Cal Boxing vs. the Stanford “Color Line”

In early March 1923 the members of the University of California Boxing team were looking forward to their upcoming competition against arch-rival Stanford. It would be the eighth annual contest between the schools and, as always, it was the most anticipated. But on March 8, the day before the scheduled tournament, Dr. W. H. Barrow, the Athletic Director of Stanford University, issued a formal statement announcing its cancellation and the cancellation of all future boxing competitions between the two schools until such time as “the existing conditions . . . can be remedied.” The “conditions” that so distressed Stanford’s Athletic Director and its boxing team were the presence of Black students on California’s boxing team, and California’s refusal to withdraw one of them, Errol Jones, from a scheduled match against a Stanford boxer. As a result of these “conditions,” it would be five years before the two schools met again in boxing.

Boxing as sport at Berkeley goes back to 1907, when a student group calling itself “The Polyducean Club” was founded with, according to the Blue & Gold Yearbook, the purpose of making “boxing the foremost minor sport among college athletics.” Its matches were held in the basement of the original Harmon Gymnasium (now the site of Dwinelle Hall) where the Cal boxers faced off against fighters from gyms and athletic clubs around the Bay Area.

Old Harmon Gymnasium, now site of the south wing of Dwinelle Hall.

By 1915 The Polyduceans had some 30 members and a coach, R. H. Sheridan, a former middle weight champion of the Seattle Athletic Club. The club had been agitating for some time for varsity status as an official University sport, but had lacked any intercollegiate competitors. That finally ended in 1916 when the Cal boxers came to an agreement with their rivals from Palo Alto to meet for a boxing tournament on the Stanford campus, scheduled for April 20.

It was at that very first match that Stanford’s “color line” first became an issue. The finest boxer on the Golden Bears’ 1916 team was Walter Gordon, the California State champion in both boxing and wrestling, and an All-American football player. Gordon would later become an assistant coach for Andy Smith’s Wonder Teams at Cal, a Berkeley police officer, a lawyer, Chair of the California Parole Board, then Governor of the Virgin Islands and, finally, a federal judge. Walter Gordon was also African-American. On April 18, 1916, two days before the first-ever scheduled boxing match between Cal and Stanford, Ray Lyman Wilbur, then president of Stanford, called the president of the University of California, Benjamin Ide Wheeler, to inform him that no Black man would be allowed to compete in boxing on the Stanford campus. Lyman told Wheeler that if Cal sent Walter Gordon to the competition, it would be cancelled.

California Boxing, Wrestling and Football Star Walter Gordon

Without explanation, the coaches told another Cal boxer, Donald Lawton, that he would be going to Palo Alto in Gordon’s place. Lawton was shocked because Gordon was clearly the superior boxer. He only found out decades years in a conversation with Walter Gordon why he had been substituted.

The following year, 1917, the Cal-Stanford match was held in Berkeley. Stanford’s president was apparently unwilling to attempt to dictate to the University of California which of its students could be allow to compete in its own gymnasium, and the Cardinal team showed up for the competition. Stanford won three of the first six matches and California won the other three – including a knock-out of Stanford middleweight Eric Pedley 10 seconds into the match by California’s Jimmy Doolittle, the future aviation pioneer, four-star general and Congressional Medal of Honor winner. The seventh and deciding match of the night was set between heavyweights Hugh McNulty of Stanford and Cal’s Walter Gordon, but the match never happened. The Oakland Tribune explained the following day:

California punchers won from Stanford last night in Harmon gym, four contests to three. The disappointment was great when Hugh McNulty, Stanford heavyweight, refused to meet Walter Gordon, the colored football star, in the final bout of the night. McNulty forfeited the event and gave the deciding match to the Blue and Gold.”

The dispute over Walter Gordon ended when he graduated in the spring of 1918. But by 1922, there was another Black boxer on the California team, and Stanford again defaulted the match in Berkeley rather than allow one of its students to compete against a Black Cal student.

in 1923, the competition was scheduled for Palo Alto once again. And once again, there was an African-American on the California team. 23-year-old Errol Jones of Fresno had a history of standing up for principle. In 1918, Jones and his younger sister, Hazel, had been refused seats in a section of a Fresno movie theater reserved for white patrons. The Jones family sued for violation of a California statute, Civil Code section 51, that barred discrimination in public accommodations based on race. Errol Jones won at trial and was awarded $100 (about $1,700 in 2022 dollars). The theater owner appealed, arguing that a “separate but equal” policy was allowed by the then-existing U.S. Supreme Court precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson. Jones’ attorney argued that Plessy did not apply because California had passed a statute to the contrary. The Court of Appeal agreed, upholding the verdict in favor of Errol Jones and setting an important precedent in California. In fact, the 1920 decision of the Court of Appeal in the case of Jones v. Kehrlein has been cited as precedent in the California appellate courts as recently as 2020.

