Saturday, December 31, 2016

Maceo Richmond's triumph on the eve of World War I

Century-old newspapers suggest a degree of unease in Lucas County as the final hours of 1916 were counted down --- but no real sense of the cataclysm 1917 would bring. Like most Americans, our forebears were aware of the great war then sweeping Europe, but still convinced that it would be possible to avoid military engagement. 

Instead, current affairs chatter focused on Gen. John J. Pershing's unsuccessful nine-month invasion of Mexico in search of Pancho Villa, the national deficit, military preparedness as the best defense against actual war and, among the Republican majority in Iowa, the perceived horrors of Democrat Woodrow Wilson's administration.

For Chariton's youthful Maceo Richmond, however, the year had ended with personal triumph --- during the annual banquet of The Des Moines College football Tigers on Dec. 6, his teammates had unanimously elected him captain of the 1917 team. This was the first time in Iowa that such an honor had been accorded to an black man.

Maceo was a Chariton native, born March 14, 1895, to Romulus R. and Lillie L. (Green) Richmond, both of whom had been born into slavery. After graduation during the spring of 1914 from Chariton High School as both an academic and athletic standout, he enrolled at Des Moines College, a small school with a stellar academic and athletic reputation affiliated with the Northern Baptist Convention.

Maceo had played high school football in Chariton, helping to lead his teammates to a 1913 South Central Iowa championship season.  His contributions to the D.M.C. Tigers during the three seasons that followed had met and exceeded expectations.

Here's how The Chariton Herald-Patriot reported Maceo's honor in its edition of Dec. 28, 1916, under a headline that read, "First Negro Captain in Iowa."

The following article concerning a well known Chariton young man, Maceo Richmond, was contributed by Hiram Webster, editor-in-chief of the Des Moines "Twister," also reporter for the Des Moines News, and will be of interest to many friends here:

"On the evening of December 6th, 1916, the Des Moines College football team held their annual banquet in Child's hall. Thirty-three players and their guests, Dr. Faulk, Dr. Earl and Hon. M. McRae, sat down to a feast of venison, the spoils of a two-weeks' hunting trip by Dr. Faulk, a keen trapper and hunter.

After the feast, the coach, "Red" Eagen, announced that the time had come for the election of next year's captain. Secret ballot was taken and the result unanimously elected Maceo Richmond, star negro fullback, as the 1917 Tiger Captain. "Rich" has played for seven years, four at Chariton High School where he was the bug bear of all southern Iowa, and for the last three years he has held down the fullback position on the D.M.C. team.

He has always been a tower of strength, both on offense and defense. He was named as the best defensive fullback in the state by the football authorities this fall. His educated toe has added many points to the Tiger total this fall. He won the Penn game by two beautiful punts. His punts average fifty-five yards and he can pass the ball over fifty yards. But the crowning feature of his play is his cleanness. His scorn for dirty football has won him the respect of not only his own team but of his opponents as well. He has contributed much to D.M.C.'s record of being the cleanest school, athletically, in the state."

"Rich" is the first negro who ever held the captaincy of a college football team in Iowa. If anyone every deserved the captaincy it is Richmond. Watch him and the Tigers next year.


There was no 1917 season for Maceo, however --- history intervened when the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. 

After completing his junior year at D.M.C. that spring, Maceo enlisted in the still-segregated U.S. Army and won a place in the 17th Provisional Training Regiment, the first officer candidate class of African-Americans in U.S. military history. He was among some 1,250 candidates who trained that year at Fort Des Moines and after graduation and commissioning in October was assigned to 366th Infantry Regiment, a segregated unit then organizing at Camp Dodge; one of the few black units to be commanded by black officers. Maceo and his unit went on to serve with distinction in France during the "war to end all wars."


Des Moines College prospered through 1920 when, after two mergers, it became Des Moines University and relocated to and enhanced the former Highland Park College campus along Euclid Avenue in north Des Moines. Reliant upon financial support from Iowa Baptists, the new university ran into financial difficulty, however, as the equally new trend of theological fundamentalism spread into Iowa Baptist congregations. D.M.U. had been formed by moderate Baptists, employed "modernist" faculty members and did not impose strict discipline upon its students. In the hope of saving the college, financially, its trustees during 1927 added a majority of "uncompromising fundamentalist" members affiliated with the new Bible Baptist Union (predecessor to the current General Association of Regular Baptist Churches) to the board. That strategy improved the finances of the small university, but doctrinal purges of faculty members and strict rules imposed upon students resulted in great hostility. In the spring of 1929, students rioted and literally drove the chairman of the board of trustees, T.T. Shields, out of town, convinced that he would have been killed had he remained. After that, Des Moines University closed.

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