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February 2, 2019 – Black History Month Tribute to Belford Lawson

Posted on February 1, 2019 by Barry Gallagher

Today is a great day to honor the memory of Belford Lawson. He was the first African-American to play football at Michigan in the Twentieth Century.  This special post is the second in a month long series of articles on African-American men who contributed significantly to the history of Michigan Football.

(Note – Belford V. Lawson is shown above with the full Michigan Football team, not just the letter winners. He is kneeling in the second row – second man from the left. Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library at The University of Michigan.)

According to the Wikipedia article linked below, Belford Vance Lawson, Jr. was born in Roanoke, Virginia on July 9, 1901. He died on February 23, 1985 at the age of eighty-three.

First African-American on a Fielding H. Yost Football Team 

Belford V. Lawson was the first, and only, African American football player at Michigan during the Yost Era. (Note-He was the second African-American to play at Michigan with George Jewett (1890) being the first.)

Lawson’s name first showed up on a Michigan Football Roster in 1921. He was listed as a reserve for both the 1921 and 1922 seasons. In 1923, he was listed as Fullback in the Class of 1924. Belford Lawson did not earn any starts or playing time at Michigan according to the Bentley Historical Library records I reviewed.

Interestingly, he was not the only man in that boat. Fielding Yost was famous for only playing the best possible players – both ways and just about all the time. Unfortunately, as the Ann Arbor Observer article points out, Mr. Yost, the son of a Confederate soldier, may have had some issues with African-Americans.

I would think that if Lawson, was indeed good enough, he may have played for Yost. Mr. Yost was all about winning, but it is only speculation on my part. If you look at the numbers, the 1923 Michigan Football Roster team had one hundred and forty-five names (145) on it. Thirty-one (31) of those men had a number assigned to their name which meant that they probably dressed for games. Of the thirty-one “players” only twenty (20) earned a letter from Fielding Yost for the 1923 season. Like I have said before, it was an accomplishment just to earn a letter from Mr. Yost. It would have been an exceptional  achievement for Belford Lawson to earn a varsity letter from Yost. However, I certainly give the man great credit for trying and sticking with it for three full seasons!

Belford Lawson Left Michigan With His Head Held High – Full of Ambition!

Belford M. Lawson Michigan Football | bigbluefootballhistory.com

Belford V. Lawson played three years of football at Michigan but never played in a game. He became an All-American advocate for Civil Rights after he left Michigan. Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library at The University of Michigan.

Interestingly, Belford Lawson’s greatest achievements took place after he left Michigan.

  • He was the first African-American to win a case before the Supreme Court (1950).
  • Again, according to the Wikipedia article linked below, Lawson was also the first African-American to become president of the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association).

So, on the thirty-third anniversary of his passing, let us remember another distinguished Michigan Man. Belford V. Lawson was on three Fielding Yost teams, but like about one-hundred of his teammates, he never played a down. His football “role” at Michigan was acted out on the practice field. I am certain that it was difficult for Mr. Lawson, but he obviously made the best of his time at Michigan and went on to do great things for the advancement of racial justice in America. Unfortunately, there is still much more work to be done!

Today, let us honor the memory of Belford V. Lawson, Jr. and celebrate his accomplishments. Please take a moment to appreciate Mr. Lawson’s achievements at Michigan and in a lifetime of civil rights activism. May Belford V. Lawson always rest in peace. Go Blue!

Check out the great Wikipedia articles below for more on the life and career of Belford V. Lawson, Jr.







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