When you look at Yale’s football stats from 1949, one name stands out.
“It’s pretty amazing what Levi did less than two years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball,” said Yale football head coach Tony Reno.
Levi Jackson was the first African-American football player in the school’s history and in 1949, he was named the team’s first black captain.
“I can’t imagine the difficulty it took and the pride and the toughness, mental and physical toughness to do what he did,” said Reno.
Jackson grew up in New Haven and played high school football and basketball at Hillhouse High School. He excelled off the field as well, graduating from Yale with majors in sociology, psychology and economics before beginning a 33-year career with the Ford Motor Company.
“A great example for our players of having the ability to not only be exceptional while you’re at Yale but also go on and no matter what the odds and what hasn’t been done before, if you put your mind to it, you can do it yourself,” Reno said.
Jackson made history but he wasn’t the first African-American varsity athlete at Yale. That was basketball player Jay Swift in 1944.
“Any time you’re a first, especially as an African-American, it’s a tremendous honor,” said Yale men’s basketball head coach James Jones. “I’m sure he’s happy to have set the groundwork for all of us who have come after him.”
James Jones is on the of those following in Swift’s footsteps. He is the first African-American men’s basketball head coach at Yale.
“It has to start somewhere and it started with him. Without him, I don’t know if there’s a me,” Jones said.
“Yale is a place of firsts,” added Athletic Director Vicky Chun. “Just in my position, the first minority female to be the director of athletics at Yale.”
Decades after breaking down barriers, Jackson and Swift are still inspiring positive change.
“We look back at Levi Jackson and every time we walk on the field we want to make them proud,” said Reno.
“What they’ve done is extraordinary,” said Chun. “We have to kind of let history and opportunity appear and support those so it’s not such a brave and lonely experience.”