC's biggest games. During the 1940 season University of Florida came to BC and without Montgomery BC lost, their only L during the regular season. During the next season and half BC benched or did not allow Montgomery to travel with the team 5 more times, including the Sugar Bowl and Cotton Bowl all because BC decided playing big teams was more important than sticking to their Jesuit ideals. In one instance BC played Tulane and because of the policies in Louisiana, Montgomery couldn't eat with his own team and had to stay at Xavier University an all black college down the street.
Montgomery has now faded into obscurity in the BC book of lore. Instead of hearing his story, and the moral implications it brings, students instead here about Doug Flutie, Bill Curley and Matt Ryan. This story is relegated to footnotes in books, and many times only makes a paragraph Montgomery's story is important because it allows us to understand that just like the rest of the country, Boston College was not immune to the racist policies of the 1930's and 40's. That even with strong Catholic ideals, BC administrators still allowed a certain class of their students to be discriminated against, even when BC had a choice to make a stand.
Montgomery was posthumously inducted into the BC Hall of Fame in 1997, and his plaque is hanging in Conte Forum. There is a movement online now for BC to take a bigger stand on this issue, and really celebrate and remember the sad story of Lou Montgomery. If you visit the Lou Montgomery Story site, the authors push not only to have a statue of Montgomery erected at Alumni Stadium, but they are pushing to have the stadium renamed the "Lou Montgomery Stadium". An interesting idea to say the least, and possibly one worthy of discussion.
As we mentioned before, today is the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. Many of you will think of his sacrifice and courage as you watch MLB on television this afternoon. I simply ask that as you reflect, you think of the story of Lou Montgomery, Boston College's first African American athlete. Even though he wasn't treated fairly, he was Boston College, and deserves our thoughts.