An incomplete history of the first Black athletes at the College


George Chadwell is the earliest documented Black varsity athlete. (Photo courtesy of Special Collections).

Safiyah Anwar-Chuku

The College has long taken pride in its athletics, and for good reason. The College’s teams are dominant forces within the NESCAC, and the College has won the Director’s Cup 22 out of the last 25 times it has been awarded to Div. III NCAA athletic programs. Historically, however, not all students at the College have been able to participate in the school’s athletic success. Additionally, there is little archival documentation on the experiences of the first Black students who participated in the College’s athletic programs. To compile these experiences, the Record conducted research using the archives in Special Collections.

In the April 8, 1977 issue of the Record, Tony Cornett ’80 accused the basketball program of racism for excluding Black students from the teams. “Black athletes here at Williams who have tried, unsuccessfully, to play basketball in the program have been good enough and would have played if circumstances were different,” Cornett wrote. He went on to criticize the coaches for their hypocrisy. “It’s very difficult for a coach to emphasize unity among team members while allowing a man’s color to determine the extent of playing time he receives.” 

Most Black students were excluded from early Athletic Department programs because of their race, and the few Black students who were able to participate were valued at the College only for their athletic contributions. Gaius C. Bolin, Class of 1889, was a celebrated student-athlete and the College’s first Black graduate. During each of his four years at the College, Bolin played on his class’s football team, which competed against other class years, and the baseball team for a brief time — according to Williams Magazine. One of his fondest athletic memories was an 1888 baseball victory over Harvard. “Black Williams: A Written History,” a report by the 2002-2003 Black Student Union (BSU) board, noted that there is little documentation of Bolin’s time at the College. “The only time that the Williams Weekly [the foremost student newspaper at the time] mentioned Bolin’s name was when he performed well in football or when he was part of his class’s tug-o-war team,” the BSU stated in its report. 

Sterling A. Brown, Class of 1922, and W. Allison Davis, Class of 1924 and member of the family for which the Davis Center is named, were Black student-athletes who were influential in their academic pursuits. Davis graduated as the valedictorian of his class, and Brown, who was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, was the only student in his year to receive “final honors” in English. Both played for the club tennis team and partnered to win national competitions. 

Documentation of their experiences with early athletics at the College is scarce. Archivists at Special Collections can only make assumptions using photographs from yearbooks on who the Black student-athletes were during the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

“I don’t think you can accurately infer somebody’s race by looking at a yearbook photo,” said Lisa Conathan, head of Special Collections. “The yearbooks can tell us who participated in a team but they do not tell us a lot about the personal experiences of Black athletes.” 

Through their research, librarians at Special Collections have identified a few early Black athletes at the College. George Chadwell, Class of 1900, was pictured in the College’s 1896 varsity football team, making him the earliest documented Black student on a varsity team. Lionel Bolin ’50, grandson of Gaius C. Bolin, was on the track and field team. Wayman Gazaway Caliman ’48, was an athlete on both the track and tennis teams. William Madison Boyd II ’63 played on the varsity lacrosse team. Mike Ogola ’65 was a member of the cross country team, and he was even commended for his contributions as an “outstanding” athlete in the 1963 yearbook. 

However, Special Collections does not have documentation of these athletes’ experiences while competing on their teams. “Finding information about Black students at Williams is incredibly difficult, let alone finding information about Black athletes from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries,” said Ruth Kramer ’22, a fellow at Special Collections.

The only narrative documentation on the experience of a Black student on a varsity team that Special Collections has access to is on Gordon J. Davis ’63 — son of W. Allison Davis. In an interview conducted by Special Collections on his time at the College, Davis focuses more on his academic struggles and his complicated relationship with the College’s Chi Psi fraternity than his athletic career. Although his time on the men’s basketball team was brief, Davis’s account is the earliest documented insight into individual life as a varsity Black student-athlete. 

“I dropped off the basketball team three years in a row, sophomore year because I injured myself, junior year because I just wasn’t being focused, in senior year there were a couple of games in which I performed,” Davis said in the interview. 

Davis recalled several moments that were negatively impacted by racism during his time at the College. “I was looking for a pencil in the drawer and in [my white roommate’s desk] I came across a letter he had received earlier in the summer before we got to Williams asking if he minded rooming with a negro,” he said. 

Though he did not mention discriminatory or racist behavior from his teammates, he did discuss instances of racism at other schools. “I hitchhiked to Bennington after [a] game, and I get a ride with two guys who are seniors, ” Davis said. “[One said,] ‘I heard there’s a real good n***** on the freshman team.’” Davis added that the rest of the ride was silent after he revealed that he was the Black athlete. 

Conathan said that she aims to build upon the limited knowledge that Special Collections has on the experience of Black athletes — which Davis’s interview has been able to provide. She hopes that students will fill in the gaps that Special Collections cannot. “We would really welcome anybody who wants to delve into [the history of Black athletes] more and try to uncover and expand on what they can find in the archives.” Conathan said. 

This article is the first in a series about the experiences of Black athletes at the College. The next article will focus on the legacy of these early Black athletes.