Among the cognoscenti of Michigan football lore, it is well known that there was not a single African American letterman at U-M between George Jewett in 1892 and Willis Ward in 1932. This forty-year gap is commonly attributed to the attitudes of Fielding Yost, head football coach from 1901 to 1923 and 1925 to 1926 and athletic director from 1921 to 1941. Yost, the son of a Confederate soldier, did not permit black men to wear Michigan’s football uniform.

In track and field, there were black Wolverines in Yost’s time, including the great William DeHart Hubbard, the 1924 Olympic gold medalist in the long jump. And there was a black letterman in baseball, Rudolph Ash, who batted .405 in 1923. But in football Yost upheld a strict color line–or so it has long been assumed.

Yet a photograph in the U-M’s Bentley Historical Library of the 1923 team–national champions, led by the All-American Harry Kipke–appears to show otherwise. There, second from the left in the second row, is an African American player. This was not the formal studio photograph of the team taken annually at season’s end, but a field-side photo of men in uniforms and pads. Labeled “U. of M. Football Squad 1923,” it was published in the Michigan Daily and several game programs. Captions identify the black man simply as “Lawson.”

The facts of his life are fairly easy to establish–except for his role on the Michigan football team. There, questions and ambiguities remain–not only about Lawson, but about the permeability of Yost’s color line and the experience of black athletes before the civil rights era.

The player in the picture was Belford Vance Lawson Jr., originally from Roanoke, Virginia. The son of a railroad switchman and a schoolteacher, Lawson went briefly to Ferris Institute (now Ferris State University) in Big Rapids and then enrolled at Michigan in the fall of 1920. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, a leading black fraternity, and of U-M’s varsity debate team. He won awards as an orator. In 1924, he graduated from the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

After coaching football for a time at all-black Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Lawson got his law degree at Howard University then went into private practice in Washington, D.C. In the 1930s he helped found the New Negro Alliance, an early force in the fight for civil rights. He was a member of legal teams that argued two successful civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He served as national president of Alpha Phi Alpha from 1945 to 1951. As a Democratic Party activist, he became, in 1956, the first African American ever to address its national convention. Lawson retired in 1977 and died in 1985.

His wife, Marjorie McKenzie Lawson, also a U-M grad (LSA 1933, MSW 1934), was a campaign aide to John F. Kennedy and later became the first African American woman appointed to a federal judgeship. She died in 2002.

The Lawsons had one child, Belford V. Lawson III, now an attorney with the Federal Communications Commission in Washington. In the early 1960s, at the elite Groton School, alma mater of Franklin D. Roosevelt and other pillars of the American establishment, the younger Lawson was one of the first black football players named to the All-New England prep squad. After graduating from Harvard, he followed his parents into the law. Now, close to retirement, he would like to learn exactly what happened to his father at Michigan more than eighty years ago.

It was a staple of Lawson family lore that Belford Jr. had been a member of the Michigan team under Yost. In the home there was a navy blue blanket trimmed in maize with a foot-tall letter “M” in the middle. Yet he never spoke much about his experience on the team.

“My father was just so remote, so close-mouthed about his Michigan career,” Belford III says. “I always speculated that maybe he didn’t want me to find out that he did not formally win a varsity letter. Or maybe he played enough to get a varsity letter, but Yost decided not to give it to him because it was not the time, not the custom.

“I’m content just to find out if there are any records of him actually having been on the field.”

So far, no such record has surfaced. The athletic department records in the Bentley Library show that Lawson won varsity reserve letters in his sophomore, junior, and senior years. That meant he was a member of the team but not a starter or a regular substitute. Nor is there any mention in the Michigan Daily or the Michigan Alumnus of his playing in a game. In that era the Daily published thorough, play-by-play chronicles of most games, noting all starters and substitutions, and the Alumnus also carried game accounts.

So perhaps Lawson simply wasn’t good enough to play for a national championship team. There would be no shame in that, either for the player or the university. And Lawson’s presence on the squad, even as a reserve, would suggest that Yost’s color line was not a brick wall.

Yet it appears the truth is more complicated than that.

In 1928, four years after Lawson’s graduation, Elton “Tad” Weiman, Michigan’s football coach that year, exchanged letters with an Indianapolis lawyer and U-M alumnus named Herbert Wilson. Wilson was trying to assist a young black student who had hopes of making the Michigan football team. He asked Weiman if he would accept a qualified black player. Wilson said: “I know while I was in school, Coach Yost would not permit it.”

Coach Weiman replied that he had recently talked things over with the student:

There were certain complications that would be difficult for all with a colored man on the squad; that because of this I did not think it advisable for a colored man to be on the squad unless he was good enough to play a good part of the time. In other words, unless he were a regular or near regular, the handicaps to the squad would be greater than the advantages to say nothing of the difficulties that would encounter the individual, himself. I assured him, however, that any man who could demonstrate that he was the best man for any position would have the right to play in that position…

During the time that I have been at Michigan we have never had a colored candidate for the team who was good enough to play regularly. At one time we did have a backfield man who, had he been white, would probably have been on the squad as a second or third substitute. In a case like that we decided that it was not worth the friction that would result to have him on the squad. I do not know of any other case where a man’s color has in any way affected his standing in athletics at Michigan.

It seems very likely that the “backfield man” was Belford Lawson. By “the squad” Weiman probably meant the first team–the starters and the small cadre of regular subs in the era when men played both offense and defense and substitutions were few.

It appears, then, that Lawson was made a reserve, not a “second or third substitute”–which likely would have allowed him some playing time–because of the risk of “complications” and “friction.” He rode the bench because the coaches would not stand up to racists–on the team, among the alumni, or in the programs of opposing schools–who would object to a black man playing football as an equal to whites.

