Chester M. Pierce made history on the field and in the classroom
-courtesy Jeff Miller, NCAA.org
Chester M. Pierce’s career achievements following graduation from Harvard in 1948 might resemble those of Forrest Gump, except for the cross country runs.
Pierce graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1952, rose to national prominence in the psychiatric community and became a distinguished professor at his alma mater before retiring in 1997. He made multiple professional trips to Antarctica, where a peak is named for him. He was consulted on the creation of “Sesame Street.” Active in civil rights, he once participated in a protest alongside Charlton Heston.
Pierce’s four years playing tackle for Harvard’s one-platoon football team included a trailblazing episode that has gone relatively unnoticed. Which is the way he likes it.
Pierce, 83, is recognized as the first African-American to play in a college football game south of the Mason-Dixon Line at an all-white university. Pierce and his Crimson teammates played at the University of Virginia on Oct. 11, 1947.
“I never talk about that,” he said politely at a lunch date only a short walk from Massachusetts General Hospital, where the Global Psychiatry Division was renamed the Pierce Global Psychiatry Division for him last year. “I didn’t do anything.”
Some of Pierce’s teammates aren’t as reticent to discuss those events or to praise him.
“Chet Pierce is a dear, dear friend of mine and an elegant guy,” said Jim Fenn, a starting senior guard that season. “He is an exceptional person.”
“It was a big deal,” Alan Stone, Pierce’s backup as a sophomore in 1947, said of the trip to Virginia. “We all respected him. He was a very dignified fellow, and he was much more of a gentleman than anyone else on the team.”
Pierce grew up on Long Island in Glen Cove, N.Y., a town then of 8,000 and about 10 percent black. According to a biography written by fellow psychiatry professor Ezra E.H. Griffith, Pierce was the first black senior class president of his high school.
Before Harvard’s venture to Charlottesville, Va., most integrated college football teams reluctantly agreed not to bring their black players when traveling to the South. The host team would then bench a player of equivalent ability. But the racial environment of sports in America began to change in the spring of 1947 when baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers added Jackie Robinson.
Fenn was one of multiple World War II veterans on both teams in 1947. The Harvard vets, after learning of the game’s scheduling, wrote their Virginia counterparts lobbying on Pierce’s behalf.
According to various accounts, Virginia officials scheduled the game hoping Harvard would voluntarily exclude Pierce. But Crimson Athletic Director Bill Bingham insisted on Pierce’s participation, and Virginia relented.
Stuart Barbour, a junior Virginia lineman from Roanoke, Va., recalled talk among his teammates that Harvard would leave its black player home. John Papit, a Cavaliers’ freshman back, was surprised Virginia agreed to Harvard’s stipulation.
“You’re talking about the heart of the South,” said Papit, a Philadelphia native who became an All-American in 1949. “You can’t do anything but respect a team like Harvard. Whoever they’re going to bring down, it’s going to be first class.”
The Virginia game was Harvard’s first played in the South. The Crimson made the trip lacking four players who began the season as starters. One was senior end Robert F. Kennedy, lost after the opener when he broke a leg in practice.
The Harvard team boarded a train late Thursday night. Stone said when they arrived, he exited right behind the 6-4, 235-pound Pierce and was caught in an explosion of flash bulbs.
“I got my picture in Time magazine through no accomplishment of my own,” Stone said with a laugh.
The Boston Globe reported Virginia President Colgate W. Darden Jr., addressed Pierce’s presence at a pep rally attended by about 3,000 the night before the game, which was Virginia’s homecoming.
“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,” Darden said. Most the students cheered, the Globe reported, and some waved Confederate flags and sang “Dixie.”
Any trouble, Darden added, would likely come from people not affiliated with the school: “If there is, I want every student to keep his seat.”
When Harvard’s traveling party arrived at the Monticello Hotel, coach Dick Harlow was informed Pierce would be housed separately, in a mansion elsewhere on the property. Harlow agreed only after insisting some teammates would join Pierce there.
Said Fenn: “I remember Dick very clearly saying, ‘Where he goes, we go.’ ”
A similar issue arose regarding team meals. Pierce wasn’t allowed to enter the dining room through the main door, so the entire team came with him through an alternate entrance.
Stone recalled a sizable contingent of African-Americans watching Harvard’s Friday afternoon practice at Scott Stadium.
“They were all whistling and hooting at Chester,” said Stone, who also went into psychiatry and, at age 80, is still on the faculty of the Harvard Law School. “Whether that was a show of support or not, I was never clear.”
Pierce granted one newspaper interview about his experience that weekend upon the 50th anniversary of the game to Boston sportswriter George Sullivan, a water boy for that ’47 Harvard team. Pierce recalled Harlow insisting he stay at his side when the team took the field. “A very nice and courageous gesture,” Pierce called it.
The game was played without apparent serious incident, though many fans in the capacity crowd of 22,000 waved the Stars and Bars and some reportedly yelled obscenities at Pierce. The Crimson’s chances to win were hampered early when Vince Moravec, team captain and starting fullback, suffered a broken kneecap in the first period. The Cavs outgained Harvard 250 yards to 63 and won handily, 47-0.
The Associated Press’ game story highlighted Harvard suffering its worst loss since Harlow took over in 1935. The story later stated Pierce’s participation “probably was the first time a Negro had played against a Southern team on a Dixie campus.” It noted Pierce played well and was applauded when he left the game. The Globe’s account referred to Pierce’s presence as “almost forgotten.”
Said Virginia’s Barbour: “I just don’t think it turned out to be the problem that some people thought it might have been.”
Pierce told Sullivan: “I don’t recall a hint of anything racial on the field. I remember nothing different in that game from any other I played at Harvard … It was no big deal and took no courage by me.”
In 1997, the University of Virginia awarded Pierce its Vivian Pinn Distinguished Lecturer’s Award. It is given for lifetime achievement in the field of health disparities.
Pierce was invited back to Charlottesville in 2007 to speak at Virginia’s second annual Symposium on Race and Society. The lengthy bio written about Pierce for the symposium didn’t even mention his trailblazing role in college football.
Pierce still lives near the Harvard campus and is professor of education and psychiatry emeritus. He served as president of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, president of the American Orthopsychiatric Association and was a founding chairman of the Black Psychiatrists of America.
“He didn’t make it because he was black,” Fenn said. “He made it because he was good at what he did.”