The Title Page of the Court of Appeal’s Decision in Errol Jones’ Race Discrimination Action Against a Fresno Theater Owner

As the Cal-Stanford boxing competition scheduled for March 9, 1923 approached, neither Jones nor his teammates were interested in backing down in the face of Stanford’s “color line.” Exactly how the confrontation unfolded is disputed. Stanford claimed that the Bears misled them in advance into believing that they would not be bringing Errol Jones or another Black boxer, Marvin Johnson, to Palo Alto. The California side insisted that they had never agreed to any such thing. In any event, the day before the scheduled competition, the Cal student manager provided a list to Stanford including Jones among the scheduled boxers. Stanford responded by stating that it would neither compete against a Black boxer nor default the match. Instead, unless Jones were scratched, Stanford would cancel the entire competition.

The dispute became public when Stanford Athletic Director Barrow issued a statement. As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, the statement proclaimed:

“Stanford has withdrawn from the boxing match as this step seems wisest under the existing conditions, but it is hoped that relations may be resumed another year if these conditions can be remedied.

“Boxing is, at best, a sport that calls for constant care to keep it above criticism, and also calls for the best feeling between the participants. During the past few years a number of points have arisen for discussion with regard to the eligibility of contestants, the conditions under which the bouts between white men and colored men, which from time to time apparently been settled, only to come up for discussion again.”

Stanford Athletic Director Barrow went on to accuse California of having, “promised that no more colored men would be entered,” but then without notice, “a negro was entered at the last moment, apparently with the expectation that we would again default that bout.” Barrow asserted that the issue was not whether Stanford was right or wrong in refusing to compete with Black students from Cal, but rather “the lack of understanding between the authorities controlling the sport at the two universities.” Barrow’s concluded his long statement: “We do feel that a fight between a white man and a negro engenders race prejudice,” and that “mixed bouts stir up race feeling rather than do anything to establish and equal status for the colored man.”

The controversy immediately exploded in newspapers around the Bay. The San Francisco Chronicle‘s sports section featured the banner headline: “STANFORD DRAWS COLOR LINE; CANCELS U.C. RING BOUTS.” In a commentary headlined, “Card Action Is Bound to Cause Much Discussion,” the Chronicle pointed out that Stanford had never questioned the presence of Black California star Walter Gordon on the football team and that many eastern schools, including Harvard, included Black students on their sports teams without undue difficulty. The Oakland Tribune‘s head line was almost identical to the Chronicle‘s: “Stanford Draws Color Line; Refuses to Meet U.C. Boxers.” The Oakland paper noted that Stanford had previously been willing to compete against Black baseball players from California.

The Daily Californian gave the story front page coverage. Under the sub-headline “California Stands on Principle” the paper quoted L. A. Nichols, the general manager of the ASUC, as stating: “In this case it is the principle more than the meet tonight that counts. California is such a big institution that the presence of colored men in competition for places on teams can make no change in our policy – we cannot have narrow views.”

March 9, 1923 Edition

In a separate editorial, The Daily Californian proclaimed:

“The athletic policy at California is that any man who is good enough can make a team, irrespective of race or color. California is a state university and does not discriminate either for or against men of another race or color. California will continue to have colored men on its teams in any case where they prove their fitness.

“This policy will remain unchanged because it is good. The sudden action of Stanford is more than regrettable. It represents a perverted idea of sportsmanship.”

California categorically denied ever promising to exclude Black students from all boxing competitions with Stanford. ASUC general manager Nichols told the Oakland Tribune that he represented, “a state institution which recognized all races, creeds and nationalities and he could not discriminate against anyone.” Nicholas added that, “California athletes won places on the various teams according to their merit, and that Jones was justly entitled to a leading place on the boxing program.” He added that California would not remove Errol Jones from the Stanford competition unless Jones himself requested that. And Errol Jones most certainly did not.

Professor John U. Calkins, California’s faculty athletic director, issued an official response on behalf of the University:

“So far as the University of California is concerned we feel . . . that when a colored man is admitted to the University and qualifies in scholarship and athletics, he is entitled to be supported. We do not feel that we could bar them and would not want to take that action. No promise was ever made to Stanford that we would bar colored athletics. In fact, as late as last year, we had a colored man on our football squad and no protest was ever entered. We regret this could not be settled ‘out of court,’ but feel the public is entitled to know how we stand.”

Roy Cortelyou, the University’s graduate manager of athletics, joined the chorus, telling the San Francisco Chronicle:

“We feel that a man in the University of California, regardless of race, class or color, has just as much right in equity to make an athletic team as any other classification. We cannot bar an athlete simply because he is black or of any other race than white.”

