The Story of Lou Montgomery

This is part of The Gavel’s continuing coverage of Black History Month, where we are covering a multitude of events in February that focus on the history of Black students at BC and how they contribute to our collective identity, both in the past and the present.

Joanne Montgomery lives in Los Angeles. She is an advocate and preacher, praising God each day and quoting scriptures from the Bible. On her desk is a plaque that was given to her by Boston College in honor of her late father, Lou Montgomery. It is a replica of a plaque that stands in Conte Forum on the Varsity Club Hall of Fame. Her father’s jersey was retired in the home opener against Miami in 2012, but while the event was exceptionally special for her and her family, the events of Montgomery’s tenure at Boston College are a reminder that some things don't change.

Montgomery was a 5’6, 150 pound running back from Brockton, Massachusetts. Arguably the best player at Brockton High School, Montgomery was All-Scholastic and was being courted by powerhouses like Ohio State, UCLA and USC. But the Massachusetts All-Scholastics had a cool idea: Stay in Boston—Play at BC and win. So Montgomery and others, including Chuckin’ Charlie O’Rourke stayed together and committed to BC. And with Montgomery’s admission, he became the first black athlete in BC history.

It was a pivotal moment for BC. In 1937, many universities were still segregated. There was a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” between segregated and integrated schools, not allowing black players to play in segregated versus integrated school contests. The University of Notre Dame did not admit a black student until 1944. Jackie Robinson and Kenny Washington didn’t break onto the scene in UCLA until 1939. BC was ahead of the times.

In 1938, when Montgomery moved from the freshmen to varsity squad, Gil Dobie was the head coach. Dobie wasn’t known to have an intricate offense, so “Lightning” Lou—the man with seemingly electric feet—didn’t get much playing time. At this time however, BC football was getting noticed. The Eagles finished 6-1-2 and were the talk of the town in Boston. Crowds of over 30,000 flooded Fenway Park to watch BC football. Like many SuperFans beg for today, a golden age of football was on the horizon for BC—and it came to fruition with the hiring of Hall of Fame coach Frank Leahy.

Leahy’s offense was far more creative than Dobie’s, so in 1939, Montgomery got the opportunity to break out. Like Steve Addazio’s offense—that which produced a Heisman Trophy finalist in Andre Williams—Leahy’s offense allowed the run to be the X-factor of BC football. While Montgomery would blaze down the field, Leahy kept the defense on its toes with dual-threat quarterback O’Rourke. With Leahy at the helm and with the tandem of O’Rourke and Montgomery, there was no stopping the Eagles, at least until the Florida Gators paid a visit to Fenway Park.

Photo Courtesy of Tori Fisher/ Gavel Media.

Photo Courtesy of Tori Fisher/ Gavel Media.

As BC’s stock rose, administration decided to add more competitive contests to its schedule to gain the attention of the Associated Press. Before the College Football Playoff or BCS Championship era, the AP decided who the national champion was. In order for BC to be in the midst of the conversation, it had to face better opponents than Holy Cross or Temple. So in 1939, BC included Florida from the previous season and added Auburn to its schedule. Both schools had a Jim Crow clause. They would not play against a team that started a black player. According to Glenn Stout’s article “Jim Crow, Halfback,” BC tried to persuade Florida to waive the clause, but Florida felt it didn’t have to.

Montgomery’s teammates weren’t happy about it. “Some of the guys didn’t take it well,” said Montgomery in an interview with Glenn Stout for Boston Magazine in 1987. “They talked about striking, or going up to the game at the last minute saying, ‘If he don’t play, we don’t play.’ But when they asked me, I said no. I didn’t want that on me.” The way it was described to Lou was that segregation was the standard in the South, so BC had to play by the South’s rules or it would lose money. So when BC faced Florida in 1939, Montgomery had to watch from the sidelines. The previous season, BC won 33-0. In 1939, Florida beat BC 7-0, its defense on O’Rourke the entire game.

Montgomery played the following week, but his playing time began to dwindle. With Auburn on the horizon, Leahy had to adjust his offense accordingly. Montgomery wouldn’t play against Auburn, so now the focus became on effectively transitioning Vito Ananis into the starting lineup in place of Montgomery. Against Auburn, Ananis caught the game-winning touchdown.

Even though Montgomery wasn’t starting, he finished the season with the best rushing statistics on the team. The regular season was over, and BC finished 9-1. On the horizon was the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas. BC prepared for its fight against Clemson, but Montgomery wasn’t going to be in the fight. Once again, Jim Crow showed his face and BC went without its star running back.

The 1939 Cotton Bowl Classic that led to the O’Rourke-McFadden Trophy barred any black athlete from participation. BC lost 6-3. When BC arrived back home defeated, Leahy approached Montgomery and said, “If they had let us bring you along, we wouldn’t have lost.” However, the injustice doesn’t end there.

Photo Courtesy of Tori Fisher/ Gavel Media.

Photo Courtesy of Tori Fisher/ Gavel Media.

1940 is the “Team of Destiny” as described by the BC Athletics website. The Eagles went undefeated to the Sugar Bowl, and during that journey, Montgomery did not start one game and was barred from two: Tulane and Auburn. When BC left Boston for New Orleans to play Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl, Montgomery went with the team, but did not play. Montgomery had to stay with a black family in New Orleans. The hotel was segregated. Montgomery watched from the press box as the Eagles defeated the Volunteers 19-13. History would remember O’Rourke as the star of the game. BC retired O’Rourke’s jersey in 1998.

