“A National Problem”: Badger Athletics and the Fight Against Segregation

By Andrew Kraemer

The research in this blog post was completed as a part of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Public History Project. The three-year project aims to reckon with the university’s history of racism, exclusion, and discrimination. The project will culminate in an exhibit in the fall of 2022, an interactive online website, and curricular tools. By sharing research before the opening of the exhibit, we hope to begin conversations about the history of UW–Madison and discuss how we can all work toward building a more equitable campus community. The nature of historical research is that it will always be incomplete. It is impossible for us to know everything that happened in the past. Therefore, the research in this post is imperfect, as all history is. Our student researchers have completed the research below with all of the historical documents available to them at the time of publication. There will be alternative perspectives to those detailed below. We believe that the discussions that arise out of these differing perspectives are an integral part of the process of reckoning with our history. We welcome responses and discussion. Responses submitted by email will be posted in a response and discussion post within one week after the original publication date. Responses with vulgar or offensive language will not be posted.

Content Warning: The UW–Madison Public History Project blog aims to provide a space where our community can begin the difficult work of reckoning with our history. Some of the content and language in this blog post is offensive and disturbing. In this post, you will encounter censored racial slurs which are quoted directly from primary source material.

The 2020 college football season may be the oddest on record. The COVID-19 pandemic forced NCAA machine to retool on the fly in hopes of both protecting athletes and preserving at least some of the economic boost football brings to schools and their communities every year. Some conferences, including the Big Ten, initially postponed football seasons until spring 2021, then ended up starting play in late October. Others, like the Southeastern Conference, elected to delay the season by only a few weeks and deal with problems as they arose. Regardless of which tack programs have taken, postponed and canceled games have defined the season as, each week, teams have shut down in accordance with COVID-19 isolation protocols, leaving some teams struggling to play even half a dozen games. Like many aspects of life in 2020, such a bizarre football season can easily feel unprecedented. But not so long ago, in an era of similar social tumult, fans saw their teams canceling football games not for safety but to spur social change.

In the summer of 1956, the University of Wisconsin athletic department took a stand against segregation in the Jim Crow-era South. Citing Louisiana’s newly enacted law against interracial social and athletic gatherings, UW declared that it “would be unable to play Louisiana State University” in either of two interconference football matchups the schools had scheduled for 1957 and ’58.[1] For this decision and the trend of similar policies it sparked in universities across the northern U.S., the University has been rightly lauded. But to end the story there would be to tell only half the tale. After all, this was not the last time the school’s ethics were tested by southern segregationist policies. As the 1950s came to a close, UW’s approach to these issues put Badger athletics at the center of conversations about discrimination in America, often elevating the University as a model of good policy even as rampant segregation went—and continues to go—largely unchecked across the state of Wisconsin.

This saga truly started before Wisconsin ever got involved, though, with a University of Pittsburgh squad that would likely have been forgotten by now if not for their last game of the 1955 season. Following a 7–3 regular season, the No. 11-ranked Panthers played No. 7 Georgia Tech on January 2 in the 1956 Sugar Bowl, losing 7–0 in a game remembered not for what happened on the field but for the controversy surrounding it.[2] In a game sited in segregated Louisiana, Pitt planned to play African American fullback and linebacker Bobby Grier to the great consternation of many Southerners, particularly politicians. The run-up to the game saw a host of segregationist challenges to Grier’s participation, including then-Georgia governor Marvin Griffin proposing to “forbid the athletic teams of the university system of Georgia from participating in games against any teams with Negro players or even playing in any stadium where unsegregated audiences breathe the same air.”[3] Pittsburgh’s players stood by Grier, however, and just a month after Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her bus seat, he became the first African American athlete to play in the Sugar Bowl.[4]

Team photo of the UW–Madison Football Team from 1956.
The 1956 UW–Madison Football Team photo from the 1957 Badger Yearbook. Courtesy UW Archives.

