Yale missed a chance to pay tribute to local football legend Levi Jackson by not giving his name to one of its residential colleges

By Joel Alderman

Many students and faculty of Yale University, its alumni throughout the world, the media, unaffiliated people, and outside organizations have recently been debating the failure by the Yale Corporation to eliminate the name of John C. Calhoun from one of its residential colleges.

By continuing to flaunt the identity of an avowed racist and slave owner, Yale missed a golden opportunity to switch to a politically correct designation and in so doing to honor one of its historic pioneers and graduates, Levi Alexander Jackson, class of 1950.

Jackson (right), pictured here with outgoing captain Bill Conway (left) and Yale coach Herman Hickman (center). Associated Press Photo.
Jackson (right), pictured here with outgoing captain Bill Conway (left) and Yale coach Herman Hickman (center). Associated Press Photo.

Jackson is arguably among the three greatest football players New Haven has ever produced, the others being Floyd Little and Albie Booth. His achievements at Yale and his distinguished career at the Ford Motor Co., where he concentrated in the areas of minorities and equal opportunity, should be given a permanent place on the landscape of his alma mater.

This could have happened if Yale had renamed Calhoun College or named one of the two residential colleges being constructed in honor of this man.

It did not happen – yet

Instead the Yale Corporation, the University’s governing body, decided to stay with Calhoun College, and designated Benjamin Franklin and Anna Pauline Murray for the two others.

Post decision reactions

Currently, the esteemed Ivy League institution in New Haven, Conn., is being passionately, but not unanimously, criticized, both within and without its ivy covered walls. Here are some examples of the dissatisfaction:

1) Shortly before the popular vocalist Janelle Monae was to perform at the college’s Spring Fling, she told a group of students that she could not imagine living in a building named after a “white supremacist.” She called for them and others to fight the continuing use of the Calhoun name.

2) A petition was drawn up by a student group asking that contributions intended to be made to the University be diverted. It suggests that they be directed instead to student organizations such as the Afro-American Cultural Center, the Yale Women’s Center, La Casa, Dwight Hall and the Yale Gay and Lesbian Organization.

“For us, giving money to Yale right now is unthinkable,” the petition states.

3) Another petition objected to naming one of the new residential colleges for Benjamin Franklin, who was also a slave owner before he became an abolitionist. Franklin’s only connection to Yale is that he was given an honorary degree. However, he is much more associated with the University of Pennsylvania, which honors him with a stadium known as Franklin Field.

The President of Yale, Peter Salovey, in an e-mail to the University community, said that Benjamin Franklin was a “personal hero and role model” of Charles B. Johnson (the retired chairman of the money management company, not surprisingly known as Franklin Resources).

Johnson is a 1954 Yale alumnus, who donated $250 million, the largest gift ever made to the University, and who may have urged that the name Franklin be used for one of the new colleges.

Former Senator John C. Calhoun is probably best known for his strong defense of slavery. (Wikipedia Photo)

This petition states that “Yale placed the wishes of one donor above the lived experience of its student body.”

4) The Hartford Courant, in a May 5th editorial, described the failure to remove Calhoun’s name as “bewilderingly bad.” The paper also described President Salovey’s contention as “rubbish” that erasing the name would risk “downplaying the lasting effects of slavery . . .”

5) In a “Letter to the Editor” the next day Paul Sypek of Farmington, Conn., wrote, “Follow the money. There is a very good chance that the decision was influenced by some deep-pocketed alums or groups of alumni. This is often the way things are done in academia.”

6) On April 29th, an Op-Ed column by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, a Yale professor of history and African-American Studies, was published in the New York Times. In it, she says that it was “a grievous mistake” for Yale to keep the name of an avowed white supremacist, John C. Calhoun, on a residential college, despite decades of vigorous alumni and student protests.”

Why is the name of Calhoun College so controversial?

John C. Calhoun was the seventh U.S. vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, before he resigned in 1832. He is said to have owned “dozens of (African) slaves on his plantation in Fort Hill, South Carolina” and called slavery a “positive good.” He is also reported to have whipped one of his slaves, known as Aleck, for “offending” his wife.

Yale President Salovey placd in the middle

President Salovey justifies the position of Yale’s governing body to keep Calhoun College as an exercise in higher education. He claims that dropping Calhoun’s name would “obscure the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it.” But 55% of a large sampling of students surveyed by the Yale Daily News do not appear to have accepted that line of reasoning.

