Skip to main content

Emerson Harvey: Breaking the color line


August 24, 2012

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from "The Sun Devils: Eight Decades of Arizona State Football," written by ASU alumnus Dean Smith. ASU football will be honoring Emerson Harvey, the first African-American to play football at Arizona State, during the season opener against Northern Arizona on Aug. 30.

Arizona in the 1930’s was almost as Jim Crow as Alabama or Mississippi. Arizona Latin-Americans too, were barred from public swimming pools and were forced to sit in segregated sections of movie theatres.

The concept of a Black man playing football and actually tackling a Caucasian or drinking from the same water bucket with him was unthinkable.

Into this universally-accepted situation, in 1937, came Emerson Harvey, the first African-American athlete to play varsity football at Arizona State.

Harvey grew up in Sacramento, California, where attitudes about Blacks were considerably ahead of those in Arizona. He had played two seasons of football with Sacramento Junior College. As a Black athlete at this time, his chances for competing at the University level were dim.

Harvey was working at a Walgreen’s Drug Store in San Francisco when Tom Lillico, Arizona State’s graduate assistant, paid him a visit early in the summer of 1937. He interceded for Harvey and steered him toward Tempe becoming Arizona State’s first Black varsity football player, although Willie Best played for a time with the 1931 freshman team.  Baseball player Joe Island had become the school’s first Black athlete two years earlier.

Except in Negro colleges, there were little more than a dozen Black football players on American collegiate teams that year, and none played for schools in states as racially discriminating as Arizona.

Not all of his new Arizona State teammates were immediately happy about playing with a Negro, but Coach Rudy Lavik soon promoted him to a starting position as blocking back and defensive end. Harvey’s abilities took over care of the rest.

Harvey ignored racial slurs, on the field and in the classroom, and accepted the fact that the handful of Black students at ASTC were barred from dormitory living, the dining hall and from school dances.

“Dr. Sam Burkhard talked me into making a talk in some of his classes,” recalls Harvey. “I told them how we all drank out of the same bucket on the football field and nobody had gotten sick yet. And maybe, with the dishes being sterilized, it wouldn’t hurt for Negro people to eat in the dining hall, either.”

In the classroom, Harvey was as brilliant as he was on the gridiron. He breezed through his teaching curriculum with nearly a straight – A average.

Lewis Nebb, founder of the technology program which later blossomed into the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Arizona State, gave him a job and encouraged him to become an industrial arts teacher.

E.J. Hilkert, who was teaching accounting at ASTC, also tried to win Harvey to his profession, and offered him a job after graduation. But the ambitious young man saw special challenges in teaching industrial arts.

The first big test on the football field came in 1937 when Texas Mines came to Tempe. Reared from childhood to believe that a white athlete should never compete with a Black one, the Texans were out to get this impudent tradition-breaker.

Years later, one of those Texans recalled that game. “Some of us had been giving Harvey hell for three quarters,” he said. We gave him knees, fists, insults – everything. Then he said to me, Hey, when you white fellows going to stop beating up on this poor nigger boy?’ It got to me so much that I could hardly bring myself to block him after that!”

In his first game against Hardin-Simmons University in 1938, Harvey said “I could hear a Texan saying: ‘Here’s that GAR again. What GAR?’ somebody would ask. ‘The NI-GAR!’ came the answer. Sure, they hit me hard, but they hit everybody hard. I didn’t mind.”

The start of the 1938 season brought a new problem for Harvey – one that he felt sure would end his college football career. Lavik had stepped down as head coach, and Dixie Howell was brought in to replace him. Dixie Howell was an easy going Southerner, who had earned All-American, honors as a quarterback at Alabama.

“That’s all for you,” Harvey’s friends told him. “That Alabama man won’t want you around.” When Howell called his first team meeting, Harvey was not present. The next day, Howell accosted him on campus. “You Emerson Harvey?” “Yes, sir.” “I’m Coach Howell. Why weren’t you out for practice yesterday?” “I didn’t think you’d want me.” “Look mister,” Howell answered. “My football team is my bread and butter, and I want the best players I can get. You come out and you won’t be treated any worse – or any better – than anybody else. But you be out there today.” Harvey was there. “Dixie Howell was completely fair with me” Harvey said. “He was a great football coach and a good friend.”

