(May 12, 1902 — October 8, 1923)
Iowa State’s first African-American athlete, who suffered severe injuries during his first football game against the University of Minnesota resulting in his death. Student support raised Trice to the level of campus icon he is today.
Many aspects of Jack Trice's life will never be known, but several things are clear: his actions show that his is a story of courage, determination, and commitment, a story made all the more significant given that he lived at a time when major racial barriers stood in his way. As recalled by his contemporaries, he was an intelligent, sensitive, gracious young man, committed to doing well in his course work as well as being a highly gifted and committed athlete. Today, Jack Trice Stadium stands as testimony to this exceptional young man and his life at Iowa State and to a later generation of students who believed so strongly that his life deserved public recognition.
When celebrating the legacy of Jack Trice, it is hard in contemporary time to comprehend the racial and social barriers faced by an African-American in Iowa in 1923.
Trice, the grandson of four slaves, was raised in the surroundings of Hiram, Ohio, just 20 miles southeast of Cleveland. There is testimony that Trice was somewhat sheltered from the overt racism common in that state. Because the intensity of racial discrimination lessened as one moved north and because his home town was located in the part of Ohio least affected by the color line, Jack probably benefited from his parents' decision to locate there.
According to a childhood friend, Jack's mother believed that her son had been too sheltered and needed to be 'among people of his kind to meet the problems that a Negro boy would have to face.' Hence, Trice was sent from Hiram to live with his uncle in Cleveland, Ohio to attend high school.
In the yearbook of East Tech High School, Trice appears in the team picture of the football squad with one other African-American. In 1922, Trice's high school coach, Sam Willaman, was named head football coach at Iowa State. Willaman convinced Trice and two of his prep teammates, speedster halfbacks Johnny and Norton Behm, to follow him to Ames.
Jack was the first African-American athlete at Iowa State, competing in both football and track. He majored in animal husbandry, with the desire to go south and use his knowledge to help black farmers. In the summer after his freshman year, Trice married Cora Mae Starland. They both found jobs in order to support themselves through school.
About 20 African-Americans attended Iowa State College (now University) when Trice came to Ames. At the time, Ames was a town of 6,240 residents excluding students; a total of 34 blacks lived there. The entire population of the state of Iowa included just over 19,000 African-Americans, less than one percent of the state's population.
While not thought of as a state of pervasive racial discrimination, Trice faced many restrictions as an African-American in Iowa and at Iowa State College. African American students were not allowed to live in a school dormitory. From the school's inception, ISC was open to all races, but housing was another matter. Although not formalized in writing, the school had an unofficial policy that barred students of color from living with white students. As President Raymond Pearson wrote "Negro students are entirely welcome at this institution, they have no discourtesy shown them by fellow students or others." But he admitted "It is not always easy for a Negro student to find rooming and boarding accommodations except where there are enough to room and board together, as is the case with Filipinos and with students of other nationalities."
For Trice, employment would solve his housing problem. He had two jobs: working in State Gym and doing janitorial work at a local business. The job in the Masonic Temple building in downtown Ames included housing for Trice and his wife Cora Mae.
Longtime Iowa State athletics administrator, Merle Ross recalled Trice with the highest of regard. "Jack Trice was such a wonderful person. He was an outstanding player and an outstanding gentleman. No one ever had bad words to say about him. He was the best."
Teammate Bob Fisher recalled "As far as I know, he was just one of the fellows. There was no inkling of racism at the school." But another teammate noted that "he knew his place." No doubt, the existence of other African-Americans at Iowa State College made his time there more comfortable, as they could provide friendship and advice. Athletics provided Jack a clearly defined niche within the school.
On October 5, 1923, Jack wrote this letter in his hotel room in Minneapolis:
“My thoughts just before the first real college game of my life: The honors of my race, family, and self is at stake. Everyone is expecting me to do great things. I will. My whole body and soul are to be thrown recklessly about the field tomorrow. Every time the ball is snapped, I will be trying to do more than my part. Fight low, with your eyes open and toward the play. Watch out for crossbucks and reverse end runs. Be on your toes every minute if you expect to make good.”
On October 6, 1923, during his first football game against the University of Minnesota, he suffered severe injuries that resulted in his death. Had Trice lived past his second collegiate game, he probably would have faced additional racism due to the unwritten rule that northern schools in the Missouri Valley Conference wouldn't play their African American players against southern schools like Washington (MO) and Oklahoma.
That Trice maintained good grades and faced the responsibilities of son, husband, teammate and student should be celebrated because his life transcended the barriers of racial segregation. Today, he is an Iowa State icon.
Perhaps the plaintive grief of Anna Trice, a mother who had lost her husband and then her son can add clarity to the very human loss of this loved one. In a letter to President Pearson, Anna Trice first thanked college officials for their kindnesses and then added, “if there is anything in the life of (Jack) Trice and his career that will be an inspiration to the colored students who come to Ames, he has not lived and died in vain. But Mr. President, while I am proud of his honors, he was all I had - I am old and alone. The future is dreary and lonesome."
But Trice's legacy would be just what his mother foresaw, an inspiration to others.
In 1973, a promotion began to name Iowa State's new stadium at the Iowa State Center after Trice. In 1974, the Iowa State University Government of the Student Body unanimously voted to endorse this effort. In addition, the Jack Trice Stadium Committee compiled more than 3,000 signatures of supporters. An Iowa State University ad hoc committee voted to advise President Robert Parks to name the stadium "Cyclone Stadium." In 1984, the stadium was named "Cyclone Stadium" and the playing field was named "Jack Trice Field." The Government of the Student Body, wanting to do more to honor Trice, raised money to erect a statue of Trice in 1987. Due to the persistence of the students, alumni, faculty and staff, and other supporters, the stadium was finally named Jack Trice Stadium in 1997.
An additional tribute to Trice was added in 2009. “I Will!” an installation by renowned black artist Ed Dwight (American, b. 1935) was installed on the East Concourse of Jack Trice Stadium. In 2020, the 1988 sculpture of Trice by sculptor Christopher B. Bennett (American, born 1953) was relocated to a prominent location on central campus north of Beardshear Hall.
Excerpted largely from Dorothy Schweider’s The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice, The Annals of Iowa, Fall 2010 (Vol. 69, Number 4); edited by Katherine Svec
Jack Trice Papers, RS 21/7/23, University Archives, Iowa State University Library.
University Archives website, ISU
Digital Collections, Iowa State University Library
New York Times article “A Stadium at Iowa State Says His Name: Jack Trice” by Jeré Longman, July 20, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/20/sports/ncaafootball/Iowa-State-Jack-Trice-Stadium.html
Iowa State Daily, “Construction moves Jack Trice statue back to Central Campus” by Alex Connor. Apr 28, 2019.