Incidentally, John C. Calhoun and Benjamin Franklin would not be the only slave “masters” to have their names affixed to a Yale residential college, though Calhoun was probably the staunchest and most outspoken advocate of slavery among them. Others in that group of slave masters who are already identified with Yale colleges were George Berkeley, Timothy Dwight and Ezra Stiles.

LEVI ALEXANDER JACKSON (Aug. 22, 1926—Dec. 7, 2000)

It has occurred to many following these events, including this writer, who was a fellow Yale student with Jackson, and Bob Barton, a former reporter for the New Haven Register, a sports historian and researcher, and Yale alumnus (1957), that Jackson would have been a perfect new name for Calhoun College.

A clipping from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1948 shows Jackson's election as captain was national news.
A clipping from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1948 shows Jackson’s election as captain was national news.

After the 1948 football season, Jackson, who was one of only three African-American Yale students at the time, was elected football captain. The Associated Press reporter, Lou Black of New Haven, wrote that the election was unanimous.

The late Leonard Fasano, who became a prominent New Haven physician, was a football teammate of Jackson, both at Hillhouse and Yale. He had said the voting for Jackson was 49-1, since Levi told him he would not have voted for himself.

He also said “it didn’t dawn on (Levi) that we were voting for someone of a different color.” He pointed out that when he was carrying the ball, “we would have killed ourselves for him. We didn’t tolerate Levi Jackson, we loved him.”

Years later Ferd Nadherny, Levi’s backfield mate, told Bob Barton, who was then working in Detroit, that he held some hope of being the choice, but since the election was by secret ballot, it may never be known how many votes, if any, Nadherny garnered, or if the AP report that Jackson was elected unanimously is accurate.

Back to the present

Renaming Calhoun College for Levi Jackson would be diametrically opposite to its present namesake. It would recognize a great Yale alumnus, athlete, and humanitarian.

Levi Jackson College would also bring New Haven and Yale closer together, sharing pride in an individual whose legacies are part of the histories of both the city and the University.

After Yale

He was the first African-American to hold an executive position with the Ford Motor Co, where he concentrated on urban affairs and labor relations. After the 1967 race riots in Detroit, Jackson worked on ways to reform hiring and train minorities.

As a result of his proposals, Ford hired 10,000 new workers and later appointed him its urban affairs manager.

At Ford, he was active in a program under which minority owned dealerships would be established. One of those was Pacific Coast Ford, in Federal Way, Wash., near Seattle, which was owned by New Haven native and NFL Hall of Famer, Floyd Little.

In 1987, Jackson was back at Yale to the Walter Camp Foundation Man of the Year Award.

Early years

Levi was raised in Branford, Conn., and attended his first football game in the nearby Yale Bowl in 1937, where he saw future Heisman Trophy winner Clint Frank leading the Bulldogs.

He attended Branford High School and was on its football team in 1941, a year before the school dropped football.

Levi Jackson's photo in the 1945 Hillhouse High School yearbook.
Levi Jackson’s photo in the 1945 Hillhouse High School yearbook.

His family moved to New Haven during the 1942-43 academic year. Although he transferred to Hillhouse, then formally known as New Haven High School, Bob Barton did not find any record of him participating in athletics that year. Hillhouse had double sessions at the time and those in the so-called PM school did not play varsity sports.

He started football at Hillhouse as a junior. His mentor was Reggie Root, a former Yale tackle and head coach in the 1930s. Root pushed Jackson to attend Yale.

He was on the football, baseball, basketball and track teams at Hillhouse, and, as stated in the beginning of this article, became one of the all-time great gridiron players Connecticut has ever produced.

While at Hillhouse, he twice faced West Haven High School in the Yale Bowl, where on Thanksgiving of 1943 he led the Academics to a 52-6 win. He was responsible for 40 of those 52 points, matching the uniform number he wore both in high school and college. He had six touchdowns and four placement kicks before over 25,000.

Before his senior year at Hillhouse was over he joined the Army and was stationed at Fort Lee, Virginia. His service team played an exhibition game against the New York Giants, losing 21-0.

Including Jackson, there were three former New Haven area high school stars in that game. The others were Lou DeFilippo, a tackle on the state championship team in 1932, also from Hillhouse. DeFilippo played for the Giants for four seasons, and later was the head coach at Derby High School for 15 years.

The other local on the Giants that Levi played against that day was Ken Strong, a former football and baseball star at West Haven High, after whom its football stadium is named.