At the start of the 1938 season, Neeb arranged a teaching job for Harvey in the Phoenix elementary school system.  Harvey petitioned to carry eighteen semester hours that fall, enough to finish his graduation requirements in time. “You can’t take eighteen hours, work, and play football all at the same time”, his alarmed advisor warned him. But he did, and his grade average never suffered. Emerson Harvey taught, and coached, and inspired young boys in the Phoenix system until his retirement. Many of his students went on the star in athletics in Arizona State. Recalling those two years of breaking the color barrier in Arizona State athletics, and helping to change attitudes about race, Harvey later shrugged and said” it was no big deal.” Generations of ASU alumni who have followed him know better.

World War II changed the map of the world and a lot of other things, among them the belief that African Americans were forever destined for second class citizenship in America. Too many African Americans had shed American blood, in that struggle for a better world, to permit a return to the old ways.

In Arizona State athletics, fortunately, Emerson Harvey had blazed the trail toward racial equality before the war, and William Warren and Ira O’Neal had followed close behind. When football returned to the campus in 1946 Coach Steve Coutchie and his staff welcomed African Americans to the squad. 

Two of his backs – Morrison (Dit) Warren and Joe Batiste – had been high school stars in Arizona. But Texas colleges in the Boarder Conference were reluctant to break the ancient color barrier. Some would not permit Arizona State Blacks to play when the Bulldogs came to Texas, citing local law forbidding it. Even when they were accepted, they had to leave the team at the hotel, eating and sleeping with Black families in the area.

In 1947, matters came to a head. When Texas Mines refused to let Warren and George Diggs play at El Paso, the Arizona State student body rose in protest. The ASC athletic department issued a declaration that the Sun Devils never again would schedule a college team which refused to let ALL Arizona State athletes compete.

Morrison Warren graduated from Arizona State in 1947 with honors and went on to play professional football with the Brooklyn Dodgers, during the era of the All-American Football Conference. At the young age of 29, Warren became an elementary school principal.

Warren received his master’s degree from Arizona State in 1951 and his doctorate degree from Arizona State in 1959. In 1969, Warren became the first African-American elected to the Phoenix City Council, serving his last year as Vice Mayor of Phoenix. Warren accepted a teaching position in ASU’s College of Education in 1968. For 16 years he taught in the College of Education and served as the director of the I.D. Payne Laboratory.

Warren’s list of accomplishments and honors are numerous. He was the first African-American member of the board of directors for Arizona Public Service, where he served from 1972-1994. He also served as the 1982 Fiesta Bowl President, the Bowl’s first African-American president. Warren was later inducted in the Arizona State University Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.

Thus we have the answer to a question which has often arisen: Why did Arizona State never play football against Texas Tech which for many years was a Boarder Conference member?

Arizona State stuck to its guns, and the racial problem in the conference was gradually solved. But by that time Tech had left the league and was knocking at the Southwest Conference door.

By 1951, thousands of African American athletes were playing on American gridirons, But not in the major conferences of the South. So when Arizona State scheduled a 1951 game with Arkansas, at Fayetteville, a confrontation loomed on the horizon.

But the problem was quickly solved. Arkansas agreed that for the first time in its long history, to allow Black men to play in Arkansas Stadium.

Two African Americans, Jim Bilton and Cleveland Oden, made the trip to Arkansas. There was some apprehension at kickoff, but it was unwarranted. The crowd did not riot, newspapermen were curious but restrained, and there was no unpleasantness. The giant step had been taken – African Americans had competed at a major conference university on former Confederate soil.

Arizona State University, with courageous pioneers such as Emerson Harvey, Morrison Warren, George Diggs, Ira O’Neal, Jim Bilton and Cleveland Oden to lead the way, helped break the formidable barrier.

ASU may forever be proud of the role it played in breaking the color line in American collegiate athletics.