Breaking Barriers: W&J remembers legendary athlete who changed the game for African-Americans in collegiate sports

Standing in the location where Charles “Pruner” West played football for the Presidents 90 years ago, Michael Nickens, Linda West Nickens and Crystal Nickens proudly hold onto a photo of their father and grandfather.

As the Presidents kicked off their 120th football season in September, Washington & Jefferson College paused to honor the memory of a player who advanced the role of African-Americans in collegiate sports.

Charles “Pruner” West ’24 led the Presidents to their only Rose Bowl appearance in 1922 against the University of California Golden Bears, becoming the first African-American quarterback to play in the nation’s oldest bowl game.

According to his daughter, Linda West Nickens, West had been a halfback at the time, but was asked to play quarterback when the starter was injured. “It was kind of a ‘fill-in’ thing, but my father rose to the occasion,” she said.

West, who also excelled at track and field, rose to the occasion at a number of athletic events during his W&J career. He earned the title of a two-time National Collegiate Pentathlon Champion—a feat no W&J athlete had accomplished before—and was named to the 1924 Olympic team, though he did not get to participate due to an injury.

In recognition of West’s contributions, Dana Brooks, dean and professor of physical education at West Virginia University, presented W&J with a poster of West during a dedication ceremony at the U. Grant Miller Library. Brooks, who first read about West when teaching a course on African-Americans in sports, was impressed with the student-athlete’s accomplishments on and off the field. Referring to the bigotry that West endured in the pre-Civil Rights era, Brooks said the aspiring physician remained “humble, successful and talented.”

The ceremony was attended by members of West’s family, including Nickens and her children, Michael West Nickens and Crystal Nickens. “How fitting that you should choose to further spread my father’s story at a time when the country is honoring the great American, Martin Luther King Jr., with a statue on the Washington D.C. Mall,” said Nickens, who proudly called her father a “pioneer.” “He confronted racial barriers not only in football, but also in the medical field.”

At W&J, West is best known for his involvement in a legendary 1923 match between the Presidents and the Washington & Lee Generals. It was the tradition of the Southern school, at the time, to request that Northern teams bench their African-American players.

When Bob “Mother” Murphy, W&J’s athletic director, approached his star player about their opponent’s demands, West voiced his frustration. “They left it up to me and asked how I felt about it,” West later wrote. “I told them, well, there’s no way I can stop you from playing without me, but if you do, I’ll never play another game for W&J.” This prompted Murphy to tell the Generals, “W&J does not play without Pruner West.”As a result, the Presidents paid the Generals a portion of the proceeds that would have come from ticket sales and dropped out of the game.

What generally was unknown at the time was that W&J made the decision knowing that West had a sprained ankle and would not have been able to play. “For W&J, it wasn’t about the color of West’s skin, it was about his skill and ability,” Alexis Rittenberger, director of library services at W&J, said. The decision gained the support of not just the College, but the entire town of Washington. “On Oct. 9, 1923, the Observer-Reporter wrote, ‘It is the business of the College to broaden mind and develop character, and it falls short of its true mission if it cannot recognize work beneath a dark skin,’” Rittenberger read at the dedication ceremony. “This is what we’re here to celebrate today.”

It is a story repeated at the start of each academic year at W&J by President Tori Haring-Smith, who uses the Presidents’ decision in 1921 as an example of how the College demonstrates “uncommon integrity.” “If you stop any student on campus, they’ll be able to tell you the story of that game,” Haring-Smith told West’s family. “Your father was one of those people who, through virtue of his incredible intellect, humanitarian spirit and athletic ability, became a role model for us.”

Nickens recalls the countless times her father recounted the story to her while growing up in Alexandria, Va., where West practiced general medicine for 50 years. “My father was always just grateful, so grateful, for the stand Mr. Murphy took against Washington & Lee,” Nickens said of West, who shared the compassion he received from his W&J teammates with the patients he treated at his practice. “He was a real humanitarian, treating all groups regardless of their ability to pay,” she said.

West, who received his medical degree from Howard University after turning down a contract to play professional football with the Akron Pros, was presented with the Distinguished Service Award from W&J in 1978 for his dedication as a doctor. Today, a black-and-white banner of West throwing the javelin hangs proudly in the Towler Hall of Fame alongside other timeless images of W&J’s legendary athletes. “We will keep the story of Charles West alive,” Haring-Smith promised West’s family at the ceremony. “We will pledge to do that, because he is such a vital part of our College’s history.”

-Allyson Gilmore ’12