Stanford’s response to this hail of criticism was to assert that its objection was solely to boxing competitions, not to football or baseball or other sports. Stanford Athletic Director Barrow insisted that the specific nature of the sport of boxing was the problem, and called California’s view that Black students were entitled to participate in boxing matches with white students, “regrettable.”

The Stanford Daily took great offense to the Daily Californian editorial accusing Stanford of applying a “perverted idea of sportsmanship” to the boxing issue. It countered with an editorial of its own the following week, entitled, “In Fairness to the Boxers,” which repeated the claim that California had previously promised to exclude Black students from boxing and mocked the “indignation” and “sonorous proclamations” of racial equity coming from Berkeley as dishonest. This Stanford Daily editorial concluded:

“The existence of race prejudice cannot be denied, and whether or not it is justified, promoting bouts between men of different color can do nothing but antagonize that feeling. There is not the close contact in other branches of athletics and the personal element does not enter so strongly.”

The Stanford student newspaper concluded that if the matches were to continue, with California including Black students and Stanford determined to forfeit such matches, “naturally Cardinal boxers would resent any such action. They would feel that California was entering negroes merely to win the meet unfairly.”

The claims by Athletic Director Barrow and Stanford supporters that their refusal to allow a Black Cal student into the boxing competition was based entirely on high-minded motives of what was best for the sport were obviously hollow. There was, however, a bit of truth in their accusations of hypocrisy. At the same time that University officials in Berkeley were proclaiming their belief in racial equality, California’s African-American students were excluded from sharing University housing with white students and University president David Barrows (not to be confused with Stanford Athletic Director W. H. Barrow) was barring a photograph of the members of California’s first Black sorority from being published in the Blue & Gold Yearbook, on the purported ground that the sorority “was not representative of the student body.” Nevertheless, at least with respect to Errol Jones and the boxing team, the administration and student-athletes of the University of California got it exactly right.

Boxing competitions between California and Stanford were thus cancelled, not only for 1923, but for the foreseeable future. The following January, representatives of the schools met to see if competitions could be resumed. Earl Jones, now a senior, remained on the team, and following the meeting of the schools, California’s graduate athletic manager, Roy Cortelyou, announced that boxing competitions would not be resumed in 1924 because of their irreconcilable policies on mixed-race boxing matches. The Oakland Tribune reported that Stanford Athletic Director Barrow, “greatly regretted that California had been unable to see her way clear to an understanding in the matter,” but that, “he felt that Stanford’s position was for the best interest of the sport and for athletic relations.” He insisted that Stanford’s position had absolutely nothing to do with discrimination, but that, “the high standard set and maintained in athletic relationships between California and Stanford in all branches of sport demanded that mixed boxing bouts be done away with.”

The 1922-1923 California Boxing Team – photo from the Blue & Gold Yearbook

The California and Stanford boxing teams did not meet again until five years later, when the competitions were resumed without fanfare, Stanford having conveyed privately to California that it had relented on its color line.

Errol Jones continued as a member of the California boxing team, but also continued to face discrimination. In a competition in Berkeley later that spring, U.S.C. boxer Eddie Mattos refused to fight Jones and forfeited. However, students at the Southern Branch (now UCLA) did not discriminate, and Jones won his match there handily, winning every round.

After graduating from Cal, Errol Jones enrolled in law school across the Bay at U.C. Hastings, before deciding to move east and finish school at John Marshall Law School in New Jersey. He settled in New York City, where he became a reporter for The New York Age, one of the most prominent African-American newspapers in the country. He returned to the Bay Area after World War II, settling in San Francisco, where he became a clerk at the Ninth Circuit United States Court of Appeal and later Senior Deputy Clerk. He made an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1958.

In 1952, Errol Jones and a Cal teammate, attorney Sol Silverman, organized a grand re-union of California boxers and wrestlers from early years of the sport. The dinner was held at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco and attendees included Walter Gordon, by then Chair of the California Parole Board, Jimmy Doolittle, who had won the Medal of Honor and become a four-star general, Brodie Stevens, who was also a member of Andy Smith’s 1920 Wonder Team and caught a famous 58-yard touchdown pass in the Rose Bowl, and Irving Stone, author of such best-sellers as “The Agony and the Ecstasy” and “Lust for Life.” Jones and Silverman co-chaired the event. It was there that Walter Gordon first revealed to his fellow boxers that he had been barred from competing at Stanford in 1916 because of his race. According to a story on the event the California Monthly, there were many happy reminiscences about victories over Stanford in “The Big Match” and about the year California Boxing had said “no” to Stanford’s “color line.”

GO BEARS!

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