Taking on the color barrier, twice
- Jan. 26, 2011
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Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series about black athletes at the University of Kansas.
When the white farmhouse burst into a fiery mess, the dark storage trunks rested somewhere inside the three-story building, keeping their treasures tightly secured.
Maude Harvey knew what was inside the trunk — the keepsakes and artifacts amassed during her lifetime — and she wanted them safe. She wanted to pass them along to her children and to her children’s children.
The 60-year-old house was a relic, built on the original Harvey family homestead established in 1863 near Blue Mound, southeast of Lawrence. The land was the Harveys’ first as free people and that meant something. It still means something.
But in 1968 the house caught fire, and Maude Harvey cried for someone to save the tangible evidence of her past.
Two of her sons rushed inside and pulled one of the trunks to safety. The others were lost in the flames. The baby clothes and family items burned. Part of the Harvey family history burned too.
Except for a picture.
The picture shows the 1893 Kansas football team. With only a date and names penciled on the front, the photo tells the story of Ed Harvey and his two brothers who together helped shape the University’s cultural landscape.
The picture has 19 faces, each with stoic expressions. Ed Harvey, Maude’s husband, is the youngest of three brothers. He’s one of the faces.
Ed’s left arm rests gently on a teammate’s shoulder. He’ll soon be an active community figure, but he’ll forever hold the memories from that picture. In the years to follow, Ed and his brothers, Sherman and Frederick, will once again attempt to take on the University and its racial barriers, a battle they started as naïve students years before.
But none of that is apparent in the picture. Not at this time.
The portrait is in the simple black and white style of its time, and those are the shades that matter most here. Because one of the faces — and the fluid, sometimes nonexistent relationship between the University and its first black athletes — is the reason the photo is even relevant today.
“You’re not ready for a black face to be there,” Ed Harvey’s granddaughter Karen Byers said in September. “But there it is.”
So what happened? Why did the University accept the Harvey brothers as students in the 1800s, then push them away two decades later? Why did race relations splinter and opportunities disappear?
By 1914, blacks had been banned from athletics, and the Harveys pleaded with University officials to change course. Ed wrote a letter to the KU Board of Administration asking for answers. At the very least, he wanted an explanation.
I would like to ask the status of the Negro in athletics at K.U.? My understanding is that negroes are barred from participating in athletics…
Unlike the racial issue of the time, today’s answers to that problem aren’t black and white.
Some say an influx of “new” African-Americans to Lawrence were unfamiliar with racial customs and traditions. Others say early abolitionists started dying off, and the new generation didn’t sympathize with the cause.
The opinions and explanations are endless, but they all lead to the same conclusion: Racial discontent reached a new fervor at the start of the 20th century. The open doors that first greeted Sherman Harvey at the University in 1883 slowly started to close.
…Now if these things are true, and I think they are, is it fair? Has not the negro student the same right to show his prowess on the athletic field as the white student?…
The young man in Sherman had sought knowledge through newspapers, books and whatever other means available. Chancellor James Marvin had greeted Sherman kindly when he arrived at the University in 1883, and he had left in the same manner under Chancellor Joshua Lippincott in 1889 upon graduating.
But as a grown man, the changing tide of race relations hovered over Sherman, thick and with deep implications. Sherman was on a committee to protest University discrimination, a group that targeted Chancellor E.H. Lindley, the man in charge as segregation swept the campus.
…Why have conditions changed? The negro formerly participated in athletics and always with credit to his school and to himself…
The Harvey brothers were adults now, with kids and jobs and taxes to pay, and they knew that the University had led them there. But now the University — their University — was turning other blacks away.
The racism was an undercurrent and a tidal wave. People on both sides thought they were right. The Harveys and others thought blacks deserved equality; Lindley and his supporters didn’t think blacks could mesh at the University without economic and social consequences.
…My brothers and I helped make “athletics” at KU. And as you are passing on other athletic problems I would like for you to pass on this one…
Lindley answered Ed Harvey’s letter seven days later. He never addressed the issue.
Sherman Harvey steps into the batter’s box as the only black member of Kansas’ baseball team. The game is in his hands.
It’s 1889, and the score is tied in the ninth inning. Manager Alexander Martin Wilcox, a professor of Greek language and literature, calls on Sherman. This is his chance.
And if Sherman’s past reveals anything, it’s that he usually makes good on his chances.
The idea was stoked long before that cold winter morning in 1883 when Sherman walked six miles across snow-covered ground to the University where his past collided with his future.
As a boy in the 1870s, he watched the trains rumble past Lawrence, pouring clouds of black smoke into the air, and he daydreamed. Maybe he could be a part of that. Maybe he could tame those iron beasts. Maybe he could engineer trains.
Sherman soon found that life deals many hands. The source of inspiration can also be the cruel source of rejection. His skin color dictated that he couldn’t conduct trains, but Sherman had something else going for him, something unquantifiable but valuable. He had the backing of parents who wanted, who insisted, he succeeded.
Rebecca and David Harvey had been through the gnawing life of slavery. Rebecca didn’t know her parents or even her own name when she was born in North Carolina. For years, she had no identity.
