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Separate and Unequal: College Boxing Wasn’t Safe from Racism

This past weekend in Reno, we commemorated the 100th anniversary of Jack Johnson’s historic World Heavyweight title defense against Jim Jeffries. “The Galveston Giant” was a pioneer in breaking the age-old practice of barring qualified fighters of color from the opportunity to compete at the highest level of the sport.

And although Johnson would eventually get his day in the ring, institutional racism would have its say outside of it. Soon after the Fight of the Century, he would be the first person prosecuted under the Mann Act, a law that prohibited white slavery. The case involved Johnson “transporting” his future wife, a Caucasian, across state lines. Moreover, due to the 1896 Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson, segregation thrived. As a result, the seeds of discrimination subsequently sprouted, even at prestigious institutions of higher learning.

Such was the case in 1916, when, six years after Johnson’s unforgettable triumph over Jeffries, two college archrivals agreed to meet in the ring. The University of California’s boxing team was all set to make the trip from Berkeley to Palo Alto to take on the best fighters Stanford had to offer.

Unfortunately, not all of the visitors would be allowed to compete. Reportedly, Stanford’s president called his counterpart at Cal to inform him that no African-Americans would be allowed to compete on his campus.
Cal’s heavyweight representative, Walter Gordon, just happened to fit the description. Despite his teammates’ objections to the racist decree, if Gordon appeared, the team would pay a de facto “melanin penalty” and the tournament would be canceled.

Rather than deprive his teammates the chance to compete, which was unconscionably taken away from him, the selfless Gordon allowed Donald Lawton, who was white, to take his slot for the bout. Lawton weighed 170 pounds, while Gordon tipped the scales at 220. The scheduled opponent from Stanford was a 225-pound amateur champion from southern California. Needless to say, the advantage on paper had now shifted sides.
So what happened next? In the spirit of the centennial celebration and to offer our readers a better understanding of the era in which Johnson, Jeffries, and Gordon lived, we will faithfully reproduce Lawton’s firsthand account of the event surrounding the 1916 showdown between Cal and Stanford. The article below first appeared in the June 1995 issue of California Monthly.

(Editor’s note: The following account is unedited and presented in its original format.)

Beating Up Stanford
By Donald Lawton
University of California, Berkeley
Class of 1919
I decided to go out for boxing in my junior year at Berkeley, and though I weighed just 170 pounds, became one of the two heavyweights on the Cal team. The other was Walter Gordon ’18, a great all-around athlete and the team’s star, a 220-pound black man who was so good he almost turned professional.
Those were the fledgling days of intercollegiate boxing. When the Cal team was invited to go down to Stanford for a boxing tournament on April 20, 1916, it was to be the first ever meet between the two schools.
On the day of the tryouts, I didn’t even show up to the gym, so sure was I that Walt Gordon would be the heavyweight representative. Besides, I didn’t want to get pounded just to find out what we already knew. So I just dropped by later to see how the tryouts had gone. Little did I know what was about to happen.
When Coach Frank Kleeberger ’08 saw me, he told me to get my boxing trunks on quickly; there would be a match. I thought that was a bit crazy, but I went a couple rounds with Walt Gordon. Walt hit me so hard in the jaw that he knocked me against the wall, and the wooden dumbbells fell down on top of me. Kleeberger said, “That’s fine, Lawton; you’re all right. Let’s have one more round.” I shuddered, but went ahead. And at the end of it, Kleeberger walked over and said to me, “Lawton, you go to Stanford!” I couldn’t believe it. It made no sense at all.
(What I didn’t know was that on the morning of the tryouts, Ray Lyman Wilbur, the president of Stanford, had telephoned Benjamin Ide Wheeler, the president of Cal, to say that no black man would be allowed to compete on the Stanford campus. And that if Cal sent its black boxer, the tournament would be canceled.)
Coach Kleeberger decided I needed some work on developing my right guard. So he called me back to the gym the next day for some sparring practice with him. After I repeatedly failed to keep my right guard up, Kleeberger warned, “If you don’t keep it up this time, I’m gonna hit you. This fellow you’re fighting down at Stanford is no amateur. He’s a real all-American.” So we took our stance, then he let go and hit me on the chin. I fell flat on the gym floor on the back of my head, and I saw all the stars in the heavens above.
Next day, after the knockdown, I wasn’t exactly filled with confidence at the prospect of stepping into the arena with the man who was then the amateur heavyweight champion of southern California. And whatever apprehensions I had on my way down to Stanford were magnified when I saw my opponent, a man named Tom Carey. He looked like Smokey the Bear, only about eight feet tall.
But as good fortune would have it, just before that match I received from free advice from the man who had set up the fight, a professional boxing coach. He said, “Don, if you’re gonna get clobbered anyway, open your gloves up, bury your head in both gloves, and bring your elbows into your stomach. Just hold on tight and let him use you for a punching bag. Then, when he gets really tired, let him have it.”
The match between our two teams at the Stanford gymnasium was all tied up at 11:30 that night when we finally came to the last fight, the heavyweight division between Tom Carey at 225 pounds and me at 170. From his lightning attack during round one, Carey looked like a sure winner. But I followed my game plan, staying protected. In the second round Carey hit me square in the nose with his first hard blow, breaking my nose. I had blood all down the front of me like stuck pig. I was a mess. They shoved cotton up my nose and said to go back in. For the third and last round, I thought: Well, by durned, my nose is busted now, it can’t get any worse. So I let go with everything I had. Carey was basically a three-rounder, so big and heavy that he got tired easily after that. But I was still jumping around.
An extra round was ordered. As the sports section of the newspapers wrote, “Lawton did nothing but jab Carey on the nose so fast they could not be tallied. In spite of this, it was decided to give the boys a four-minute rest and go for a fifth round. This time the judge awarded the decision to Lawton.”
Walt Gordon, the man who should have fought that day, went on to become Cal’s Alumnus of the Year for 1955 and governor of the Virgin Islands. It wasn’t until we met again at a Cal boxers’ reunion at the Palace Hotel in 1952, 36 years later, that he told me why I had been the one to go down to the fight at Stanford, and not him.

In addition to his exploits in the ring as the best heavyweight on the Cal campus, Walter Gordon was the first African-American to receive All-America honors in the history of college football. After his playing career, he served his alma mater as an assistant coach, highlighted by a Rose Bowl victory over Ohio State and a national championship in 1920. For his accomplishments, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1975.

Gordon enjoyed a distinguished career away from athletics as well. In 1923, he graduated from the law school at Berkeley, Boalt Hall. In fact, his classmate at Boalt was longtime friend Earl Warren (Warren eventually became Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and wrote the majority opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that overturned the segregation policy that resulted from Plessy v. Ferguson). Not one to sit idly by, Gordon founded his university’s chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established by African-Americans. He also served as president of the Alameda County NAACP from 1923 to 1933, and was appointed governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1955 by President Eisenhower. If that wasn’t enough, he resigned in 1958, remaining in the Virgin Islands for ten more years as a federal judge until his retirement.   

But among all the achievements in Walter Gordon’s exemplary existence, there was one that always eluded him—a shot at Stanford. In essence, he sadly suffered the same fate in April of 1916 that his predecessors like Jack Johnson, Sam Langford, and Joe Jeanette endured for the majority of their professional pugilistic careers—being treated like second-class citizens in America due to a racist political climate that made their lives both separate and unequal.

And still they rose.

*Special thanks to Paul Rein for contributing to this report.

Source: Ryan Maquiñana, MaxBoxing

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