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Yvonne Abraham

A look at how far we’ve come on race — and yet must go

Lou Montgomery was a victim of Jim Crow cruelty while at BC.

NEWTON — It has been a rough few days for race and sports in Boston. But in the outrage over the detestable behavior of Bruins fans, it’s easy to forget how much worse it once was.

Here, then, is a reminder. It’s the story of “Hulu’’ Lou Montgomery, a halfback on the Boston College team in 1939 and 1940. And of a BC alum named Mark Dullea, who wants the mistakes his alma mater made more than 70 years ago to be properly acknowledged, the school’s transgressions against its first black football player — and its own values — made right.

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“They had a chance to do the right thing, instead of the ordinary thing,’’ Dullea says. “They took the easy way out. I want this story to have a good ending.’’

Montgomery, an All-Scholastic recruited from Brockton High, was beloved at BC. Compact and elusive, the spectacular running back was a key member of the Eagles, in seasons that saw BC football finally make the big-time. In 1939, Montgomery averaged 9.7 yards a carry; in the eight games he played in 1940, he scored six touchdowns and passed for a seventh. Crowds went wild for him.

Before his era, big name institutions in the East didn’t want to play the upstart Catholic college. Ivy League schools especially didn’t want to lend BC any prestige, says Charles Martin, author of “Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in College Sports.’’ So BC, desperate to make a national name for itself, looked South for opponents, and found them.

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But segregated Southern schools refused to play teams with black players. And during the 1930s, many Northern teams agreed to bench black players rather than lose the chance for a high-profile game.

Some schools did resist attempts to impose Jim Crow cruelty: BC wasn’t one of them. The Jesuit school benched Montgomery not just for games in Southern states, but also for home games against Southern schools. He sat out six games in his junior and senior years.

“I have not found another African-American athlete in the North who was excluded by his own team from as many games as Lou Montgomery was by Boston College,’’ says Martin, a history professor at the University of Texas, El Paso. “They were willing to sacrifice their ethics concerning one African-American player in pursuit of this higher glory of national recognition.’’

When his team traveled to Dallas to play Clemson in the 1940 Cotton Bowl, Montgomery stayed behind.

A December 1939 Daily Globe article called his appearance at the Eagles send-off at South Station “the most touching incident of the occasion.’’ It described Montgomery as “the diminutive Negro halfback, who declined the Southern trip so that he wouldn’t embarrass his teammates.’’

Montgomery didn’t accompany his team “because of an old Southern custom,’’ the article went on. “So when, with tears streaming out of his eyes and with a choked voice, he mumbled to the gripped multitude, ‘I hope the fellows win,’ the entire crowd cheered him louder than anyone else present.’’

The Eagles lost. Montgomery took this exclusion, and other affronts, with gut-wrenching equanimity. This was before the civil rights era, long before a black kid from Brockton would publicly question the way things were.

In a letter to his teammates, he said he didn’t want to put himself — or them — in embarrassing situations, that his staying behind was a matter of “self-respect.’’ He expressed the hope that in the future, games in the North would be played under Northern standards.

But the next season, BC benched him again, away, against Tulane, and at home, against Auburn. “Did Jim Crow have a home in Boston? Yeah, the welcome mat was rolled right out,’’ says sports historian Richard Johnson. “Montgomery suffered in silence. There is almost a martyrdom here.’’

When, in 1941, the undefeated Eagles went to the Sugar Bowl, his coach told Montgomery he wouldn’t be allowed to play. Montgomery wanted to stay home, but Boston College urged him to attend, and so, ever the gracious teammate, he went to St Louis. From the press box, he watched BC defeat Tennessee 19-13.

After BC, Montgomery founded a semiprofessional team, then became an insurance agent. Years later, he found some of the anger he did not summon in college. In a 1987 article in Boston Magazine, he told sportswriter Glenn Stout that he didn’t think being “such a good guy . . . accomplished a damn thing.’’

“I may have done the things that were easiest on the players and on the school, but it wasn’t necessarily the best thing that should have been done,’’ he said. He converted to Catholicism after college, he said, “and then it began to hit me as to . . . what principles were involved, what principles had been bent a little.’’

A little. It was not the first, or the last, time a faith that preached inclusion and acceptance would abet discrimination. But it had particular sting at Boston College, which was founded in large part to redress the humiliations suffered by the Irish in Boston.

Montgomery, who died in California in 1993, was inducted into the Boston College Hall of Fame in 1997. His plaque, at Conte Forum, reads, in part: “Tragically, because of the segregation laws of the day, he was not allowed to participate in either post-season game.’’

For Dullea, Class of ’62, that bronze plaque isn’t nearly enough. The slight, gray-haired former urban planner, who now runs a green cleaning business, bleeds maroon and gold, as do the many alums in his family.

A couple of years ago, he began looking into Montgomery’s story, and grew increasingly distressed at the gap between the values he had been taught by the Jesuits and their treatment of the football player.

He made it his business to redress this injustice, launching a website, and pushing for a big way to pay tribute to this remarkable man.

Really big. He wants BC to rename its football stadium — now called Alumni Stadium — for Lou Montgomery.

“This would be doing the right thing,’’ Dullea says. “It would be living up to the values that Jesuits preached in the classroom and pulpit.’’

Why does he feel so strongly? A clue could be found where Dullea was standing on Friday morning, at a darkened end of Conte Forum: A few feet away from Montgomery’s, another plaque in the Hall of Fame commemorates Dullea’s uncle, the Rev. Maurice V. Dullea — a Jesuit priest and former captain of the BC football team who was a faculty moderator of athletics in 1940.

Mark Dullea doesn’t know if his uncle was directly involved in the decisions to keep Montgomery from games against Southern teams. And now that his uncle has died, it’s too late to ask him. But he was there. Maurice Dullea helped arrange for Montgomery to stay with a black family in St Louis in 1941.

In a 1983 history of the Sugar Bowl, the elder Dullea called Montgomery’s treatment “embarrassing to talk about. . . . But that’s the way things were back then.’’ He said BC officials were worried about the black player’s safety. “It was simply reality.’’

Mark Dullea sent his stadium renaming proposal to BC officials a couple of months ago, and hadn’t gotten much of a response. But Friday afternoon, a BC spokesman sent along a statement: The stadium will not be renamed. But on Sept. 1, at the first game of the season, Boston College will retire Lou Montgomery’s jersey. His will be only the eighth jersey retired in 100 years.

“Lou Montgomery was an amazing individual and a pioneer in college sports,’’ the statement read. “We have the utmost respect for him and have planned to honor him by retiring his jersey this year. Our stadium, however, is named Alumni Stadium in recognition of the contributions of all of our alumni. We trust that the inclusiveness of the name Alumni Stadium is something Lou Montgomery would support.’’

Possibly. But for Dullea, it’s not enough.

“It’s a nice gesture, but it’s a little too close to tokenism,’’ he says. “The more significant, the more visible the action that BC takes, the better they will look in the eyes of fair-minded people.’’

Dullea wants new students and campus visitors to be forced to ask, “Who was Lou Montgomery?’’ He wants them to learn a hard truth from one of this country’s bleakest moments: That a halfback from Brockton did a better job of living up to Jesuit values than the Jesuits did.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com
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