In any case, Weiman’s letter is unusually clear evidence for the contention–often made by observers of the black experience in many spheres of American life–that it was not enough for a black athlete to be as good as a white player in order to be treated as an equal. He had to be better.

Just one press account referring to Lawson has been found–a Detroit Free Press article in September 1923 about a preseason Michigan scrimmage between a “blue” squad and a “red” squad. The article said: “Lawson, colored halfback on the red, demonstrated his ability at breaking up passes, knocking them down with great regularity.”

Good enough to knock down passes thrown by the quarterback of a national championship team but not good enough to take the field in a regular-season game?

Belford Jr. once told his son about an incident that occurred early in his sophomore year. He said he had played well enough as a freshman to win his class numerals. (The numerals–such as “1924”–were a recognition of achievement on the frosh team, usually to be worn on a letter sweater.)

The following fall, needing money, he took a job as a waiter at a campus dining club used by the football team.

The younger Lawson recalls: “An assistant coach–this is what Dad told me–came up to him and said, ‘Belford, what are you doing waiting on tables in the Varsity Club?’ Dad said: ‘Nobody said anything to me about coming out for the varsity, so I assumed you didn’t want me back.’ And the coach said, ‘Belford, that’s ridiculous. Everyone knew you won your freshman numerals. Everybody knew you were coming back.'”

So Lawson began to attend practice and made the reserve team. His son isn’t sure what to make of this.

“Perhaps the situation was that no assistant coach wanted to be the one who might incur the displeasure of Yost, a notoriously racist guy, by asking if Belford could be invited back,” he says. “And so everybody said, ‘Well, you do it.’ None of the assistant coaches wanted to invite my father back without getting Yost’s formal approval, which is one of the classic examples of how racism worked in those years. It’s just a hunch on my part. I have no evidence to support it.

“Maybe Dad just didn’t know that because he’d gotten his numerals, that was the invitation. Dad was kind of proud that way. He would have wanted to be asked rather than to presume. And I think maybe as a black person in that era, he would not have wanted to presume that he had been invited, and then return and be told that he had not been invited back.”

In fact, press accounts from the era refer to players invited by Fielding Yost to come out for the team in the fall. So it’s plausible, at least, that Lawson had been correct in waiting for an invitation, and that he was not merely imagining a slight when an invitation did not come.

Belford Lawson Jr. told his son other stories, too–stories that appear to have been untrue.

Lawson told his son he once had tackled the great Red Grange of Illinois. And he said he had been proud to take the field against Iowa, which had defied racial mores by playing Duke Slater, an African American who was named a first-team All-American in 1921.

But Grange didn’t play for Illinois until the fall of his sophomore year. That was 1923, Belford Lawson’s senior year, and Michigan did not play Illinois that year. So Lawson could not have tackled Grange, at least not in an official game between the two schools. And there is no record in the play-by-play chronicles in the Daily, which nearly always included lists of substitutions, that Lawson entered any game against Iowa.

“Dad’s recollections of his on-field exploits seemed so concretely detailed and so vivid, and his body language so animated when he talked about his game appearances, that I had no reason to disbelieve him on the rare occasions when he reminisced,” Belford III says when asked about the inconsistencies. “All I can do is speculate. Maybe he made up a few stories in order to hide from me the fact that he never played. Maybe he did play a bit, but there was an unwritten rule among sports journalists not to mention a black player.”

Finally, the younger Lawson wonders why his father never took him to a game at Michigan Stadium.

“It was such a mystery to me. Here’s a guy who played varsity football for the University of Michigan on the national championship team and didn’t want to take his son, also a star football player, to Michigan to see a game? That heightened my curiosity. I could never understand that.”

Raising their son in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s and 1960s, his mother and father had sent him mostly to private prep schools.

“They didn’t want me in a segregated environment,” he says. “They wanted me to go to Groton. They wanted me to go to Harvard. They didn’t want me to have to go through anything of what they did.

“So maybe the idea of taking me back to Michigan was associated in the minds of my father’s generation with: ‘He might find out something about what it was like to live under extreme segregation.’ He might have thought that if I started to find out information about the twenties and how black students lived and where they lived and where they ate, it might be traumatic. And it wouldn’t have been just preventing me from finding out about the harshness of life in segregation, but preventing me from finding out about the emotional difficulty of enduring the ambiguity.”

With his father gone, Belford Lawson III can only wonder about those long-ago seasons. What seems most likely is that his father–unquestionably a highly accomplished man in every other part of his life–did what countless fathers have done before and since: he told his son a few tall tales of past athletic glory then dodged a situation in which he might have been forced to admit that those few stories were more fiction than fact.

But even if that is so, Belford Lawson Jr. was not quite the same as the average father making up stories to impress a son. He was making up stories about what really might have been, had it not been for the racism of his time and place. Perhaps, as he told his son those tales, he was for a few moments escaping the necessity, as his son put it, of “enduring the ambiguity” of being accepted yet not accepted, good enough yet not good enough.

Sources for this article include records of the U-M Athletic Department at the Bentley Historical Library; The Michigan Daily; Michigan Alumnus; Detroit Free Press; John U. Bacon, et al, A Legacy of Champions: The Story of the Men Who Built University of Michigan Football (1996); John Behee, Hail to the Victors (1974) and John Behee, Fielding H. Yost’s Legacy to the University of Michigan (1970). The latter book includes the quoted passage from Elton Weiman’s letter to Herbert Wilson. Richard Lerner located the mention of Belford Lawson Jr. in the Detroit Free Press.