W&J honors early black football star

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Washington & Jefferson College on Saturday kicked off its 120th football season by defeating Juanita in a lopsided 40-0 contest. As W&J fans got their first taste of a new gridiron season, they also looked back to honor one of the college's most distinguished African-American football players and students -- Charles West, a 1924 graduate who became a family doctor in Alexandria, Va.

In 1922, Dr. West led the Presidents football team to its only appearance in the Rose Bowl in California. He is believed to be the first African-American quarterback to play in the nation's oldest bowl game. The rainy, muddy game ended in a scoreless tie with the University of California.

Last week, Dana Brooks, dean and professor of physical education at West Virginia University, presented W&J officials with a poster collage of Dr. West's accomplishments to display in the U. Grant Miller Library on campus. Mr. Brooks co-wrote the book "Racism in College Athletics: The African-American Experience" and is writing a paper on Dr. West. He co-wrote the book with Ronald Althouse, a West Virginia University sociology professor, in 2000.

"He was a pioneer," Mr. Brooks said. "Back then, in the 1920s, there were very few African-American players in private colleges, but there were some in the Midwest and East." Paul Robeson, the concert singer, was one. He was playing football at Rutgers in New Jersey in the early 1920s.

Charles West grew up in Washington, Pa., where his father owned a general store. He was a very good high school student and also excelled at track.

"Early African-American athletes faced prejudice and discrimination, especially when their college teams played teams from the South, where very few blacks were playing," Mr. Brooks said.

And in those days, it was a tradition that the teams from the north were expected to bench their black players when they faced teams from southern states.

"In 1923, Washington and Lee's team [from Lexington, Va.] came to W&J to play," Mr. Brooks said. "Charles West was on that team. Coach "Mother" Murphy, refused to bench West, even though he knew he had a sprained ankle and probably couldn't play."

The Washington and Lee team wouldn't play and forfeited the game. W&J had to pay them a portion of the gate, as well.

"It took a lot of courage, but W&J stood by its tradition of integrity," said Linda West Nickens, Charles West's daughter from Alexandria, who attended the presentation.

Mrs. Nickens said her father often went back to W&J for reunions and to visit his parents and cousins, some of whom still live in the family house.

"I'm grateful that [Mr. Brooks] has kept the story alive," she said of the book and paper about her father.

"I was really honored by the president's talk, too," she said.

College President Tori Haring-Smith said she often cites the 1923 forfeited football game when she talks to students.

"W&J's refusal to bench Charles West in the game against Washington and Lee reflects the principles of 'uncommon integrity' that we teach our graduates to emulate," she said. "We are extremely proud of [Dr. West's] achievements as a student-athlete and a fabulous doctor, and we are honored to call him a distinguished alumnus of W&J."

"We tell Charles West's story all the time here," she said, "and his picture is all over campus."

"I like using it because it reminds students of the cross-racial dialogue we want them to have, and because it also speaks to the diversity we are seeking, in socio-economic, political and ideological terms."

Dr. West was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1979.

Ms. Haring-Smith said W&J was the smallest school ever to play in the Rose Bowl.

"I guess they liked to invite an undefeated team, and there weren't many that year," she said. "So W&J, with its undefeated record, was invited. It was kind of a David vs. Goliath meeting.

"We were so small, we could only afford to send 11 players, who had to play the whole game," she said. "A 12th player actually rode in boxcars across the country to get there because he wanted to go so badly. And when he got to Kansas City, one of the 11 players was ill, so he got to play.

"I like to think we won that year, even though the game ended in a tie," she said. "We actually crossed the goal line, but we were called for offsides and the play came back. The University of California team never got across the 50-yard line."

She said the college has had feelers from major movie studios looking to tell their Rose Bowl story.

Ms. Haring-Smith said W&J is raising money to begin to offer diversity scholarships in Dr. West's name.

Mr. Brooks details another famous incident involving Dr. West in 1923 when W&J came to WVU to play.

After W&J won the game, Charles West stopped at a store in Morgantown, where he saw a display of hometown spirit. A little Sambo-like black doll was being carried by stretcher to a toy ambulance. "The ambulance is ready for you, Mr. West," said the display, according to a book by another W&J graduate, Eli North.

Dr. West asked the store owner if he could have the display when he was done with it. The embarrassed store owner gave it to him on the spot.

Mrs. Nickens still has the toy ambulance and doll that her father relished.

"W&J rolled out the red carpet," said Mrs. Nickens, 66, about last week's presentation. "We toured the Hall of Fame room in the stadium and it was very impressive. There was a huge poster of my father throwing the javelin."

"While he played track, his biggest thrill was football and playing in the Rose Bowl," she said.

After graduation, Dr. West decided to pass up a possible career in football and went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., to obtain his medical degree.

He was a general practitioner for 50 years in Alexandria, and died in 1979.


Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com .


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