Grier’s participation sparked a movement in the Louisiana legislature that led to the unanimous passing in July 1956 of a law prohibiting racially mixed social and athletic events.[5] The law also required that stadium seating and restrooms be segregated.[6] The Sugar Bowl Committee and LSU’s Board of Supervisors argued against the law, likely worried the restrictions would limit game revenue and the LSU’s ability to compete at the national level, respectively.[7] Proponents of the law brushed these concerns aside, however, repeating bill sponsor H. Lawrence Gibbs’ assertion that northern schools would prioritize making money from such lucrative interconference games as the Sugar Bowl over any moral hang-ups they might have had.[8]

Gibbs did not have to wait long to find himself proven wrong. On July 19, 1956, the University of Wisconsin athletic department issued a statement advising that because Louisiana’s new law “would have the effect of denying to the University of Wisconsin the privilege of selecting the members of its team without regard to race or color,” UW would be forced to cancel the football games the schools were scheduled to play against each other in the next two seasons.[9] The Wisconsin State Journal applauded the action, saying to do otherwise “’would have been a violation of the traditions which have made [the University of Wisconsin] world famous’” and likening “Louisiana’s segregationists to an ‘obnoxious little boy.’”[10] UW’s stance toward segregationist policies was swiftly adopted by many other schools including Notre Dame, Dayton University, St. Louis University, fellow Wisconsin school Marquette University, and appropriately, Pitt.[11]

But UW’s decision to terminate its contract with LSU still left the Badger football team with holes in its schedule. After replacing LSU with the University of West Virginia in 1957, the Badgers ended up playing the University of Miami in 1958, creating an awkward situation for the UW administration.[12] Despite the athletic department’s previous condemnation of Louisiana’s discriminatory policies, the Badger football team was allowed to play its September 26 game before a segregated crowd in Miami’s Orange Bowl stadium.[13] A letter from a Miami resident to the Madison student newspaper the Daily Cardinal protesting UW’s decision to play the game described the scene in the Orange Bowl: “The popular chant in my section of the game was ‘Get that n——,’ or ‘Kill that n——.’”[14] Additionally, the Miami Herald reported that hundreds of Black fans were barred from entry to the stadium because a city ordinance disallowed them from sitting anywhere but the already-full, 2400-seat section allotted them.[15] In its response, the Cardinal argued—with a curious focus on UW players as opposed to the more vulnerable Black fans in the stands—Badger athletics should cease competing in front of segregated crowds, predicting, “Besides the jeering . . . other incidents could occur. It is entirely possible that some year a race riot could develop after a game, and Wisconsin players who happened to be Negroes might suffer injustices they would never forget.”[16] Continuing, of UW’s 20–0 victory the Cardinal proclaimed, “The University in that game served to humiliate the southern bigots—and we’re proud of it for that. After all that is all part of the University of Wisconsin Idea.”[17] A pattern was beginning to emerge in which Wisconsinites seemed more interested in holding segregation over the South as a mark of their own Northern superiority than they were in actually stopping discrimination, whether in Florida or back home in Wisconsin.

Jim Biggs, 1958 UW–Madison basketball player, leaps for a jump shot from the free throw circle.
Jim Biggs, one of the first Black Basketball players at UW–Madison, takes a jump shot. Photo courtesy the 1958 Badger Yearbook, UW–Madison Archives.

In December of that same year, Badger athletics would again respond questionably to racist Southern policies. Ahead of a game at Rice University, the men’s basketball team stayed in a hotel in Houston, but Jim Biggs and Ivan Jefferson—the first African American players in Badger basketball history[18]—“were obliged to spend the night at Texas Southern university, a Negro college in Houston.”[19] As in the Miami case, UW was evidently more focused on its players’ ability to compete than on higher-level social justice concerns. When the University scheduled the game against Rice roughly eighteen months prior, Biggs and Jefferson were not yet enrolled, and “there was ‘no consideration’ of the possibility” that the Badger men’s basketball team might one day include Black players.[20] Upon realizing the week before that lodging for the Rice game would be a problem, Coach Bud Foster had addressed the situation with the team, who decided to proceed with the contest.[21] Wisconsin athletic director Ivan Williamson stated that the administration would “give consideration to the situation” if Badger athletics encountered such issues again,[22] and before the end of 1958, the UW athletic department decided, “Wisconsin teams will no longer play at schools where team members are segregated or discriminated against.”[23]

Ivan Jefferson poses holding a basketball with Coach Al Hovland.
Ivan Jefferson, one of the first Black Basketball players at UW–Madison, poses with Coach Al Hovland. Photo courtesy the 1958 Badger Yearbook, UW–Madison Archives.

