Spirit of Rowan 2022: Livingstone part of historic first Black college’s football game

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 27, 2022

SALISBURY — History was made on a snowy December day in 1892.

Two groups of men gathered on the front lawn of the Livingstone College campus and — despite heavy snow from a recent storm — played the first game of football between Black colleges in American history.

My how things have changed since that first game on the lawn. Last year, Livingstone began work on a $2.8 million project to upgrade its facilities so when Johnson C. Smith University arrives for the next matchup in Salisbury, it will be in a newly remodeled stadium with a field converted from grass to synthetic turf in Livingstone blue.

For the original game, team members had to come up with money to purchase a regulation football. The players equipped their street shoes with cleats, removing them after practice, while the young women of the Livingstone’s industrial department made uniforms for both teams. Players from Biddle Memorial Institute, now Johnson C. Smith, traveled by horse and buggy to Salisbury.

The game featured two 45-minute halves. W.J. Trent, who later became the longest-serving president of Livingstone College, was on the original Livingstone team and scored its only touchdown on a fumble recovery. However, no point was awarded as snow had covered the field’s markings and referees argued that the fumble was recovered out of bounds. That gave Johnson C. Smith the victory 5-0.

A celebration of that historic game between Livingstone and Johnson C. Smith is marked every year as historic Black colleges gather for football. In 2009, the schools revived the tradition and now play a Commemorative Classic game at Livingstone each year. Local proclamations named the week of Oct. 29 through Nov. 4 as Commemorative Black College Football Week. In 2017, Gov. Roy Cooper proclaimed the September through November football season as the 125th anniversary of Black college football in North Carolina.

That first football game led to a lot of opportunities for a lot of people, including Pro Football Hall of Famer Willie Lanier.

“Livingstone College is where it all began,” Lanier said last fall when he came to Salisbury. “What occurred on Livingstone’s front lawn nearly 130 years ago paved the way for people like me.”