At the height of racial segregation in the United States, New York University (NYU) made history by entrenching racial tensions on the Southern side. This began in 1929, when NYU removed African-American player Dave Meyers from a football game against the University of Georgia.
It followed the University of North Carolina’s acceptance of an African-American fullback from New York University, Ed Williams, to play in both the 1936 and 1937 games. Racial tensions had gradually crept into college sports in the 1930s and 1940s, with universities on the Northern side allowing African-American players to play for them while those on the Southern side were excluding them, according to the New York University website.
According to reports, northern schools agreed that black athletes would not be allowed to compete against southern schools on the segregated university’s home fields. When playing against southern universities, it became an unwritten rule for NYU, Boston College, Rutgers, and Harvard to withdraw African-American players.
When the University of Missouri asked NYU to withdraw its star fullback, Leonard Bates, from an upcoming football game, racial tensions erupted. Hell broke loose in 1940 as students engaged in a verbal brawl with the school’s administration under the banner “Bates Must Play!” as it appeared NYU was determined to keep Bates from playing in the upcoming football game.
Chancellor Harry Woodburn Chase urged calm in the face of the discriminatory decision to bar Bates from playing in the match. He stated that these racial tensions are rooted in centuries-old traditions and customs. He believes that changing the status will require a gradual process, which is why those involved must be cautious in their actions.
In an editorial, a newspaper rejected the Chancellor’s calls for the cancellation of what it called “Jim Crow” games. A continuation of the games, according to the Bulletin, will be an endorsement of the intolerance and bias preached by racial segregation campaigners. Despite the protests of 2,000 students who stormed the school’s administration block and presented a petition with 4,000 signatures, the school stood firm and barred Bates from playing the match. The NYU football team was defeated 33-0 by Missouri.
Tensions and racial discrimination in colleges reached a climax in 1941, with rioting and chaos. It came after the decision to bench Jim Coward, a player who transferred from Brooklyn College to play for NYU’s School of Education. Students complained that Coward was disqualified because of the color of his skin, but the school administration claimed that he did not meet the university’s requirements.
This was compounded by a 1941 incident when NYU left behind three African-American members of the track team for an upcoming meet with the Catholic University. Student activists led by the “Bates Seven” petitioned relevant authorities asking for the immediate cancellation of the “NYU Abandon Its Jim Crow Policy!”.
The “Bates Seven” were subjected to dubious disciplinary hearings and were later suspended for their petition demanding that “NYU Abandon Its Jim Crow Policy!” According to the university, the students took their actions without first obtaining permission from the university.
The students fought back and challenged the decision, claiming that the school was stifling progressive organizations on campus. Following the suspension, the students were forced to take summer classes in order to graduate.
In 2001, school authorities at NYU made moves to right the injustice committed against the “Bates Seven” in 1941 for taking a firm stand against racial discrimination.
The “Bates Seven” were Anita Krieger Appleby, Jean Borstein Azulay, Mervyn Jones, Naomi Bloom Rothschild, Robert Schoenfeld, Argyle Stoute, and Maisel Witkin.