Vermont Black History Month

William Matthews: ‘the Jackie Robinson of his age’

Lawyer campaigned for Calvin Coolidge, appointed assistant U.S. Attorney General

William Matthews photo credit Vermont Historical Society

Republished from Vermont Historical Society Black History Database

On July 4, 1905, William Matthews started at second base for the Burlington Baseball Team of the Northern League. This assignment made him the only black player in all of professional baseball, with later historians calling him “the Jackie Robinson of his age.” Matthews went on to a successful law career, eventually serving as an assistant U.S. Attorney General in the Coolidge administration.

William Clarence Matthews was born in Selma, Alabama and attended Tuskegee Institute under the direction of Booker T. Washington. Washington help Matthews gain admittance to Philips Andover Academy, where he was the only black student, and later Harvard University. At all three schools Matthews showed great skill at baseball, ultimately starting at short stop all four years at Harvard.

The summer after graduating Harvard, William Matthews was hired by the Burlington Baseball Club to be their starting second baseman in the Northern League. On July 4, 1905, he stepped onto the diamond at the old Burlington Athletic Field and broke the color barrier in professional baseball. He played the entire season and endured racism from fans and other players alike. When playing some teams, his manager had to move him to the outfield so that he wouldn’t be intentionally spiked by white players sliding into second base. Players of southern background refused to take the field against him. During that summer, a rumor started that he would be hired to play for Boston’s National League team, the Boston Beaneaters. This quickly ended when a number of southern teams stated they would refuse to play if he was hired.

That fall, Matthews left professional baseball to enroll at Boston University School of Law. He coached high school teams in Boston to put himself through school and ultimately passed the bar exam in 1908.

William Matthews served as the U.S. Attorney for Boston and the legal advisor to Marcus Garvey. When Calvin Coolidge ran for his first full-term as president, Matthews worked enthusiastically on his campaign. He was appointed an assistant attorney general and tried a number of high-profile cases before dying tragically of a perforated ulcer in 1928 at only 51 years old.
Tuskegee Institute.

1 reply »

  1. The article, William Matthews: ‘the Jackie Robinson of his age’, is a gem of history! Thank you for sharing!

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