U of M celebrates athlete Willis Ward, who was benched for his race in the 1930s

Ward went on to become a prosecutor and judge

By: - January 17, 2022 7:30 am

Willis Ward | Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Willis Ward, one of the University of Michigan’s greatest athletes, wasn’t dejected when racism and injury prevented him from showcasing his Great Depression-era talent.

He was perhaps best known for being benched during a 1934 football game against Georgia Tech because the opposing coach refused to play a game with an African American on the field.

Richard Smith, a physician who attended U of M and has studied African-American culture, said that Willis was a product of the Detroit westside community that nurtured its residents and inspired them to achieve in spite of the odds.

“His story should serve as an inspiration to the people of Michigan — no matter what background you come from,” said Smith.

Now a new U of M online exhibit, “Willis Ward: More than a Game,” highlights Ward’s life experiences, produced by the Bentley Historical Library’s athletics archivist Greg Kinney and Bentley staff members Brian Williams, Caitlin Moriarty and Andrew Rutledge.

University of Michigan | Andrew Roth

Part of ‘The Great Migration’

Born in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 28, 1912, Ward’s family left Jim Crow era race discrimination and settled in Detroit around 1918. At that time, tens of thousands Blacks left Southern states and moved to Detroit looking for greater economic and social opportunity during a period known as “The Great Migration.”

Willis Ward | Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Ward was a scholar and star athlete at Northwestern High School, graduating in 1931. He later attended the University of Michigan, where he excelled at football and track and field at a time when few Blacks took classes there.

At U of M, he was only the second African American to letter on the school’s varsity football team. Ward roomed with Gerald R. Ford, who hailed from Grand Rapids and would later ascend to Congress. He became president in 1974.

“Willis Ward was well aware of the ‘rule’ that African American students could not play football at Michigan. No African American had played in a varsity game for Michigan since George Jewett in 1892,” said Greg Kinney, Bentley Historical Library athletics archivist. “U of M Athletic Director and former coach Fielding Yost, a southerner by birth and attitude, was determined to keep it that way.”

When the Georgia Tech team threatened not to play in 1934, Yost benched Ward. Ford, who was white, publicly stood up for Ward and threatened not to play in protest. However, Ward encouraged him to suit up and participate. The incident was front-page news.

Ford addressed what happened in a 1999 New York Times op-ed in which he expressed support for U of M’s affirmative action policies that were under fire by many, especially those in his Republican Party.

“I don’t want future college students to suffer the cultural and social impoverishment that afflicted my generation…,” Ford wrote. “Do we really want to risk turning back the clock to an era when the Willis Wards were penalized for the color of their skin, their economic standing or national ancestry?”

As the 1936 Olympics approached, Ward looked toward the opportunity to represent his country as Eddie Tolan, another Black track and field star from Detroit and U of M, had done in 1932. However, as a result of the Georgia Tech experience, Ward had lost the ambition to win, did not train to his peak and thus did not compete in the Olympic games. Ward had previously beaten Jesse Owens, his rival from Ohio State University, who went on to win four gold medals during the games that were held in Berlin, Germany, during Adolf Hitler’s fascist reign.

Portrait of President Gerald Ford in the Michigan Capitol. Ford roomed with Willis Ward and was his teammate.| Susan J. Demas

But Ward was not bitter about his U of M football experience. In 1954, he penned a guest column for the Detroit Tribune newspaper called, “My Greatest Sports Thrill,” about a game against Princeton where Yost embraced him after a team win.

“… It was the first time he had ever hugged a colored player — when he hugged me,” Ward wrote. “He often related that in his 35 years of coaching football that was the greatest tackle he had ever seen.”

Saul Green, a former U.S. attorney for Michigan’s Eastern District, said Ward encouraged him to attend the University of Michigan — which he did in 1965 — and become a lawyer. Green’s father, Forrest, and Ward were good friends. 

“I can only imagine that the things Judge Ward faced were overt and much more difficult,” said Green, comparing the racial climate in the 1930s to the 1960s.

A storied career

Ward went on to lead an effort to earn a degree from the Detroit College of Law in 1939, served in the U.S. Army during World War II and created a program at Ford Motor Co. to help minorities in employment matters. He was instrumental in helping Owens, his former athletic foe, to secure a job at Ford in Detroit.

Ward was active in Republican Party politics, including a failed 1956 run for U.S. Congress against Democratic incumbent Charles C. Diggs Jr. During the 1956 campaign, Ward challenged Democrats to support President Dwight Eisenhower’s civil rights legislation.

“The President’s civil rights program, shelved by Democrats in the recent session of Congress, deserves the unstinting support of all conscientious voters,” said Ward as reported by the Detroit Tribune, a Black newspaper.

I don’t want future college students to suffer the cultural and social impoverishment that afflicted my generation. … Do we really want to risk turning back the clock to an era when the Willis Wards were penalized for the color of their skin, their economic standing or national ancestry?

– Former President Gerald Ford, defending U of M's affirmative action policies in 1999

Ward became a federal assistant prosecutor during the 1950s. He was appointed as a Wayne County probate judge in 1973 by then-Gov. William Milliken, a Republican. 

Former state Sen. Buzz Thomas (D-Detroit), Ward’s grandson, said the former athlete wasn’t negatively affected by his college experience. Thomas remembers Ward during his childhood continuing to be a U of M supporter who often attended football games.

“In spite of what happened at the University of Michigan with that football game, he didn’t stop loving the university,” said Thomas, who later served in the Michigan House and Senate. “He was very much a Michigan guy.”

Ward died in 1983 at age 71. A decade ago, the Michigan Senate unanimously passed a resolution sponsored by then-Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker (R-Lawton) honoring Ward, that read, in part:

“[W]e hereby proclaim October 20, 2012, as Willis Ward Day in the state of Michigan — exactly 78 years after he was benched for a Georgia Tech game — in recognition of his many accomplishments, steadfast character, and significant contributions to our state.” 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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