Every Stick Has a Story: Lucien Alexis Jr. and Harvard's Race Awakening


This article originally appeared in the April 2016 edition of then-Lacrosse Magazine. It is republished here in recognition of Black History Month. Watch the video here or embedded below.

You never know what you will learn. An eBay purchase took Jason Ellison, an avid lacrosse stick collector, on a journey of discovery. Of a man he quickly learned to respect. Of a game, played 75 years ago this month at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., that ultimately carried more significance because of the one Harvard student who was told he could not take the field.

“Undergraduates Protest Action of Barring Negro from Lacrosse Contest,” read one newspaper headline after a 1941 game between Harvard and Navy. Lucien Alexis Jr. was on a train bound north of the Mason-Dixon Line because of a decision made south of it.

A stick Ellison found online, decades later, revealed the story.

There it was, being auctioned off last spring as part of an estate sale. The wooden stick, circa 1930s or 40s, was part of a pair. Ellison is a former Hobart player who owns Tama Lacrosse stores in Colorado and Illinois. He loves lacrosse history and old artifacts. He linked the stick listing with another of an early 20th century Bacharach Rasin leather helmet. Crimson and white. Could the seller tell him whom they originally belonged to? Yes, a man named W.W. Fenn.

Googling ensued. William Wallace “Wally” Fenn died on Jan. 7, 2014, at the age of 93 in New London, Conn.

Fenn’s obituary described him as a 1942 Harvard graduate who played lacrosse and in the university band. A World War II vet. Electrical engineer. Husband of 67 years. Father of three. Later in life, after a change of heart while working for a weapons company during the Vietnam War, he became a research analyst at a hospital. He volunteered at food pantries. At 90, Fenn danced for the final time in a traditional English troupe.

“He had a great life, was really a multi-faceted person, and had a care for humanity,” Ellison said. “I felt it was important to preserve this.”






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Ellison found Fenn’s son, Paul, online, too. They exchanged information. In a black-and-white photo of the 1941 Harvard men’s lacrosse team, the wooden stick rested between Fenn’s gloved right hand and right thigh. One row back and three men to the right stood Alexis, a New Orleans native who aspired to be a doctor. He was the Crimson’s lone black player in 1941. He was the only black student in the entire junior class.

When the lacrosse team showed up to Annapolis 75 years ago as part of a spring break trip, Admiral Russell Willson ordered the mess hall to be cleared. He approached Harvard coach Dick Snibbe to say that midshipmen would not play on the same field as a black man. The first black man did not graduate from the academy for another eight years.

Snibbe refused to play without Alexis. Harvard was prepared to forfeit the game, but athletic director William Bingham directed the coach to do as Navy said. Alexis, who played against Maryland the day before, told the team he would ride a train home that night.

“I get tears in my eyes when I think about it,” Harvard’s All-American goalie, George Hanford, told The Boston Globe.

The next day, Navy beat Harvard 12-0.

“Harvard has kowtowed to Jim-Crowism,” the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, said. Students protested on campus. Congressmen weighed in and rights groups asked for explanations.The outcry led Harvard to say no one would be left behind again.

The incident is one of many thought to have persuaded President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Harvard graduate, to sign Executive Order 8802 that prohibited racial discrimination in the defense industry and promoted that all play a role in the World War II effort. The same week Navy forced Alexis home, Duke banned a black member of Harvard’s glee club from singing in a chapel.

 

 

Fenn was Harvard’s captain the next year. In the 1942 team picture, he sits in the center, Alexis three seats to the left.

The memories never left. Years later in 1965, Paul Fenn asked his mom, Carolyn, why they were not members of a pool club in Greenwich, Conn. All of his friends were. She told him the family was on a waiting list, but the day officials from the club arrived to interview them, his father and sister weren’t home.

“They’re at a civil rights march,” Paul Fenn recalls his mom saying. “We never got invited. … My parents were both progressive thinkers. They always understood right from wrong.”

Alexis returned to New Orleans after graduation. Harvard medical school originally accepted him, but then said he could not attend because he had no other black person to room with. He became head of a small business school for black students back home. He died in 1975 at age 53.

Every stick has a story. What’s yours?

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