In 1947, what was supposed to be a typical homecoming football game between Ohio Wesleyan and Rollins College turned into a major controversy around the issue of (de)segregation. Even though the original game schedule and contract was agreed to the February before, in the fall of 1947 a single African American player (Kenneth Woodward) joined to the 2018 Battling Bishops’ football roster as the result of integration. Rollins, like most Florida colleges, had not desegregated at that time. This scenario posed a problem for college administrators who had to decide whether the game should be played in Orlando as scheduled and if Woodward would be able to participate without undue risk.
When Dean Enyart of Rollins contacted Dean Ficken of Ohio Wesleyan University, he argued for leaving the player behind with multiple claims: “It is difficult for [Northerners]… to understand fully the situation in the deep South,” … Woodward would have to “undergo the humiliation of riding in a separate coach” … stay in a separate hotel “in the Negro quarter,” and be exposed to “serious danger” if some “diehard ‘cracker’ from the outlying districts” attended and caused trouble at the field. (1) Enyart even revealed that he had personally “…seen race riots break out with less provocation.” (1) Initially the Ohio Wesleyan’s student body voted to do just that – leave Woodward at home (2), — but the intervention of famous baseball manager and Ohio Wesleyan alumnus Branch Rickey persuaded the Board of Trustees to refuse to play without all members of the team. Rickey argued that “the school would compromise its integrity if it took such a timorous stand.” (3) The final decision would be made by Rollins College President Hamilton Holt.
Like Dean Enyart, President Holt had good reason to worry about the safety of both Woodward and the school should the game occur at the Citrus Bowl as scheduled. The state of Florida had a deep-seated history of racial violence. It led the nation in lynching per capita from 1900-1930 (4) and after that time continued to have an active and politically connected KKK presence. In the 1940s, Central Florida residents were living in the wake of decades of aggression against blacks. The legacy of 1920 Ocoee Massacre in which more than thirty African Americans were murdered less than 20 miles from Rollins’ campus, and the more recent (1935) incident in which a progressive white Southern Democrat (Joseph Shoemaker) was unlawfully arrested and killed north of Tampa, were both unsettling reminders of the Klan’s power and agenda in the region. (5, 6)
In the end, Holt decided to cancel the game, but not without open regret and sadness. He admitted in his public remarks to campus on Novermber 28, 1947, that “the decision taken was not right” and the whole thing was a very “unhappy affair.” (7) In the same speech President Holt explained that the ultimate reason for his decision was not potential violence but rather alignment with the collective will of the Winter Park community: “Rollins College has no objection whatsoever to playing in a game which a Negro participates. However, this football game is a community affair, and after consultation with leading members of our community, both white and colored, officials of Rollins College have decided that, in the best interests of racial relations, they are unwilling to take action which might interfere with the good progress now being made in Florida, and especially in the local community.” (7)
- Letter from Dean Enyart to Dean Ficken, October 21st, 1947. Folder: Football 1947 Game, Box 110: Ohio Wesleyan University Football Game, Rollins College Archives and Special Collections.
- “Play Rollins Game But Guard Against Situation In Future, Students Vote,” newspaper article. Folder: Football 1947 Game, Box 110: Ohio Wesleyan University Football Game, Rollins College Archives and Special Collections.
- Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 440.
- Glenda Alice Rabby, The Pain and the Promise: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Tallahassee, (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 3.
- Carlee Hoffmann and Claire Strom, “A Perfect Storm: The Ocoee Riot of 1920,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 93:1 (Summer 2014): 25.
- Jack Jameson, Night Riders in Sunny Florida, Workers Library Publishers: New York City, September 1936, 1-10. Folder: Ku Klux Klan, Rollins College Archives and Special Collections.
- “Remarks by Hamilton Holt at the Annie Russell Theatre, November 28th, 1947.” Folder: Remarks by Hamilton Holt at the A.R.T. Box 110, Ohio Wesleyan University Football Game, Rollins College Archives and Special Collections.
— Jordan Fiedelholtz and Konner Ross