“Hamp” Lewis African American Football and Legal Pioneer

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William H. Lewis in the white “H” sweater, and the Harvard University football team, 1892

The HistoryMakers

The National Football League’s season is set to begin September 10, 2020, but the fate of 2020 college and high school football is uncertain, meaning there will be a lot less football to enjoy this fall. But let’s take a look to the early days of football where we will find African American Harvard trained lawyer William “Hamp” Henry Lewis who, among other things, was in the ranks of the earliest Black college football players and coaches. Considered an expert on the sport at the time, he also wrote one of the nation’s first books on football.[1]

Lewis was born in the mixed race town of Berkeley (now Norfolk), Virginia, on November 28, 1868 to Baptist minister Ashley Henry Lewis and Josephine Baker. He began his college education at Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University), but transferred after one year to Amherst College in Massachusetts with the help of Virginia Normal’s president John Mercer Langston, the first African American admitted to the Ohio Bar and former dean of Howard University School of Law.

William H. Lewis, Amherst College, c.1889

At Amherst where he was in the same class as U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, Lewis chose to join the football team as their second African American player. During Lewis’s sophomore year, William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson became the first African American to play on Amherst’s varsity squad after the team’s trainer, Robert Winston, insisted Jackson should play at halfback. Jackson was a standout, and The New York Times singled out his performance after a Yale/Amherst game in October of 1889. The white Yale players also targeted Jackson, slugging him excessively when he carried the ball. In the face of this racial hostility, Lewis was named the team’s first African American captain in 1890, his senior year.

Amherst College football team, 1889. William H. Lewis is seated holding the football with William T.S. Jackson standing directly above him

After Amherst, Lewis attended Harvard Law School in 1891, where he also played on the football team. Here, he became Harvard’s first African American team captain before being named All-American in 1892 and 1893, the first African American to receive this recognition. For most of Lewis’s football career he played center, despite only weighing 175 pounds. Still, many considered him the best center, noting his speed and intelligence. During his interview with The HistoryMakers, civil rights lawyer Walter L. Gordon, Jr. (1908 – 2012) mentioned meeting Lewis while visiting Harvard: “At Harvard University, there was a black man–and don’t forget, there are very few blacks in school… [let] alone stars on teams. This man’s name was Hamp Lewis [William Henry Lewis], probably one of the greatest athletes Harvard ever hadthey all called him Hamp. Well, you never dream there was any man that was gonna be any greater than Hamp. And I got to meet those fellows.”[2]

Harvard’s “1892 Center Trio,” (L to R) W.C. Mackie, W.H. Lewis, and B.G. Waters

Lewis graduated from Harvard Law School in 1895, and shortly thereafter became a coach for Harvard’s team, specializing in the defense and front line. In his first year of coaching in 1896, he wrote the 205-page book, A Primer of College Football, which was one of the first works on American football, serialized by the popular Harper’s Weekly.

A Primer of College Football (1896) by William H. Lewis

Football, though, was not his only interest. Lewis also had a passion for civil rights, law, and government service. While coaching, he served for three years on the Cambridge City Council and one term in the Massachusetts State Legislature between 1896 and 1902. Also during this time, in 1901, Lewis became Harvard’s first paid coach, receiving $500 a year. His pay was increased to $1,000 in 1903, the same year President Theodore Roosevelt, a Harvard graduate and football fanatic, named Lewis U.S. Assistant Attorney for Boston.

William H. Lewis, undated
President Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

While serving in this role, Lewis’ contributions to football continued. In a 1904 article, The Philadelphia Inquirer compared Lewis with Walter Camp—inventor of the line of scrimmage and the system of downs, also dubbed the “Father of American Football”: “The one man whom Harvard has to match Mr. Camp in football experience and general knowledge is William H. Lewis the famous Harvard centre of the early nineties and the man who is the recognized authority on defense in football the country over.”[3] Then, during the 1905 season, there were up to nineteen deaths on the gridiron, mostly due to head injuries surrounding inadequate equipment and knowledge about contact with other players, like blocking and tackling techniques. Because of the safety hazard, Harvard secretly voted to end the sport at their school. In response, Lewis and other alumni proposed a “neutral zone” around the line of scrimmage, which was enacted throughout college football by 1906, along with other new rules including legalizing the forward pass and abolishing mass formations. Lewis described the game he helped revise as now being, “a safe, sane, and wholesome sport.”[4]

Yale University vs. Harvard University, 1907
Newspaper report, 1905

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lewis continued to balance football with his government service until 1907, when President Roosevelt promoted him to Chief of the Naturalization Bureau for six New England states. At Harvard, though, he left behind a legacy. The team was often among the nation’s most dominant, and he capped his coaching career with a record of 114 wins, fifteen losses, and five ties.

Yale University vs. Harvard University, 1907

After serving as Chief of the Naturalization Bureau for New England until 1911, Lewis was appointed by President William Howard Taft as U.S. Assistant Attorney General, then the highest post in the executive branch attained by an African American. He was one of four African Americans appointed to high office that year, known as Taft’s “Black Cabinet,” which also included Henry Lincoln Johnson as Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, James Carroll Napier as Register of the Treasury, and Robert Heberton Terrell as District of Columbia Municipal Judge.

Taft’s “Black Cabinet” (L to R)- William H. Lewis, Henry L. Johnson, James C. Napier, and Judge Robert H. Terrell

That same year, Lewis was also the first African American admitted to the American Bar Association, though their executive committee, because of racial discrimination, voted to oust him the following year. In spite of this, after his retirement from government in 1913, Lewis built a successful private law practice in Boston where he became known as an exceptional trial lawyer.[5] He also was among the first African American attorneys to join the NAACP legal team. Lewis passed away in Cambridge, Massachusetts on January 1, 1949. Posthumously, he was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1980 and into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

William H. Lewis (right), trial lawyer, undated

While it is unclear how much football fans will be able to enjoy this upcoming season, it is undeniable the influence of African American football and legal legend William “Hamp” Henry Lewis.

Exhibit commemorating William H. Lewis, College Football Hall of Fame

[1] “Top-10 Most Popular Sports In America 2020,” Sporty Tell, last updated January 14, 2020, accessed August 10, 2020. https://sportytell.com/sports/top-10-most-popular-sports-in-america/

[2] Walter L. Gordon, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2008.071), interviewed by Jacques Lesure, April 3, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 9, Walter L. Gordon, Jr. recalls his interest in athletics.

[3] “Lewis Talks Football: Harvard Expert Gives His Opinion on More Open Play,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 13, 1904.

[4] Evan J. Albright. “William Henry Lewis: Brief life of a football pioneer: 1868-1949,” Harvard Magazine, November-December 2005. https://harvardmagazine.com/2005/11/william-henry-lewis-html

[5] Steven J. Jager. “William Henry Lewis (1868-1949),” Black Past, July 31, 2012, accessed August 11, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/lewis-william-henry-1868-1949/

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