It Happened at Michigan — Racing to win a historic title


Orval Wardel Johnson understood competition. As a member of the U-M track team, he ran both sprints and relays.

A four-year letterman, Johnson — a graduate of Detroit’s Northwestern High School — also competed successfully for seats on the Student Legislature and his East Quad dorm council.

A photo of a former U-M track athlete
Val Johnson was a member of the U-M track team for four years. (Photo courtesy of Bentley Historical Library)

But his most significant contest came in the fall of 1948, when Johnson — known to friends and classmates as Val — would run for president of the LSA Class of 1949. Students had never elected an African American person to lead their class, and Johnson was going up against one of the most popular students on campus, All-American quarterback Pete Elliott.

When the two candidates campaigned in late 1948, they were among 20,000 students at U-M. Fewer than 100 students were African Americans, half of 1% of the campus.

The job of class president did not carry political power. Instead, the president was a cheerleader of sorts — rallying the seniors, building school spirit, coordinating events and activities, and finding ways to give back to the University with a class gift and reunions after graduation.

Johnson campaigned as “Michigan’s Man of Distinction.” He and his supporters worked the phones and went door-to-door in residence halls, asking students for their votes.

Voting lasted for two days. In addition to electing a class president, students cast ballots for candidates eager to serve in various campus organizations, including the legislature, J-Hop Committee, and Board in Control of Student Publications. By the time polls closed, one-third of the student body had voted. It took election officials 10 hours to count all the ballots.

A photo of an old newspaper front page
Val Johnson’s victory as LSA class president and the overall voter turnout for all campus seats were front-page news. (Photo courtesy of Michigan Daily Digital Archives)

In the early morning hours of Dec. 2, Johnson learned he had prevailed over Elliott by a resounding 2-1 margin. LSA seniors had elected their first African American class president, a first for Michigan and any predominantly white university in the nation.

“I’m completely overwhelmed,” Johnson told the Michigan Daily.

The senior credited his win to the value of building relationships. “I think it’s really a matter of getting acquainted with the different races,” he said. “I’ve always believed association and acquaintance were the real solutions to the problem.”


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