Michigan celebrates Willis Ward Day

October 19, 2012

As football fans look forward to tomorrow's U-M-MSU annual gridiron clash, Michigan residents also will celebrate one of the first African American football players at the University of Michigan.

Last month, the state Senate passed a resolution proclaiming Oct. 20 as Willis Ward Day. Ward, a three-time collegiate All-American in track and field and a three-year letterman in football in the early 1930s, was U-M's first African American football player since 1890 and only the second one ever.

On Oct. 20, 1934, the Georgia Tech football team refused to play U-M if Ward suited up for the game. Unfortunately, Ward was benched and Michigan lost. This was the only time in school history that a football player was benched solely because of his race.

Ward's close friend, teammate and future U.S. president Gerald Ford threatened to quit the team over the incident, but changed his mind after Ward, who handled his benching with grace and class, asked him to stay.

After graduation, Ward decided to forego the 1936 Olympics—he had previously beaten Jesse Owens—rather than risk persecution by Adolf Hitler. He later became the highest-ranking African American employee at Ford Motor Co., served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army during World War II, and eventually became a lawyer and the first African American probate court judge in Detroit. He died in 1983.

In addition to the special statewide day, the U-M Ford School of Public Policy's Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy and its Center for Public Policy in Diverse Societies will sponsor a Martin Luther King Jr. event Jan. 23, 2013, that will commemorate Ward.

A screening of the film "Black and Blue," which chronicles the story of Ward's benching and relationship with Ford, will take place at 4 p.m. Jan. 23 at the Ford School's Annenberg Auditorium in Weill Hall. A panel featuring Ward's grandson, state Sen. Buzz Thomas, and actor Steven Ford, the son of the late President Ford, will follow.