CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – As part of Harvard University football’s matchup with No. 23 Princeton University on Friday, Oct. 21 at 7:00 p.m. (ESPNU), the Crimson will recognize Dr. Charles Pierce ’48, M.D. ’52 – a standout tackle on the Harvard football team who became the first Black student-athlete to play against a then all-white college south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
In recognition of the 75th anniversary of that game against Virginia in 1947, Harvard will honor the family of Dr. Pierce during the first quarter alongside a video tribute and give commemorative t-shirts to the first 500 fans in attendance. The Crimson also created a display exhibit in the Murr Center Hall of History in recognition of Dr. Pierce and has worked closely with author and documentary film maker Gloria Respress-Churchwell in telling Dr. Pierce’s story.
Chester Middlebrook Pierce ’48, M.D. ’52: A Brief Biography of a Trailblazer
Dr. Chester Middlebrook Pierce ’48, M.D. ’52 was a standout tackle on the Harvard football team who became the first Black student-athlete to play against a then all-white college south of the Mason-Dixon Line before going on to a distinguished career as a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Professor of Education at Harvard, and as a member of the faculty at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Born on March 4, 1927 in Glen Cove, New York, Chester “Chet” Pierce became the first Black senior class president of Glen Cove High School prior to attending at Harvard. While at Harvard, Dr. Pierce competed for the Crimson’s football, basketball, and lacrosse teams. A standout 6-foot-4-inch, 235-pound, two-way tackle for the Crimson’s football team, he earned varsity letters during the 1946 and 1947 seasons.
During the Jim Crow era, white institutions in the South followed an unwritten rule in which they did not permit Black student-athletes to compete when integrated teams traveled to the South and would correspondingly sit one of their own white players of similar talent. During the 1947 season, Harvard athletic director Bill Bingham, football head coach Dick Harlow, Dr. Pierce, and his Crimson teammates challenged that notion, insisting that Dr. Pierce travel with the team to Charlottesville.
On October 11, 1947, Dr. Pierce made history as the first Black student-athlete to play against a then all-white institution south of the Mason-Dixon Line when Harvard played at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. During the trip – which received national news coverage – 22 members of the Crimson accompanied Dr. Pierce to a separate mansion behind the main property when a Charlottesville hotel manager denied Dr. Pierce entry, all of the Crimson used the rear entry to a local restaurant when the owner would not permit Dr. Pierce to use the front door, and when entering the stadium Harlow ran in alongside Dr. Pierce to shield him should any fans throw debris in his direction.
At Harvard Medical School, Dr. Pierce was one of 85 Black students to enter the medical school prior to affirmative action from 1850-1968, standing as part of an even smaller group to leave the school with medical degrees.
After medical school, Dr. Pierce spent much of his career as a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital where he was revered as a brilliant, scholarly, kind, and humble professor. Considered a visionary in the field of global mental health, he coined the term “microaggressions” – also now known as identity-related aggressions.
Dr. Pierce published more than 180 books, articles, and reviews, primarily on extreme environments, racism, media, and sports medicine. He lectured on all seven continents and spoke at more than 100 colleges and universities in the United States.
During his distinguished career, Dr. Pierce served as President of both the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and the American Orthopsychiatric Association. He was on The Carter Center Mental Health Task Force from 2001 -04 and was the founding president of Black Psychiatrists of America Association and National Chairperson of the Child Development Associate Consortium.
Following his days at Harvard, Dr. Pierce’s impact also extended beyond the classroom. Dr. Pierce served in the U.S. military, holding the rank of Commander in the U.S. Navy. He was a
a senior consultant to the Surgeon General of the U.S. Air Force, the Children’s Television Network – most famously with his work on Sesame Street – the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, the Peace Corps, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Dr. Pierce’s career and accomplishments have gained him deserved recognition. Sixty years after Dr. Pierce played against the Cavaliers in Charlottesville, on October 1, 2007, the University of Virginia awarded him the Vivian Pinn Distinguished Lecturer’s Award, which honors lifetime achievement in the field of health disparities. In 2010, Harvard unveiled a portrait of Dr. Pierce in the Junior Common Room of Lowell House – Dr. Pierce’s residence hall as a student – as part of the Harvard Foundation’s Portraiture Project, an effort to reflect the diversity of individuals who have served Harvard.
Dr. Pierce’s legacy continues. The Chester M. Pierce, MD Division of Global Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital was renamed in his honor in 2009. Pierce Peak in Antarctica bears his name as Dr. Pierce made several professional trips to the continent. He was the subject of a book entitled Race and Excellence: My Dialogue with Chester Pierce by Ezra E.H. Griffith in 1998 and the subject of the children’s book Follow Chester! A College Football Team Fights Racism and Makes History by Gloria Respress-Churchwell in 2019.
Quotes on Dr. Pierce
“It was no big deal and took no courage by me. Historically the time was right, among all of America’s changes after World War II, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. That it happened then and there was a tribute to Harvard.” – Dr. Chester M. Pierce ’48, M.D. ’52 reflecting on the Virginia game in the New York Times on October 5, 1997
“His accomplishments are staggering, but that’s not what defines Chet for me. There are individuals who inspire us by their deeds; there are individuals who inspire us by their character and moral force. Chet is both.” — Jerrold F. Rosenbaum, MD, Chief of Psychiatry upon the renaming of the The Chester M. Pierce, MD Division of Global Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2009
“He was a remarkable, remarkable human being. He was the epitome of manhood. He was the kind of guy you wanted to grow up to be. For a man with such talent and accomplishments, he was also the most modest man. He was humble about his contributions, which were many.” – Gregory Fricchione, Director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Psychiatry Division
“We came out of the field house, and it was almost like a gantlet of people we had to run through. And all these little black kids were reaching out, trying to touch Chester. He was just such a fantastic role model.” – James B. Kenary ’50, Harvard quarterback, on the 1947 Virginia game in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in 1997
“Chet Pierce is a dear, dear friend of mine and an elegant guy. He is an exceptional person.” – Jim Fenn ’48, a starting guard on the 1947 team, on Dr. Pierce in 2010
“It was a big deal. We all respected him. He was a very dignified fellow, and he was much more of a gentleman than anyone else on the team.” – Alan Stone ’50, Dr. Pierce’s
backup as a sophomore in 1947 and a fellow psychiatrist, on Dr. Pierce in 2010