The Pennsylvania State University (Essay)

Our archival tale should be entitled, “I didn’t find it in the archives.” It’s a story about failing to discover corroborating evidence to substantiate a much-ballyhooed story about the history of Penn State in the “fair play” movement to integrate intercollegiate athletics. Several scholars, including the leading historian of the integration in intercollegiate sport,[1] have claimed that in 1940 Pennsylvania State College forced the United States Naval Academy to move a track meet from Annapolis to State College because Navy’s devotion to segregation would have barred Penn State’s African American sprint star Barney Ewell from competing in Annapolis.[2]  The source they cite comes not from a 1940 account but from a 1946 editorial in the Centre Daily Times that commends Penn State for publicly defying Jim Crow in intercollegiate sport by cancelling a football game against the University of Miami.  The editorial briefly mentions that six years earlier Penn State had allegedly forced Navy to move the 1940 track meet after Navy officials refused to lower the color line for Ewell.[3] 

Eager to examine this fascinating episode in the history of Penn State and desegregation, a group of Schreyer honors students and I set out on an expedition to chronicle in detail what had been mentioned in passing by other historians.  Descending on the archives and burrowing into the contemporary press accounts, we found confirmation for parts of the story.  Navy and Penn State did in fact move their 1940 dual meet from Annapolis to State College.  Contemporaneous press accounts, however, never mentioned Ewell, race, or segregation as causes for the relocation.  Instead, the press mentioned only a desire to avoid conflicts over final exams and an opportunity to showcase both Penn State and Navy’s track programs to the thousands of high school athletes who would be in Happy Valley at the same time (and on the same track) for the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association track and field championships as reasons for the shift.[4]  One article mentioned a tantalizing tidbit, noting that just three days before the meet Penn State’s Dean of Physical Education and Athletics, Carl Schott, traveled to Annapolis to negotiate the change of venue, a strange trip for a high-level administrator if only final exams and a high school track meet were the causes of the switch.[5]  The very same Carl Schott in 1946 led Penn State’s public stand against segregation in cancelling the football game with Miami.

Hoping to find a “smoking gun” in the records of Dean Schott or Penn State athletics, we dutifully combed a variety of records.[6]  We found nothing about the relocation of the 1940 track meet. Undaunted, I informed my students that not finding something in an archive can be as significant as finding something. Though the circumstantial evidence is strong, future references to Penn State forcing integration on Navy in 1940 by moving a track meet from Annapolis to State College will require a footnote that the evidence is at the moment a second-hand reminiscence of an as-of-yet undocumented original incident. Like all good trips to the archive, our “we didn’t find it” in the archives expedition has also laid the foundation for a future expedition.[7] Next up is a trip to Annapolis to scour the Naval Academy’s records in the quest to pin down whether Penn State really launched the opening salvo of the “fair play” campaign in the spring of 1940 against Navy.



[1] Charles H. Martin, Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 18901980 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010).

[2] Charles H. Martin, “Integrating New Year’s Day: The Racial Politics of College Bowl Games,” Journal of Sport History 24 (fall 1997): 358–377.

[3] “Against Prejudice,” Centre Daily Times, 6 November 1946, p. 4.

[4] The search included the Daily Collegian, the Centre Daily Times, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier.  “Shift Lion-Navy Track Meet to State College,” Centre Daily Times, 17 May 1940, p. 6;  “Barney, Vukmanic Win Three Events Each as Sprinter Cracks 220 Mark,” Daily Collegian (Pennsylvania State University), 21 May 1940, p. 3; “Weather Man Aids Barney Ewell as Lion Flash Lowers 220 Record,” Centre Daily Times, 20 May 1940, p. 2; Jerry Weinstein, “Rambling Thru,” Centre Daily Times, 23 May 1940, p. 4; “Track Holds Spotlight at College Field,” Centre Daily Times, 24 May 1940, p. 6; “Nittany Trackmen to Meet Middies Here, 2 P.M. Tomorrow,” Daily Collegian (Pennsylvania State University), 24 May 1940, p. 3; “Penn State Triumphs,” New York Times, 26 May 1940, sec. Sports, p. 5; “Trackmen Scuttle Navy Team, 71–55,” Daily Collegian (Pennsylvania State University), 28 May 1940, p. 3; “Maule, Hartman, Ewell, Bakura in Spotlight as Navy Bows to State,” Centre Daily Times, 24 May 1940, p. 6; Dick Peters, “Between the Lions,” Daily Collegian (Pennsylvania State University), 28 May 1940, p. 3. 

[5] “Navy Will Come Here for Track Meet Next Saturday,” Daily Collegian (Pennsylvania State University), 17 May 1940, p. 3.  

[6] College of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation records, 1922–1979; RGN 70, boxes 1-4; and  Norwood “Barney” Ewell Biographical File, Athlete Files, Athletic Department Records, University Archives, Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania.

[7] We did get a very well-received presentation at a national conference out of our original expedition.  Mark Dyreson, with Hansol Song and Matthew Flowers, Schreyer Honors students.  “‘We Are?’ – From Civil Rights at the Cotton Bowl to the Civilities of the Barbershop Boycott: Race and Sport at Penn State and State College, 1939–1965.”  39th Annual Conference of the North American Society for Sport History, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, 29 May 2011.