When it came time to attend Yale, it was made possible because of the G.I. Bill of Rights, which paid most of his tuition. He was able to play four seasons at Yale because freshmen were made eligible for varsity college sports after the war, as they are now.

Although he amassed great statistics at Yale, they would have been even better if he were not hampered by several injuries during his college career. He even was badly injured during a spring practice and in a pre-season scrimmage at West Point in 1947, which was aggravated against Cornell and shelved him for part of that season.

Faced discrimination

Jackson had brushes with discrimination along the way, in the army and at Yale. Dr. Fasano told of an experience during their service stint. They were on a bus in Richmond, Va., that led to threats directed at them.

Fasano is reported to have heard a voice say “We want that nigger, and we want that young white bo,” and as a result they took refuge in a taxi.

While the Yale basketball team was eating at a restaurant in Dallas, Tex., the manager said Levi could not sit in the dining room. Whereupon all the players left the dining room and ate with Jackson in the manager’s office.

A similar situation took place in New York where the basketball team was to play Columbia. Bob Barton says he was told by the JV coach, New Haven’s Jimmy DeAngelis, that a restaurant refused to serve Jackson and, as a result, the entire team got up and walked out.

Levi would have played on the Yale baseball team, but because it traditionally made several southern stops during its spring trip, he was told, quite possibly by Coach Ethan Allen, that it was not a good idea. This was the most direct impact on his Yale athletic career because of his race, and he told of his hurt years later.

Team was highly praised after electing Jackson captain

Jackson was captain of the 1949 Yale football team and the election by his teammates became national news and much more than a sports story. It was hailed by noted columnists such as Bill Corum and Red Smith, and the story was on the front page of The New York Times, as well as being the subject of an editorial in that and other newspapers.

H. I. Phillips, a native of New Haven, an author and syndicated columnist, wrote an eloquent poem praising the team for electing Jackson. It contains this verse:

“But by the qualities superb
Of spirit, mind and heart,
This team of 1948
Stands as a team apart.”

In basketball, Levi played as a reserve on the same team captained by the All-American Tony Lavelli, and with football teammates Art Fitzgerald and Ferd Nadherny. Since Fitzgerald became the baseball captain, the captains of football, baseball and basketball were in uniform together on the same team.

Personal background

Levi Jackson was the youngest of six children. His father, George Washington Jackson, worked at the Winchester factory in New Haven. He was also a butler and eventually a chef and a steward at Pearson, another Yale residential college.

When Levi entered Yale he said he felt uneasy amid prep school graduates and people of wealth. Yet he earned the respect and admiration of those with whom he came in contact. Most looked at him as a person and not a rarity on campus.

He was married in April of his junior year (1949) to Virginia Moore, a secretary at Yale’s Institute of Human Relations whom he knew from his high school days. Several teammates attended the wedding at St. Luke’s Protestant Episcopal Church on Whalley Avenue, in New Haven.

United Press reported that “crowds of well-wishers overflowed the steps and sidewalks” outside the church.

Back to today’s naming protests

The most recent, and undoubtedly not the last, of those campus protests about names of residential colleges came in the form of an open letter addressed to President Salovey and posted on April 28th. It contains the signatures of about 150 professors among Yale’s faculty of arts and sciences.

The letter says, in part: “We fully understand and endorse your view that Yale University should engage the complexity of its past . . . The name of a college, however, does not only represent a university’s engagement with a historic legacy; it also conveys its honoring of an individual . . . We are doing these students a disservice by forcing them to live unnecessarily under a brand so deeply associated with slavery.”

Yale paper found less than half student support for keeping Calhoun name

The Yale Daily News surveyed about 1,700 students and estimated that less than half (45 percent) supported keeping the Calhoun name. Some of those interviewed implied that they felt intimidated by student activists from speaking out on the subject.

Jackson’s name and legacy are inscribed in the Yale Bowl

Jackson died on Dec. 7, 2000, about six months after returning, wheelchair bound, to New Haven from his home in Detroit for his 50th Yale reunion. He was 74 years of age.

His name, along with those of every Yale football letter winner since 1872, is engraved on the walls of Jensen Plaza, in the Kenney Center which is attached to the Yale Bowl.

A wish from this writer

In addition to Jensen Plaza, the name of Levi Jackson should be placed somewhere else – on the entrance to what is now known as Calhoun College, and making it read Levi Jackson College.

It would create a symbol and a permanent place of honor for a trailblazer at one of the most prestigious and respected universities in the world.

It is not too late for the Yale Corporation to reconsider its position.

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