Although it is no less sad to have lost such a man, it is nevertheless fitting that it is Black History Month, because Levi Jackson was a great American and a true pioneer, a man of many significant firsts. He passed away December 7, 2000 in Detroit at the age of 74, and I can't imagine how the news of his death escaped my notice, but it did. Truly, at a time when we deplore the behavior of today's athletes, we should have read about a man of Levi Jackson's accomplishments on front pages everywhere.
Mr. Jackson retired in 1983 after a long career with Ford Motor Company. He was that company's first black executive. Years before, he was the first black man to play football at Yale, and the first to become captain of any Yale varsity sport. (He is shown at left in 1949 on "the fence," in the traditional pose of Yale football captains.) He nearly became the first black player in the modern NFL.
Mr. Jackson was born not far from Yale in Branford, Connecticut. His father worked as a chef at the university. The first football game he ever attended was in the Yale Bowl in 1937, watching a Yale team which featured Clint Frank, that year's Heisman Trophy winner. He played two years of high school ball at Branford High, and when his family moved to New Haven, he transferred to Hillhouse High School there. (Years later, Hillhouse would produce another football great in Floyd Little). His coach at Hillhouse was a Yale alum who encouraged him to apply to Yale, but World War II was going on, and Mr. Jackson instead entered the Army after graduation.
While stationed at Camp Lee, Virginia, he played service football, and after his Army team beat the New York Giants, the Giants offered him a sum said to be $10,000 to sign with them. Had he done so, he would have become the first black man to play in the modern NFL (since 1933), but his parents wanted him to go to college, and he rejected the Giants' offer. (He would later say, "I didn't want to play for money.") Instead, with the the GI Bill paying $500 of Yale's $600 tuition, he entered Yale in the fall of 1946. Talk about the pioneering spirit - he was one of only three black men in an undergraduate student body of 8,500.
Eligible to play as a freshman, he started at fullback and punted, as Yale finished 7-1-1 and was ranked 12th in the nation. His 806 yards rushing ranked him fifth in the nation. He was named third team All-American and received the Lowe Award as the outstanding football player in New England.
He was injured much of his sophomore year, and never did truly regain his freshman form, but a highlight of his career came in his junior year, when Yale travelled to Wisconsin and upset the Badgers, 17-7.
When he was elected captain of the 1949 team following the 1948 season, not only was it a source of enormous pride to the townspeople of New Haven, it was national news. A black man even playing on a previously all-white Ivy team was news enough. But captain? The New York Times put the story on its front page.
Yale has a tradition dating back to 1880 of selecting just one captain per year. There have never been co-captains. He is chosen democratically, by vote of the lettermen. It is a position of enormous prestige, and his election was a sign of the great esteem in which Levi Jackson was held by his teammates.
So loved and respected by his fellow students was he that on the eve of the first game of his senior year, 3,000 of them took part in a torchlight parade honoring him. And in his farewell game, the traditional season-ender against Harvard, he ran 34 yards for the first touchdown and caught a pass for the second as Yale won, 29-6.
When his Yale football career came to an end, he held 13 different school records. He also lettered twice in basketball, and played as a reserve on Yale's 1948-49 team that made it to the NCAA tournament.
Apart from sport, he majored in engineering and excelled academically. One of his classmates, William Clay Ford, Sr., of the automaking family, persuaded him to take a job with Ford after graduation, and so began a 32-year career with the automaker, in which he would become Ford's first black executive, and make his way up the corporate ladder to the position of vice-president which he held at the time of his retirement.
"We were classmates," Mr. Ford told the Detroit News. "He was extremely competent and talented. He did an outstanding job at Ford."
Working in the area of personnel and labor relations, Mr. Jackson spent nearly a year after the Detroit riots in 1967 "on loan" to a special committee of business and government people dedicated to helping the city recover; as a result of his proposals to improve hiring and training of minorities, Ford hired 10,000 new people. In 1969, Ford named him Citizen of the Year in recognition of his efforts.
Among Mr. Jackson's other noteworthy accomplishments was his role in spearheading Ford's minority dealership program.
Mr. Jackson was selected by two different presidents - Johnson and Nixon - to serve on two diifferent national bodies, the Presidential Commission on White House Fellows, and the Selective Service Appeals Board.
In 1987, he received the Walter Camp Man of the Year Award for outstanding accomplishment in football and in citizenship.
Mr. Jackson remained close to Yale by serving as a member of an alumni advisory group, and was active in interviewing prospective Yale students from Michigan.
"Yale has always been close to his heart," a family friend told the Detroit Free Press. "He was able to go back to New Haven this past summer for his 50th class reunion, and that was a high point for everyone."
There are those nowadays who would look at a Levi Jackson, setting out to make his mark in "a white man's world" - on a white football team, in a white college, and then in a white corporation - and say, "Uncle Tom." I say, shame on them for attempting to discourage any person from following in the footsteps of a Levi Jackson. Thanks to the strength and character of Mr. Jackson, Yale is a better university, Ford is a better company, America is a better country.