How Leonard Bates’ removal from a game caused the ‘Bates Seven’ protest NYU will never forget

Stephen Nartey November 12, 2022
Leonard Bates. Photo via Twitter

At the height of racial segregation in the United States, a blot in history was committed by the New York University (NYU) by entrenching racial tensions on the Southern side. This began when NYU took out African-American player, Dave Meyers, from its football match against the University of Georgia in 1929.

It came on the heels of the University of North Carolina’s acceptance of an African-American fullback, Ed Williams, from NYU into its fold to play in both the 1936 and 1937 games. Racial tensions in the 1930s and 40s had gradually crept into college sports with universities on the Northern side allowing African-American players to play for them but those on the Southern side were sidelining them, according to New York University website. 

There were reports that there was mutual agreement among northern schools that black athletes would not be allowed to join matches against southern schools on the segregated university’s home fields. It became an unwritten rule for NYU, Boston College, Rutgers and Harvard to withdraw African-American players when playing against southern universities.  

Racial tensions tipped beyond control when the University of Missouri asked NYU to withdraw its star fullback, Leonard Bates, from its upcoming football game. Hell broke loose as students engaged in a war of words with the school’s administration under the moniker “Bates Must Play!” in 1940 as it appeared NYU was bent on ensuring that Bates does not play in the upcoming football game. 

Chancellor Harry Woodburn Chase called for cool heads in addressing the discriminatory decision to bar Bates from playing the match. He indicated that these racial tensions have been entrenched by traditions and customs dating back centuries. He was of the view it will take a gradual process to change the status, hence the need for people involved to exercise circumspection in the action they take. 

A newspaper in an editorial rejected the calls by the Chancellor demanding the cancellation of what it described as “Jim Crow” games. In the view of the Bulletin, a continuation of the games will be an endorsement of the intolerance and bias being preached by racial segregation campaigners. Despite protests by a student population of 2,000 that stormed the school’s administration block and presented a petition with 4,000 signatures, the school stood its ground and disallowed Bates from playing the match. The NYU football team lost to Missouri 33-0. 

In 1941, tensions and racial discrimination in colleges reached a crescendo with rioting and chaos. It followed a decision to bench Jim Coward, a player who took transfer from Brooklyn College, to play for the School of Education at NYU. This attracted agitations from the students who claimed that Coward was disqualified on the basis of the color of his skin but the school administration claimed that he did not meet the university’s requirements. 

This was compounded by a 1941 incident when NYU left behind three African-American members of the track team for an upcoming meet with the Catholic University. Student activists led by the “Bates Seven” petitioned relevant authorities asking for the immediate cancellation of the “NYU Abandon Its Jim Crow Policy!”.

The “Bates Seven” were subjected to questionable disciplinary hearings and were suspended afterward for their petition demanding the “NYU Abandon Its Jim Crow Policy!”. The university said the students undertook their actions without seeking appropriate permission from the university. 

The embattled students fought back and challenged the decision on grounds that the school was stifling progressive organization on campus. The students were made to take summer classes to graduate following the suspension. 

In 2001, school authorities at NYU made moves to right the injustice committed against the “Bates Seven” in 1941 for taking a firm stand against racial discrimination. 

The “Bates Seven” were Anita Krieger Appleby, Jean Borstein Azulay, Mervyn Jones, Naomi Bloom Rothschild, Robert Schoenfeld, Argyle Stoute, and Maisel Witkin.

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