The Ghosts of Rollins
(and Other Skeletons in the Closet)
By Mary Seymour ’80
The Football Game That Wasn’t
Here’s a trivia challenge: What was the final score of the Ohio Wesleyan-Rollins football game in November 1947?
If you guessed two numbers, you were wrong. In fact, there was no score because there was no game.
In fall 1947, Rollins’ football schedule included a November 28 homecoming game with Ohio Wesleyan University (OWU). Homecoming was the social event of the season, and the Rollins-Ohio Wesleyan game was to be the pinnacle.
Several weeks before the game, it became known that OWU’s football team included an African-American player named Kenneth Woodward. Rollins President Hamilton Holt, a progressive who advocated diversity and acceptance, regretfully acknowledged that a black player on the field would create a firestorm in the Deep South—especially since the game was to be played in Orlando Stadium, managed by the staunchly conservative American Legion. Furthermore, Holt and other Rollins administrators were told in no uncertain terms that if an African-American player placed even one cleated foot in Orlando Stadium, trouble would ensue.
Arthur Enyart, who served as Dean of Men at Rollins, happened to be an OWU graduate. At Holt’s behest, he wrote a letter to authorities at his alma mater, explaining Rollins administrators’ fear that a racial crisis might ensue if Woodward played in Orlando Stadium. The president of Ohio Wesleyan’s student body presented Enyart’s arguments to the student council, which voted 1,500-20 to leave Woodward out of the November 28 game.
Problem solved, it seemed. Except Ohio Wesleyan’s trustees caught wind of the kerfuffle and were understandably indignant that Woodward was being benched because of his skin color. The OWU trustee who blew the whistle was Branch Rickey, the Dodgers manager who had put Jackie Robinson on the field in the summer of 1947, making him the first African-American major league baseball player. After taking all sorts of abuse for that move, Rickey wasn’t going to stand by while Rollins excluded an African-American OWU student from the game. The Ohio Wesleyan trustees voted to allow Woodward to go to Florida and play against Rollins. The hard-working Dean Enyart flew up to Ohio to try to negotiate a mutually agreeable outcome, but his efforts failed.
The matter had become its own kind of football match, with trustees of both institutions passing the ball and executing offensive maneuvers. The Rollins board of trustees relentlessly pressured President Holt to ditch the homecoming game. On November 24, the Rollins student council voted unanimously to cancel the Ohio Wesleyan game.
Four days later, President Holt gathered Rollins students and faculty in the Annie Russell Theatre and spoke at length of the nearly impossible decisions leading up to the game’s cancellation. His liberal heart was clearly in tatters.
May I say this to you students; you will probably have critical decisions like this to make as you go through life—decisions that whatever you do, you will be misinterpreted, misunderstood, and reviled….It seemed to all of us that our loyalties to Rollins and its ideals were not to precipitate a crisis that might and probably would promote bad race relations, but to work quietly for better race relations, hoping and believing that time would be on our side.
And so Orlando Stadium stayed empty November 28, free of possible turmoil as well as the opportunity to advance civil rights for African-Americans. As for Kenneth Woodward, he graduated from Ohio Wesleyan (later serving as a trustee), went to medical school, and led a distinguished career as a doctor, administrator, and teacher until his death in 1996.
A Platform of Equal Rights
President Hamilton Holt, a committed champion of equal rights, was deeply disturbed by the Rollins board of trustees’ decision to cancel the 1947 Rollins-Ohio Wesleyan football game rather than allow an African-American player on the field. Not one to roll over when it came to fair principles, Holt immediately turned around and offered educator and civil-rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune an honorary degree.
When the trustees caught wind of his plan to put an African-American on the commencement platform—something no private college in Florida had ever done—they put their collective feet down.
Holt had to inform Bethune that the board refused to recognize her. “I’m going to give you the degree anyway,” Holt tearfully told her.
She looked at him with the wisdom of hard experience. “Dr. Holt, what you stand for and what you do is so important, I’m not going to let you risk your leadership at Rollins. I decline the degree.”
Holt found his own way to stick to his principles. At commencement June 2, 1948, he conferred the Decoration of Honor on Susan Wesley, an African-American housemaid who had worked at Cloverleaf Cottage since 1924, helping nearly 1,500 freshman girls through the ups and downs of college life. With all eyes on her—including the trustees’—she proudly stood on the commencement platform to receive the honor.
The following year, Holt presided over his last convocation before retiring from Rollins. He may have lost some battles with the trustees, but that day he won the war: Holt awarded Mary McLeod Bethune an honorary doctorate for her groundbreaking work on behalf of integration and civil rights, making Rollins the first institution of higher learning in the South to award an honorary degree to an African-American.
Prime Beach Property
If you poke around the flowerbeds next to the Beal-Maltbie Building, you’ll come across the final resting place of Mr. and Mrs. Rex Beach. A marble slab obscured by bushes marks the place where the Beaches’ ashes lie.
Though his reputation is equally obscure today, Beach was once the literary sensation of America. A member of Rollins’ Class of 1897, he prospected for gold in the Klondike and discovered a far greater fortune in the written word. He penned a novel, The Spoilers, drawing on his experiences in Alaska; it became one of the best-selling novels of 1906 and was made into a movie five times, with one version starring John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich. He went on to write 33 novels, hundreds of articles, and two plays. In 1907 he married Greta Edith Crater, future sister-in-law of the actor Fred Stone, for whom the Rollins black box theater is named.
Although Beach never graduated from Rollins—he left in 1896 after two years to enter law school—the College awarded him two honorary degrees. He served as president of the Rollins Alumni Association from 1927 to 1940.
In middle age, Beach bought 7,000 acres of wilderness near Sebring, Florida, where he launched a successful farming business and made a second fortune raising gladiolus bulbs. His eyesight faded in his later years, and he developed throat cancer. When his wife died in 1947, Beach became profoundly depressed: he shot himself two years later at his home in Sebring. His ashes were combined with his wife’s and buried near the Beal-Maltbie Building, where flowers shelter their quiet, semi-hidden plot.