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Levi Jackson: Hometown Hero
The first African American to captain a Yale football team continued his leadership off the field.

When the Eli eleven entered the Bowl 50 years ago at the start of the football season, fans witnessed a landmark event in Yale history. Levi Jackson ’50, who as a freshman had become the first African American on the Yale football team, was now the first African American to lead it.

The night before the first game, students held a rally in which separate torchlight parades starting from Pierson and Silliman Colleges converged on the Old Campus into a crowd of 3,000 students who had gathered to honor Jackson. The New Haven community would feel pride as well, because Jackson, who had led the local Hillhouse High School football team, was a bonafide hometown star.

Yale’s 70th football captain was born in Branford, Connecticut, in 1926. Jackson attended his first football game in 1937 when he watched Heisman Trophy winner Clint Frank ’38 direct the Yale team. After two years at Branford High, Jackson moved to New Haven where he was coached at Hillhouse by Reggie Root ’26, ’29LLB. Root, who had played tackle at Yale and then served as head coach in the 1930s, encouraged Jackson to apply to his alma mater.

But the war intervened, and in 1945, during his senior year at Hillhouse, Jackson entered the Army. His talents earned him a place on the service team, and after Army defeated the New York Giants 7–0 on Jackson’s 80-yard touchdown run, he was offered a generous contract by the Giants’ coach. Had Jackson accepted, he would have scored another first, for although blacks had played on professional football teams in the early years of the sport, they had been excluded from 1933 until 1946.

Jackson turned down the Giants, and he also declined a substantial football scholarship that was offered by Indiana University. Instead, thanks in part to the G.I. Bill for veterans that covered $500 of Yale’s $600 tuition, Jackson fulfilled his parents’ dreams by enrolling at the College, where he was one of only three African Americans among 8,500 undergraduates.

Under the postwar rules then in effect, Jackson was able to play football as a freshman, and the fullback had a brilliant season. In his junior year, the team traveled to Wisconsin for a game against the Big Ten school. It should have been a mismatch, but helped by Jackson’s touchdown, Yale scored an upset victory, 17ndash;7.

When Jackson was elected captain in November 1948, the news captured the attention of the nation. The New York Times gave it page-one coverage, and thousands of congratulatory letters and telegrams poured in. At the same time he was selected by the Associated Press for the All-Eastern Team.

Jackson’s last game, against Harvard in the Bowl, was a triumphant finale to a remarkable career. After racing 34 yards for the first touchdown, he caught a pass for the second. The final score was 29ndash;6.

In his Yale career Jackson set numerous modern records and was extolled as “a magnificent leader, both spiritually and athletically.” In addition to football, he also played on the varsity basketball team and was a member of the Aurelian Honor Society. Jackson was also the first African American to be tapped by a senior society. Declining offers from Skull and Bones and Scroll and Key, he accepted membership in Berzelius.

After graduation, Jackson continued his record of trail-blazing accomplishments. Hired by the Ford Motor Company, he became the first African American to hold an executive position in the corporation. Working in personnel and labor relations, Jackson devoted nearly a year after the 1967 Detroit riots to counseling Ford and other city and private agencies on ways to reform hiring and training for minorities. Ford accepted his proposals, hired 10,000 new people in the city, and later appointed him urban affairs manager. In 1987, he was welcomed back to New Haven to receive the Walter Camp Man of the Year Award.

Shortly after Jackson was elected captain, the Dixwell Community Organizations of New Haven endowed the Levi Jackson Scholarship Fund in his honor. Awarded to a member of the junior or senior class, the purpose of the fund “shall be to promote closer interracial relationship.” The most recent beneficiary of the scholarship was Yasmin Best ’99, who, according to the award criteria, reflected Levi Jackson’s qualities of “character, intellect, achievement, and leadership.” Speed out of the backfield wasn’t mentioned.  the end


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