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William Beckett broke racial barriers as Springfield College’s first graduate

By Cait Kemp

In the basement of Judd Gymnasia, the first building made on the new land that was bought for the YMCA Training School in Springfield, Mass., a different world can be found. Walk downstairs and find yourself in the depths of Springfield College history – the College’s own little museum.

The light and airy room transports you into something unlike any of the other buildings on campus. Despite Springfield College’s smaller size, both the campus and the student body, it is a well-known place and has been throughout time, giving it a rich history to be accounted for in this little basement museum.

As you wander through the museum, photographs accompanying descriptions of important people, places and events can be seen lining the walls.

Relics of the past can be found behind glass cases: Freshmen beanies from the earliest classes, a collection of unique steins, original documents telling the origin stories of the College. A little piece of each memorable event was frozen in time and placed in this basement for the future generations to appreciate.

On one wall there is a visual timeline, taking visitors through the most notable events of the College. Next to 1890 is a photo of Amos Alonzo Stagg, the man who introduced football to Springfield College. The year 1891 marks the beginning of basketball, with a picture of James Naismith holding the original peach basket and ball.

Further down the line, a headshot of John F. Kennedy is displayed next to 1956, when he gave a commencement speech during the time he was a U.S. Senator. The year 1964 shows Martin Luther King Jr., another famous figure who was a Springfield College commencement speaker. In between these legendary individuals who all share Springfield College as a common thread, there is a photo of a less recognizable man.

The year etched next to this photo is 1906. The photo is of a man named William Beckett.

Unlike many of the other figures on the wall and around the museum, this mention is the only one he receives. There is an entire display case dedicated to Naismith and locations around campus are named for other notable alumni like Stagg.

But for Beckett, this one-liner on the wall is all he has.

Beckett is present in the museum for being a part of the first graduating class to receive four-year degrees in 1906, back when the College was a YMCA Training School. His name is engraved in Springfield College history, as he is credited as the first graduate, a Black man, of Springfield College to receive a diploma. The funny thing is – he was the first by coincidence. His surname, “Beckett,” fell at the beginning of the list. Despite it being the luck of having an alphabetical advantage, Beckett proved himself worthy of the recognition as a Black man excelling at an institution during a time when people of color faced frequent discrimination.

America’s history is built on a basis of racism. From its earliest days, the nation depended on a hierarchy for the society to function the way people in power wanted it to. It started with the crusade of native land and unleashing violence upon the Native Americans who had occupied the land for thousands of years. Soon, other sources were needed by the new Americans to take on the labor force and the Atlantic Slave Trade began, bringing millions of African people to the new land to serve as slaves. The fight to free slaves was a long battle, and was more difficult in some states than others.

The debate over slavery was fought out on the biggest stage with the Civil War and eventually was outlawed throughout the nation. Yet Black people were still seen as lesser than by many of the white people who controlled the country. Moving forward throughout history, race relations improved in some way, but race has been and continues to be a major issue.

The 1896 landmark court case of Plessy v. Ferguson ruled that “separate but equal,” facilities were constitutional, setting the standard that segregation is OK as long as both parties have fair situations. This was easily avoided, as there were no regulations that were followed and quickly, the Black standard became much worse than the white. The disparities between segregated schools was one of the biggest issues and received attention widely in the media. Schools, restaurants, public bathrooms and even water fountains were segregated, and often, if not always, it was clear which were designated for white people and which were given to Black people.

At the turn of the century in 1900, the nation still stood divided on the issue of race. The South remained hard-set on the segregation of Black people, while the North had a generally more progressive outlook. Brown v. Board of Education didn’t come until 1954, half a century later, outlawing segregation in schools across the country.

Many schools in the North were integrated much before the ruling of Brown v. Board, setting a very different scene than the one that could be experienced in the south. Massachusetts saw some of the first integrated schools, after the family of student Sarah Roberts sued Boston in 1849 for being required to attend a segregated Black school despite there being several other schools situated on her route each day.

The Massachusetts state legislature outlawed segregation of schools in 1855. For the course of racism, this was something that was practically unheard of in other areas in the country. However, getting to go to an institution alongside people of different backgrounds was something that not many students did get to experience in the early 1900s.

