WSW: The Man Who Broke The Color Barrier For Western Michigan Football

Aug 31, 2017

Sam Dunlap
Credit Courtesy of Western Michigan University

Notre Dame’s legendary coach Knute Rockne said he had never seen a better punter than Sam Dunlap. Fielding Yost said his University of Michigan team couldn’t slow Dunlap down, much less stop him at running back.


Dunlap broke the color barrier by playing football for what was then Western State Normal School in 1915 through 1917 and again in 1919. This past summer members of Dunlap’s family came to Western Michigan University to remember his place in school history. Historian Tom Dietz, Curator Emeritus for the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, says Dunlap was a standout star from Benton Harbor, and was recruited by University of Michigan. But before he could play a game for the Wolverines, it was discovered that Dunlap “didn’t fit their profile.” That is to say, an African American.

That brought Dunlap to Kalamazoo. Dietz says Western’s president Dwight Waldo was an enthusiastic supporter of sports, and football in particular. He says the story has always been that Waldo supported Dunlap when he was on campus and their friendship continued after Dunlap graduated from Western.

In one case, Culver Military Academy refused to play a team with an African-American. Dietz says Waldo left the decision to Dunlap, who decided not to play. Western responded with a lopsided win. But some racism came from Dunlap’s teammates. Dietz says coach Bill Spaulding dismissed players from the team who did not want to take the field with a black player.

Dunlap is a member of Western Michigan University’s athletic hall of fame. In addition to football, he also played baseball and competed in track and field. The one year gap in his playing record was due to World War I. Dietz After the 1917 football season, Dunlap enlisted in the Army, and he returned for the 1919 season.

After graduation, Dietz says Dunlap had trouble finding a job in athletics. He coached at a black college in West Virginia for a couple of years. Dietz says Dunlap later worked in New York City for one of the electric power companies. Dunlap eventually returned to Kalamazoo and worked at Western Michigan University, mostly in the janitorial services. He passed away in 1961.