On Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, the George Jewett Trophy — the first rivalry in major college football named for an African American player — debuts in Ann Arbor when the University of Michigan meets Northwestern University.
Jewett, the first Black football player in Big Ten history, played for both U-M and Northwestern; he is also the first Black high school football coach in Michigan (and, perhaps, the nation), having coached and managed Howell High School’s first football team in 1895.
The connection between Jewett and Howell surfaced recently when an 1895 broadsheet for a “Musical and Athletic Entertainment” event, laden with heavy dust from the gaslight period, was discovered in the historic Howell Opera House, which has a reputation for yielding fascinating artifacts buried within its floors and walls.
Further research at the Howell Area Archives showed that the event was an early fundraising effort for the first football team of Howell, with the proceeds covering the cost of away-game train fares and referees.
The event — which featured food, music, and a demonstration of the new game called football by head coach and emcee George Jewett — was a major success, and the team established a following, completing its inaugural season with a 3-6 win-loss record.
This early version of football encompassed a high degree of risk. The Howell players were eager to prove their toughness to their fathers and grandfathers, many of whom had fought in the Civil War. The bodies and helmet-less heads of the young men collided with regularity, and the gladiator element created both a fan base that was undeniable and a unifying school spirit.
So, how did a Black man end up in the rural, white community of Howell to start a football program from scratch?
Jewett had just earned his medical degree from Northwestern in June 1895. Incredibly handsome and well-known in Chicago for his athletic exploits via rave reviews in the Chicago Tribune, Jewett was a gifted orator of three languages, and he was often referred to as a true Renaissance man.
Jewett seemed ready to launch a new life chapter like no other Black man before. Why, then, would he arrive in Howell almost immediately after leaving Chicago?
The short answer is that Howell of the 1870s though the 1890s had a small but robust and thriving Black population.
At the end of the 19th century, Howell had various enterprises owned and managed by African Americans, and Howell High School had already produced two Black valedictorians, which was quite rare for Michigan schools of the time.
Black residents came to Howell from a straight line of migration from two Kentucky counties: Grant and Boone. Abraham Losford, a barber who was well-documented as Howell’s first Black citizen in 1854, was also a fugitive slave, which made him a desirable target for bounty hunters. Losford was so confident in the safety of the Howell community that he made dangerous, Indiana Jones-type trips back to Kentucky to bring his family and friends north.
Jewett’s parents were from Boone County, Ky., and settled in Ann Arbor. Given the influx of African Americans to this very specific area, it’s likely there is a connection between Losford and the Jewett family of Ann Arbor.
So, Howell wasn’t such a far-fetched landing spot for George Jewett, and a college football rivalry trophy named for him debuts in Ann Arbor in October.
“This is a historic moment in major college football history, said Warde Manuel, Michigan’s athletic director, in a statement. “We are proud to partner with our peer institution, Northwesten, to recognize and honor an African American pioneer in George Jewett.
“George achieved at a high level as an athlete and doctor. His hard work and effort led to success not only for himself, but for those who would follow a similar path after him. His excellence at two Big Ten institutions as a student, athlete and citizens something we want our current student-athletes to aspire to during their collegiate experience.
“The George Jewett Trophy will become a proud celebration of the importance of diversity on our teams, campuses, and in our society.”
If those who follow the story of George Jewett had one wish, it would surely be to see the trophy at the Howell Opera House, in the same room in which its namesake introduced himself to Howell 126 years ago.
Jewett’s tale is a fascinating one that has come to light from the Howell Area Archives and a dusty old broadsheet. It makes one wonder what other fascinating stories lie beneath the floor and in the walls of the historic Howell Opera House?