Lafayette declined an invitation to compete in the 1949 Sun Bowl football game because David Showell '51, a black Army Air Corps veteran, would be barred from playing. The incident widely exposed the exclusion of African American players from most college bowl games, and the College's action helped spur a policy change: three years later the first integrated Sun Bowl game was played.
The year 1998 marked the 50th anniversary of a controversial decision that knocked Lafayette out of the running to play in the Sun Bowl football classic in El Paso, Texas, on New Year's Day 1949.
Lafayette had been invited to play in the prestigious event, but on Nov. 23, 1948, word filtered out that the faculty had voted not to send the Leopard team. According to an article by Charles H. Martin, a University of Texas-El Paso history professor, "nearly 1,500 concerned young men marched to the nearby home of the school's president, Dr. Ralph C. Hutchinson, to demand an explanation."
In an article entitled "Integrating New Year's Day: The Racial Politics of College Bowl Games in the American South," published in the fall 1997 edition of Journal of Sport History, Martin says that Hutchinson defended the decision on the grounds that the game's organizers would have barred halfback David A. Showell '51, a black Army Air Corps veteran, from playing.
Martin's article says the students then urged Hutchinson to inform Sun Bowl officials that the college still wished to participate, but only if Showell could play.
Hutchinson reversed the faculty decision and telephoned the Sun Bowl selection committee's chairman, only to be informed that Showell couldn't play and another team already had been contacted.
The students then marched to downtown Easton, where they held an orderly protest and telegraphed President Truman, denouncing the Sun Bowl's action. The next day, they adopted resolutions condemning intolerance in American society and endorsing the principle that "all Americans have equal rights under the law," Martin writes.
What about Showell, who reportedly offered to stay home rather than deny the team a chance to play? Roland Brown '49, who served with Showell in the military, remembers him fondly.
Brown says Showell went on to the University of Wisconsin Law School after he graduated from Lafayette in 1951, and would visit him and his wife, Mary, every year around the holidays, until one Christmas he didn't show up. Brown later heard that Showell was cut off by another driver while on break from school. Brown says Showell swerved to avoid the other car but lost control and was killed in the ensuing crash. A handwritten notation in a copy of the 1964 Alumni Directory in the College archives indicates Showell died Dec. 23, 1955, at the age of 31.