By the time that policy was announced, though, the University’s inconsistency had already generated a conversation around Madison about the right way to handle matchups with Southern schools in the future. Before UW athletics announced their resolution, the University of Wisconsin Student Senate was considering an emergency measure urging the athletic department to ensure Black athletes would be better accommodated in the future.[24] The Daily Cardinal, for its part, argued for a complete UW boycott of all sporting events in the South, arguing, “Providing fodder for hate-mongers is simply not one of the functions of the University of Wisconsin.”[25] Others believed appeasement was a better approach. A letter to the Cardinal editor in December 1958 argued, “The boycott is a device which engenders hate from disagreement. It is most important that the North and South meet on as many common grounds as they can.”[26] The Wisconsin Socialist Club wrote in to advocate playing in the South but only with strict conditions of equal treatment for all involved, saying, “We demonstrate our principles to the South and set an example all northern schools can follow,”[27] echoing the sentiment of superiority the Cardinal espoused following the Miami incident months prior. The Club contended segregation “is not a southern problem . . . Nor is it a northern problem. It is a national problem. Segregation of Negroes in the South means segregation of any Negro or any African or Oriental who happens to be traveling in the South. As long as Jim Crow lives in the South, it will affect the nation.”[28] Notably, this letter—like all its peers to that point—was disgusted by segregation but viewed it as a decidedly Southern phenomenon that must nonetheless be addressed at the national level.

A day after the Wisconsin Socialist Club’s statement was published, the Cardinal printed a pair of letters to the editor that finally pointed out the state’s dirty little secret: Even as Wisconsinites looked down their noses at Louisiana, Florida, Texas, et al., Wisconsin was itself home to some of the most severe segregation in the country.[29] By 1958, decades of redlining and restrictive covenants had pushed African Americans into specific, increasingly neglected neighborhoods in Milwaukee and other cities while whites fled to the comfort of the suburbs.[30] One of the letters published by the Cardinal pointed out this reality, observing that many Wisconsinites were less bothered than the newspaper’s staff by segregation in the South:

This lack of moral indignation is not surprising. It is a little hard on the conscience to get indignant about something that happens in Texas when it also happens in your home town [sic]. In which Wisconsin towns are Negroes living? Milwaukee, Racine, Green Bay, Madison, Beloit, and very few others. Few are naïve enough to believe that this is purely Negro preference as to where they would like to live. This segregation is as rigidly enforced by social pressure and law (probably unenforceable, but law nonetheless) in Wisconsin as it is in the South.[31]

The second letter to the editor described how some of these enforcement mechanisms functioned, even in the progressive haven of Madison. Until only a couple years prior to the Rice University basketball incident, some “independent, [University of Wisconsin]-approved houses . . . had the policy of asking for a person’s race or religion on their applications—mainly, so they said, to make sure that you and your roommates can choose each other on this basis if it makes any difference to people involved.”[32] After this system was abolished, houses began to ask applicants for their photographs instead, which the letter’s author rightly noted had the same effect as the previous method.[33] Whether potential renters had to write in their race or furnish a headshot, such practices allowed whites to congregate with other whites while pushing people of color out of those same areas.

In the more than sixty years since UW athletics made its stand against racism in the South, the situation in Wisconsin has not changed much. Despite the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that ruled school segregation unconstitutional in 1954, schools in Milwaukee’s “central city were 90 percent Black” as of 1960,[34] due in large part to the housing segregation that had already concentrated Milwaukee’s African American population in the inner city. In response to allegations of school segregation brought by the Wisconsin NAACP in 1963, the Milwaukee school board “refused to accept responsibility for its role in causing segregation and denied their obligation to correct it.”[35] Not until 1976 did a federal judge rule that Milwaukee’s schools were illegally segregated, and the school board took another three years after that to begin correcting the problem.[36]

Perhaps even more distressing than Milwaukee’s delayed efforts to desegregate its public schools is the lack of progress in the forty-plus years since. As of 2017, the Brookings Institute ranked Milwaukee as the most black-white segregated metro area in the United States, with a “segregation index”—a 0-to-100 metric in which “a value of 100 indicates complete racial segregation”—of 79.8.[37] Although it has made some headway in the last twenty years or so, Milwaukee remains woefully divided.[38] In this, the Cream City is similar to many other northern cities. Following the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the U.S. South has become increasingly integrated, but the North has not followed suit; of the twelve most segregated cities in the country, ten are in the traditional North.[39] In addition to its extreme segregation, Milwaukee also “has the second-lowest Black homeownership rate among the nation’s largest metropolitan areas” at 27.2 percent, and the third-highest rate of Black incarceration in the country.[40] Due to a lack of political will for integration, the disappearance of industrial jobs from the Milwaukee area in the 1980s, white flight that has sapped the city’s tax and investment bases, and innumerable other factors, Milwaukee’s (and Wisconsin’s) African-American community finds itself little better off than it was sixty years ago.[41]

