(Photo Courtesy of Harvard Archives)
*This article was originally posted as a Throwback Thursday piece and is being reposted in honor of Black History Month.*
The 1941 Harvard Crimson lacrosse team was nothing special, going 2-10 overall with their only wins coming against MIT and Tufts. However, goalie George H. Hanford earned second team All-America honors for the Crimson.
While the Crimson’s 1941 campaign was nothing spectacular, it was indeed one of the most historic because of one game in particular – the infamous Harvard-Navy game.
On April 4th, 1941, Harvard traveled to Navy to face the Midshipmen. While Navy blew them out 12-0 it wasn’t the events on the field that made the headlines, but the events off the field helped shape history. Prior to the game, the Naval Academy superintendent told Harvard that they would not play the game due to the fact that Harvard had one black player, Lucien Alexis Jr.
The Harvard players and head coach Dick Snibbe initially voted to forfeit the game, but Harvard athletic director William J. Bingham ordered coach Snibbe to send Alexis home. Alexis did go home but according to a quote from his daughter in an L.A. Times article, “my father, quietly, caught the night train back to Cambridge, telling the team it was his idea.”
The reaction to the situation and how the Harvard team and Alexis was treated quickly heated up. The Harvard Crimson picked up the story, followed by newspapers in Boston and New York. The administration at both Navy and Harvard were both heavily criticized by the majority of the media.
In response to the outcry, Harvard athletic director William J. Bingham told the Harvard Crimson, “We were guests of the Naval Academy and had no choice in the matter. Had the game been played at Cambridge, I would have insisted that he be allowed to participate.” Harvard also stated that they would never tolerate racial discrimination against its student athletes again.
One week after that game against Navy, Harvard traveled to face Army and the reception they received was much different than at Navy. A cordon of cheering cadets, led by many African-American cadets welcomed Alexis and his Harvard teammates to West Point. The Crimson would go on to lose 12-1 in that contest.
The news of that Harvard-Navy game made its way to the White House and president Franklin D. Roosevelt. In June 1941, two months after the Harvard-Navy game, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 that prohibited racial discrimination in the defense industry. Multiple historians have noted that the Harvard-Navy game incident was a key incident that pressured Roosevelt to sign the order.
Lucien Alexis Jr. went on to serve in World War II and later returned to Harvard to get his business degree and later served as head of a New Orleans business college for black students, segregated by state law.