The plaque that sits in Joanne’s desk and at BC reads: "An exciting and elusive running back, he was a major offensive contributor to the Boston College teams that won 19 of 20 regular season games in his junior and senior seasons and earned invitations to the 1940 Cotton Bowl and 1941 Sugar Bowl. Tragically, because of the segregation laws of the day, he was not allowed to participate in either post-season game. But his undaunted spirit and unwavering support of his teammates in those games made him a champion in every sense of the word."

Yet, this didn’t sit right with Mark Dullea ‘62. Dullea is the nephew of Maurice Dullea, who was an assistant to the athletic director and organized the travel arrangements for Montgomery in New Orleans. “BC had a choice to say no,” said Mark. “BC has always held itself to a higher standard, a higher morality. They would’ve lost money and status, but they put both of these over Montgomery.” Montgomery realized the Jesuit, Catholic ideology BC preached when he started practicing Catholicism. “These people were really going against everything they stood for,” said Stout, who Montgomery expressed his frustrations to about BC’s morals not being practiced.

Mark felt compelled to do something, so he created a website called LouMontgomeryLegacy.com and detailed everything that happened. In the website, he argues for BC to rename Alumni Stadium to Lou Montgomery Stadium. “What BC did with Doug Flutie puts people into the public eye,” says Mark, alluding to the Flutie statue that sits at the entrance of Alumni Stadium.

BC didn’t agree to rename the stadium, but motioned to retire Montgomery’s jersey in opener of the 2012 season. Stout says renaming the stadium might have been useful for the university, such as in recruiting. Yvonne Abraham, a columnist for the Boston Globe, profiled Dullea’s efforts. Titled “A look at how far we’ve come on race – and yet must go.”

Photo Courtesy of Tori Fisher/ Gavel Media.

Photo Courtesy of Tori Fisher/ Gavel Media.

Reid Oslin ’68, assistant director for sports publicity, offered a rebuttal to Abraham’s article. “As immoral and appalling as racial segregation was, the practice was tacitly accepted by most of American society in 1940, from Major League Baseball to the US military,” wrote Oslin in a letter to The Globe. “The player exclusion clause that prohibited Montgomery from appearing in certain games against teams from Southern institutions was a routine part of intersectional football contracts.”

It was a routine part, but schools did combat it. In 1904, Harvard University’s baseball team had one African American player, and schools like Georgetown University refused to play Harvard. Harvard refused to fold, and removed these schools from future baseball schedules. In 1936, the University of North Carolina, a Southern school, agreed to play against New York University, who had one black player, Ed Williams. In 1938, Syracuse University insisted that Maryland allow the Orange to play its star quarterback, Wilmeth Sadat-Sing. Sadat-Sing didn’t play the previous year in Maryland, but with the game at Syracuse, Maryland agreed. In 1940, Harvard publicly stated it wouldn’t tolerate any racial discrimination involving its athletic teams.

BC had a duty as a Jesuit, Catholic institution. As the university that prides itself on cultivating men and women for others, the leaders of the university strayed away from this ideology. Instead of taking a stand against Florida, Auburn, the Cotton and Sugar Bowl committees, BC punted the ball. It allowed Montgomery, the star back from Brockton, the child of a state entrenched in the abolitionist movement in the 1800s and enrolled in a college that preaches high morality and advocating for those without a voice, to feel useless.

“We shouldn’t shy away,” says Juan Alexander Concepcion Esq. ’96, who teaches a course titled “Race, Law and Resistance” through the African and African Diaspora Studies program. “We should speak of it openly. He (Montgomery) was being defined by color, not character. Our alma mater had set on a righteous path when it admitted Lou “Hulu” Montgomery. This story would’ve been different if the university fought.”

To some, a jersey is enough to remind us who Montgomery was. But to others, more is needed. Dullea wants the stadium renamed. Stout says it might be useful for the school to do so. Manny Asprilla, who wore Montgomery’s number—21—his four years at BC wants a statue or award in Montgomery’s honor. “BC needs to do something about that. When you walk into Yawkey Center, the first people you see is Matt Ryan and Luke (Kuechly),” said Asprilla. “He was the first African American football player at BC. If an award was given in his name, just like one is with Welles Crowther, people will at least be educated and he will be a part of BC history.”

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Joanne? She would like to set up a foundation in his legacy. “I would love for a scholarship. There’s a lot of students that could benefit from a scholarship,” said Joanne. Joanne’s uncle, Montgomery’s older brother, couldn’t get over it. When BC enshrined Montgomery in the Hall of Fame, he didn’t go to the ceremony. She says her father didn’t talk about what happened at BC to his family. “It was quite painful for him,” she says. “He buried it. He was just annoyed that so much money [was] made off of it and he didn’t see any of it.”

Dullea and others did speak about a scholarship program and Dullea has worked with Brockton mayor Bill Carpenter to make sure the town recognizes Montgomery. Currently, a football field at Mary E. Baker Elementary School is named after Montgomery.

February is Black History Month and it is a chance to remember the history of those men and women of color who created the opportunities men and women of color have today. But it is also a time to remember the flaws and to reconcile those flaws.

In December, members of the BC community laid down in St. Mary’s Hall as a form of protest to the school’s lack of initiative to address the recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island. Instead of standing with the community, the university sent out letters to students informing them of possible disciplinary outcomes for their actions in St. Mary’s Hall.

In 1937, BC admitted its first black football player, who faced discrimination because of the color of his skin. Instead of standing with him, they let it occur and like a man for others, Montgomery didn’t fight it because he loved the men he played with. In order to reconcile this wrong, more needs to be done than having a retired jersey, because while his name is on the South Wall of Alumni, far more people know who wore number 22 than who wore number 21. Joanne quoted Matthew: “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven.” I, and many others, agree BC should do more.

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