March 15, 2020
by Emily Rose Clayton (GSAS '20)
In 2001, New York University honored seven students who had been suspended sixty years earlier for their part in a campus-wide protest against racial discrimination in college athletics. In 1940 and 1941, the “Bates Seven:” Anita Krieger Appleby, Jean Borstein Azulay, Mervyn Jones, Naomi Bloom Rothschild, Robert Schoenfeld, Argyle Stoute, and Maisel Witkin, led a student movement against NYU’s perceived compliance with Jim Crow segregation in the South, sparked by the case of football player Leonard Bates.
In the 1930s and 40s, the growing complexity of college sports was complicated by racial tensions as northern teams began to accept African American players, and southern teams continued to practice racial segregation. In a series of “Gentlemen's Agreements,” northern schools quietly agreed that their black athletes would not play against southern schools on the segregated university’s home fields. NYU, along with other prestigious schools such as Boston College, Rutgers, and Harvard, typically adhered to the wishes of the opposing school. In 1929, NYU football withdrew African American player Dave Myers against the University of Georgia, while the University of North Carolina welcomed NYU’s Ed Williams, an African American fullback, in both the 1936 and 1937 games.
Controversy at NYU began in 1940, when the University of Missouri requested that star fullback Leonard Bates not participate in the upcoming football game.
Students and administration clashed over the “Bates Must Play!” matter in a series of statements published in the Washington Square College Bulletin newspaper. Chancellor Harry Woodburn Chase acknowledged the discriminatory nature of the decision to exclude Bates, but called for a moderate approach in dealing with southern institutions: “Historic traditions and attitudes which go back far beyond our own generation are responsible for it [segregation]. Any attempt to change them overnight, simply sets back the whole situation.”
In an editorial, the Bulletin responded to Chancellor Chase’s statements with a call to cancel this and other “Jim Crow” games, stating that “we are not trying to impose our views on other institutions,” but that “by continuing to play them on their terms, we do nothing but sanction and give tacit approval to intolerance and bigotry.” Ultimately, despite a student protest which included 2,000 students picketing the Administration building, and over 4,000 signatures on a petition, Bates would not make the trip to Missouri with the football team, who went on to lose the contest 33-0. Tensions around racial discrimination in athletics remained high, with two more incidents continuing into 1941.
In late 1940, controversy arose over Jim Coward, a transfer basketball player who played for two years at Brooklyn College before being declared ineligible upon transferring to the School of Education at NYU. Student activists protested that Coward was being excluded on racial grounds due to scheduled games against southern teams, while administrators pointed out that he was short of the required credits to participate in varsity athletics. Coward’s exclusion was followed by an incident in February, 1941, when NYU agreed to leave behind three African American members of the track team for an upcoming meet with Catholic University. In both cases, student activists led by the “Bates Seven” circulated petitions demanding that “NYU Abandon Its Jim Crow Policy!”
The “Bates Seven” underwent a controversial set of disciplinary hearings and were ultimately suspended for circulating a petition without proper permission from the university. The accused students claimed that the petition regulation had been unfairly enforced to deliberately remove leadership of progressive organizations on campus. As a result of the suspensions, several students were forced to take summer classes to graduate, and all carried a sense of injustice at the hands of their alma mater. In 2001, NYU reached out to make amends for the actions of the administration in 1941, paying tribute to the “Bates Seven” who stood up against racial discrimination two decades before the Civil Rights movement.