Bentley online exhibit explores the rich story of Willis Ward

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It was called a “gentleman’s agreement” — an informal adherence to a tradition whereby college football teams from northern states would bench their Black players when they played against schools from the Jim Crow south. 

And on Oct. 20, 1934, U-M athletic director Fielding Yost honored this agreement by pulling Willis Ward, arguably Michigan’s best player, out of a game against Georgia Tech.

Yost’s decision indelibly linked Ward to a single game and an incident rooted in deep prejudice. 

Yet Ward’s rich and interesting life goes far beyond one game. With this in mind, the Bentley Historical Library began researching its own historical collections, as well as outside resources, to take a broader look at Ward’s life and legacy. 

Recently, the library launched an online exhibit, “Willis Ward: More Than the Game,” which addresses Ward’s notorious Georgia Tech benching while also showcasing the broader context of his family, community, campus and career.

Portraits and team photo of Willis Ward
Willis Ward is shown in portraits as a student in 1931 (left) and later in life in 1965 (right), and in a U-M football team photo with his friend and future U.S. President Gerald R. Ford and athletic director Fielding Yost. (Photos courtesy of Bentley Historical Library)

“There is a continuing interest in Ward’s story, and it’s important that the story is accurate and goes beyond just the one game,” said Bentley Athletics Archivist Greg Kinney. “Ward was deeply affected by the benching, and at the same time he persevered and didn’t let it stop him. His achievements before and after Michigan are extraordinary.” 

The exhibit is broken into chapters that explore Ward’s story in more detail how:

  • A child of the Great Migration became a star athlete at Northwestern High School in Detroit.
  • He worked to ameliorate racial conflict at the Ford Motor Co. while putting himself through law school.
  • He worked in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office before entering private practice.
  • He finished his public career as a probate judge in Wayne County.

While the exhibit covers the racism of Yost and Georgia Tech, it also highlights how U-M itself was a largely segregated campus, how Black women were initially not allowed to live in the dormitories, and how the small number of Black students at U-M led a separate social life.

Ward died in Detroit on Dec. 30, 1983, at age 71. Detroit Mayor Coleman Young spoke at his memorial service. The exhibit covers his passing — but doesn’t end with it.

Almost 30 years later, in 2012, an 8-year-old named Genna Urbain, along with others, lobbied U-M and the Michigan Legislature to honor Ward. The state Senate unanimously passed a resolution designating Oct. 20, 2012, as Willis Ward Day in Michigan. On that date, Ward was honored among 113,000 fans at Michigan Stadium as the Wolverines played and defeated Michigan State.

On May 27, 2015, a room in the Michigan Union was designated the Willis Ward Lounge, with members of Ward’s family present. Urbain, then 11 years old, cut the ceremonial ribbon.

“Willis Ward: More Than the Game” is the work of Kinney and additional Bentley staff members Brian Williams, Caitlin Moriarty and Andrew Rutledge.

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