After traveling from Arkansas to freed land outside Lawrence in 1863, Rebecca and David sharecropped on a farm owned by local sheriff Stephen Ogden. Five years later, they’d saved enough money to buy a 15-acre patch of land. Their land. No one in the Harvey family ever forgot that.
Only, Rebecca and David knew a plot of land couldn’t close the racial gap. They knew they would need something else, something only the University could offer.
Rebecca and David Harvey watched the opening ceremony of Fraser Hall in 1872, and they started to formulate a plan. They took in the swirling possibilities, the talks of opportunity and education, and they decided: Their boys would attend the school on the hill, and they would begin the fight.
What Sherman and his brothers couldn’t grasp as boys, Rebecca and David could. The only way to fight ignorance – to fight the years of labor and fields and servitude – was to use knowledge as a weapon.
Education became the boys’ rifle, their equalizer. Who couldn’t help but respect a physician or a lawyer or an active town member?
When fraternity members argued over the election of the 1889 class orator, Sherman was selected to fill the role. And when the decision was made, the shocked parties consented.
When one of Lawrence’s most famous residents, Langston Hughes, was expelled from Central Junior High in 1914, Frederick Harvey led a group to speak on his behalf. Hughes was reinstated.
This would be the brothers’ destiny: Turning a society structured to limit their chances into one full of opportunities.
When Sherman arrived at the University on Jan. 2, 1883, he waited in the chancellor’s office with three other prospective students – white students – and wondered how the office stayed so warm without a fire or a stove.
The concept of a black face appearing in a white class was not impossible or improbable then. The first black KU student enrolled in 1876, and several others filtered through in the following years.
But it wasn’t until 1885 that the first African-American, Blanche K. Bruce, graduated from the University. When Larry Pearce wrote an article in 1909, he counted only 60 African-American graduates.
More African-Americans took classes, of course, but many left without degrees. Many were also self-supporting, working as porters, waiters, janitors or maids. They struggled to balance school and work.
The Harveys avoided such a fate. The school provided opportunity, and they always remembered the camaraderie of those days.
But the University’s race relations weren’t harmonious, at least in certain circles. The Harveys didn’t talk much about it, but tension was there. Tension has always been there.
In an article published in the weekly student newspaper, The University Courier, students rallied around the idea of segregation. The students weren’t opposed to African-Americans being free. It’s just, blacks still weren’t whites, and society made that clear.
“When we say that there should be equality, we do not mean that there should be community,” the article stated. “No matter how much we contend against the idea, the fact remains that there is an impassible gulf between the races.”
The article was written in 1886, three years after Sherman had enrolled.
On Kansas’ 1889 baseball field, where Central Junior High now stands, Sherman readies himself. In his senior yearbook, “The Helianthus,” Sherman is listed as one of two substitutes on the 11-member team.
He’s also part of the political science club, but “The Helianthus” describes the baseball team as the “leading athletic organization in the University.” Now Sherman can add to that reputation.
With the bases loaded, a hit would give Kansas a lead.
The Harvey brothers grabbed the opportunities at the University and held on. Sherman stayed active in school but kept to himself socially. After graduation, he passed the Kansas bar and maintained a practice in the Philippines for 19 years. He died in 1934.
Frederick, a third baseman, left the University to attend Meharry Medical School in Nashville. He became a prominent physician in the black community until his death in 1923.
Ed used athletics as his platform, playing center on the football team. He also played baseball, wrestled and competed in track and field.
Later in life, he regularly attended KU football games before his health prevented him from doing so. He kept in touch with teammates until he died in 1953.
“That was Kansas at its best,” said Bill Tuttle, professor emeritus of American studies. “But then things changed, especially for this place with Bleeding Kansas and John Brown and freedom.”
Skin color started to matter. Opportunities for African-American students slowly evaporated. Segregation took hold.
The Harveys had blended in with the University’s white crowd. They had their reasons for going to school, but social change and racial equality weren’t among them.
They wanted an education to better themselves. They wanted to carry on their parents’ fight. And now the fight had more meaning.
The Harvey brothers needed to step out of the shadow.
In his final at bat of the game, Sherman takes a swing and sends the ball flying. He ends up on third with “a 3-bagger,” as Ed would later describe it. Sherman’s hit is the game winner, and it’s an important one.
It’s the championship of the Triangular League featuring Kansas, Washburn and Baker. Sherman shows that winning has no color.
The brothers thrust their job titles and statuses as letter winners in front of the segregation movement like a dam containing a flood. They pleaded with Lindley and the University’s administration. They even visited Lindley in person to make their case.
But they didn’t stop anything. They couldn’t stop anything.
They wrote another letter in 1921 – seven years after the original. Still nothing. And it was then that the Harveys learned, like so many before, that change doesn’t always happen quickly. Not even in a town with progressive roots.
Others would eventually follow the Harveys on the University’s athletic fields, but by the late 1910s those chances seemed small. Two brothers would be dead before another black athlete played at Kansas.
Epilogue: Karen Byers, Ed Harvey’s granddaughter and a contributing source for this story, died Jan. 21 at the University of Kansas Medical Center. She was 64.
Edited by Dana Meredith