Remembering Levi Jackson, Yale’s first black football captain and first African American executive at Ford Motor

Michael Eli Dokosi August 12, 2020
Levi Jackson via and Facebook

Levi Jackson’s selection as Yale’s first black football captain in November 1948 drew national attention as a symbol of racial progress in American life. His father was a chef and steward at Yale dining halls.

Jackson’s elevation as the school’s 70th football captain surprised many including the one whom the duty fell on. ”Bill Conway, who was the captain in 1948, raised a glass of Champagne and said, ‘Here’s to the 1949 captain,”’ Jackson remembered. ”When he mentioned my name, I almost fell out of my seat.”

But Jackson’s quality shone through so much so that the Gridiron Club of Boston described him as the best college football player in New England. Part of the class of 1950, Jackson captained Yale for the 1949 season and became also the first Ivy League player to be selected as a captain to start a season, as well as, the first black captain in any sport at Yale University.

“Jackson captained Team 70 after playing fullback and punter for Yale’s nationally-ranked team in his first year. That season he finished fifth in the nation with 806 rushing yards. He was slowed by injury as a sophomore but bounced back to lead Bulldogs in rushing and receiving yards as a junior.”

At Yale, “Jackson set 13 modern Yale football records, and his 2,049 career rushing yards are the sixth most in Yale history. He also played basketball at Yale, and was the first black student in one of Yale’s socially prestigious senior societies, selected by Berzelius.”

He graduated with honors from Yale with majors in sociology, psychology and economics. He also joined the Camp Lee football team in Virginia while he served as a staff sergeant in the Army.

Another first was chalked when Jackson after Yale joined the Ford Motor Company “where he held major executive titles in both urban affairs and labor relations while also working in the government affairs office. He was one of the first black executives at a major American corporation.” Certainly, the first African American executive at Ford Motor Company.

After the 1967 riots, he was involved with the New Detroit Committee which worked to create job opportunities for inner-city residents. “In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, he was appointed to the National Selective Service Appeal Board, which settled disputes over eligibility for the military draft.”

Jackson served at Ford until 1983 when he retired with the title of Vice President. “He was instrumental in setting up Ford’s Minority Dealer Training Program and helped see that Ford hired 10,000 workers from within the city of Detroit, where he chose to live.” In 1987, he earned the Walter Camp Collegiate Man of the Year Award.

When heading to Yale, however, Jackson was apprehensive despite enrolling with most of his tuition financed under the G.I. Bill since he was a veteran. He was one of only three African Americans among 8,500 undergraduates.

”I was the last of six kids, the only one who got a college education,” he recalled. ”I had the feeling that I did not belong in a rich man’s institution. I’m a high school graduate and I’m going to school with a lot of prep school grads who went to Choate and Exeter.”

Born in Branford, Connecticut in August 22, 1926, Jackson would have scored another first had he not turned down an offer to play for the New York Giants which would have made him the first African-American to play in the modern National Football League. The Army defeated the New York Giants 7–0 on Jackson’s 80-yard touchdown run, on whose back he was offered a generous contract by the Giants’ coach.

The first African American to play football for Yale is understood to also be the first African-American tapped for a Yale secret or senior society.

Jackson died on December 7, 2000 at his home in Detroit aged 74. He left behind two daughters, Denyse Jackson and Sherrill Jackson.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: August 12, 2020


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