In those early years of the 20th century, the Young Men’s Christian Association training school was home to a fraternity of boys who were looking to become men. The school was the quintessential institution at the time, with a group of men who enjoyed partaking in football, baseball, music and friendly pranks with peers. It was what one would imagine a school in the 1900s would be, like something out of an old-time movie.

It wasn’t until 1906 that students at the YMCA training school, or “old T.S.” as the students fondly referred to it, could graduate with an official diploma and degree in their field. The group of men who were a part of this original graduating class were from a variety of backgrounds and upbringings. The class represented four countries and over a dozen states, but the bond of the YMCA brought them together in the little speck of the world known as Springfield, Massachusetts.

After these men worked through their four years at “old T.S.,” it was time for them to graduate. By sheer coincidence of alphabetical order, the first name called and the first person to receive their diploma was William Beckett.

Despite the racial culture of the country during this era, it did not stop Beckett from living up to his label as the first graduate of Springfield College. This was unimaginable to some that not only one but two Black men, the other being Walter Giles, were a part of a predominantly white institution’s inaugural graduating class of 24 men. But Beckett was not only a part of the class, he was highly involved during his four years and went on to make a difference in the Black community.

According to the Massasoit yearbooks from the years Beckett was at T.S., he seemed to be involved and friendly with the other students, despite the racial barrier. Beckett was mentioned many times to be a great musician. In a poem in which each student of the graduating class was given a stanza, Beckett’s read: “Could Beckett play the piano?/ Why, man, you know full well/ You couldn’t control your tingling toe/ He played so mighty well!”

Beckett had a long and impressive career following his years at T.S. He went on to work at the Y.M.C.A. in Washington, D.C., as first the physical director and then the executive secretary. In 1917, he served the United States Army in World War I, and was discharged a year later.

His next step was Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri. It was here that Beckett helped change the lives of many young people.

“He was a builder of men first and a coach second, as he trained the many boys how to take care of themselves in life,” stated an article about Beckett in the St. Louis Argus newspaper, written when he was being honored at the 75th anniversary of Sumner High School.

Beckett used his position as the football coach to bring the ideals of T.S. into other communities, helping to support young Black men during a time when they didn’t receive much support from anyone else.

The final words of the article read: “In closing this brief story, I am hoping that I will see all of the members of the old school in the stands Saturday night when they honor ‘Pops’. That stadium should be full, so full that when he looks up, tears will roll down his cheeks in sheer happiness.”

Beckett also introduced basketball to Sumner High School and the St. Louis area, the sport that was famously created at Springfield College. He was an advocate for athletics and helped to build up the skill on and off the field and court for the students he taught.

Later on in his life, Beckett became one of the founders of the oldest Black conference in the nation: the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association. It has now become the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, which includes 12 institutions that compete in NCAA Division II athletics.

The CIAA gave Black universities the opportunity to compete at a higher level, something that was not an option prior. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, the CIAA continued to be segregated and received little attention from white popularized media, however member schools continued building up the conference to make a name for itself. Without Beckett, the CIAA wouldn’t have happened when it did, allowing the young Black men he was coaching at the high school level a chance to now go on and play competitively in college.

Beckett proved his work to be important and was seen by the greater community when in 1947 he received the Tarbell Medallion Award from Springfield College. The Tarbell Medallion began in 1934 and still exists today, honoring alumni who “demonstrated varied outstanding service over a period of time to his or her alma mater…have also demonstrated dedication to the Humanics philosophy.” This prestigious award honored Beckett for the work he did in the Midwest while supporting Springfield College and spreading its ideals around the country.

Beckett died in 1954, the same year of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling during the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout his lifetime, he experienced a world where some thought he was unworthy simply for the color of his skin.

During a time when society rejected Black people and pushed them to the outside, Beckett broke through. He made a difference in the lives of Black youth and did so through the Humanics qualities he learned at the “old T.S.” The Training School would go on to become Springfield College; with a philosophy preaching service to others, Beckett characterized what the school stood for before it became tradition. The history of what Beckett did for the school is so much more than his one line credit in the College’s timeline.

Photo Courtesy Springfield College Archives

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