One must ask, then, why this is the case. Why does Wisconsin remain as segregated as ever in 2020 even as the South that Badger fans once denigrated has made strides toward integration? Why has Wisconsin chosen mass incarceration over public education? Why are protestors marching for equality in Wisconsin—whether in 1967 or 2020—met with counterprotests and even violence? Why do so many Wisconsinites apparently need a sort of second-class citizen to look down upon? And what does the “Wisconsin Idea” that the University of Wisconsin so proudly trumpets really stand for if the UW community does not prioritize equality and progress for all people across the state, regardless of skin color?


Individuals are not often taught to think of themselves as sources of historical knowledge, but they are. Individuals hold intimate knowledge of their campus, their neighborhoods, and their communities. That is why we want to hear from you. We believe that this project will be the most successful when it deeply engages all of those in our community. If you have a story to share, an event you think should be researched, or a person you think has been overlooked, please contact us. publichistoryproject@wisc.edu

[1] Kaz Oshiki, “Race Ban Blocks 2 Games,” Capital Times (Madison, WI), July 19, 1956.

[2]22nd Annual Sugar Bowl Classic – January 2, 1956,” AllstateSugarBowl.org, accessed December 1, 2020.

[3] Gene Collier, “Collier: Bobby Grier and Pitt Lost That Day but Won So Much More,” last modified November 2, 2013.

[4] Collier.

[5] Richard Carlton Haney, “Cancelled Due to Racism,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 92, no. 1 (2008): 46-47, accessed November 9, 2020.

[6] Haney, 47.

[7] Haney, 47.

[8] Haney, 47.

[9] Oshiki.

[10] Gregory Bond, “1956, Football Game Cancelled at Louisiana State,” accessed November 16, 2020.

[11] Haney, 50.

[12] Haney, 49–50.

[13] “Segregation,” Daily Cardinal (Madison, WI), October 4, 1958.

[14] “Segregation,” Daily Cardinal.

[15] “Segregation,” Daily Cardinal.

[16] “Segregation,” Daily Cardinal.

[17] “Segregation,” Daily Cardinal.

[18]Celebrating Black History,” UWBadgers.com, accessed December 1, 2020.

[19] “Segregate Cagers in Texas Saturday,” Daily Cardinal (Madison, WI), December 10, 1958.

[20] “Segregate Cagers,” Daily Cardinal.

[21] “Segregate Cagers,” Daily Cardinal.

[22] “Segregate Cagers,” Daily Cardinal.

[23] “Athletic Board… Praiseworthy Policy,” Daily Cardinal (Madison, WI), January 6, 1959.

[24] “Senate May Consider Bias on Houston Basketball Trip,” Daily Cardinal (Madison, WI), December 16, 1958.

[25] “Senate May Consider Bias,” Daily Cardinal.

[26] Judy Stiehm, letter to the editor, Daily Cardinal (Madison, WI), December 12, 1958.

[27] Executive Committee of the Wisconsin Socialist Club, letter to the editor, Daily Cardinal (Madison, WI), December 18, 1958.

[28] Executive Committee, Daily Cardinal.

[29]Black History in Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Historical Society, accessed November 17, 2020.

[30]The Legacy of Milwaukee’s Redlining Continues to Shape Racial Segregation,” Milwaukee Independent, March 5, 2019.

[31] “Segregation Here, Too,” letter to the editor, Daily Cardinal, December 19, 1958.

[32] Harriet Toozman, letter to the editor, Daily Cardinal (Madison, WI), December 19, 1958.

[33] Toozman, Daily Cardinal.

[34] “Black History in Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Historical Society.

[35]School Desegregation,” UW–Milwaukee, accessed November 16, 2020.

[36] “Black History in Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Historical Society.

[37] William H. Frey, “Black-White Segregation Edges Downward Since 2000, Census Shows,” December 17, 2018.

[38] Frey.

[39] Frey.

[40] Talis Shelbourne, “UWM Study on the State of Black Milwaukee Describes the City as ‘the Epitome of a 21st Century Racial Regime,’” July 24, 2020.

[41] Shelbourne.