Sports

Bough Broke Color Barrier at St. Francis

Levi 'Yogi' Bough (Photo courtesy St. Francis College)
Levi ‘Yogi’ Bough (Photo courtesy St. Francis College)

The St. Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, men’s basketball team is red hot, having secured first place in the Northeast Conference play and gaining home court advantage throughout the upcoming playoffs.

The team has been led by guards Brent Jones and Tyreek Jewell and forward Jalen Cannon as the Terriers attempt to earn their first-ever NCAA Tournament berth. St. Francis, Army, the Citadel, Northwestern and the College of William and Mary are the only five Division I basketball teams in the country to have never made the “Big Dance.”

However, with all the success the current team has experienced, it’s important for these players to realize the opportunity they’ve been given to receive a top-notch education while also playing the sport they love at a competitive level.

Years ago, that opportunity was just a dream for African-Americans. So as celebrations of this February’s Black History Month come to a close, let’s take a look back at the man who paved the way for countless St. Francis College student-athletes to achieve their dreams.

Just a few months after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, a five-foot 11-inch, 180-pound guard named Levi Bough became the first black player in the 52-year history of St. Francis basketball.

“Yogi,” as he was affectionately known, was born in Saint Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, in 1921. At just two years old, his family migrated to the Bronx, where he attended Morris H.S. Growing up, Bough was a talented athlete, especially on the basketball court, and also excelled in his studies. He would often stay up all hours of the night studying by the light of a kerosene lamp.

He attended Virginia Union University, Richmond, Va. – a historically black university – for his freshman year of college. But just like so many African-Americans during World War II, Bough was drafted into the U.S. Army in April, 1942 and was assigned to the 761st Tank Battalion – known as the “Black Panther Tank” since it consisted of mostly black soldiers.

The battalion landed at Omaha Beach, Normandy, France, on Oct. 10, 1944, and was assigned to Gen. George Patton’s Third Army. Their fighting abilities were crucial in helping the Allied Forces invade Germany.

Bough spent a combined three years and nine months fighting in Europe. He met his wife Charlotte in Teisendorf, Germany, and upon his return to America, he received a basketball scholarship to St. Francis College. He was the oldest member of the team at 24 and was the only married player as well.

At that time, racism was much more rampant in the south than the north, so Bough was accepted fully by his teammates, including small forward Roy Reardon, currently a partner at the Simpson Thacher law firm in New York City.

Great Rebounder

 

“He (Bough) was a great leaper, great rebounder,” Reardon said. “He was a great teammate because he was always smiling and happy. He was incidentally an excellent student, really good. There was never any discrimination that I sensed either at St. Francis nor at any other place that we played.”

Prior to Reardon’s arrival however, there was an incident of racism involving Bough, as reported in the Jan. 28, 1948 issue of PM, New York City’s liberal-leaning daily newspaper:

“St. Francis announced yesterday that Levi Bough, the first Negro ever to play varsity basketball at the college, will go to Baltimore with the team for the Loyola game a week from Saturday, but will stay at a separate hotel.”

There may have been other minor incidents, but it was Bough’s personality and hustle that allowed him to assimilate well with his teammates. He wound up spending three years with the Terriers, mostly as a reserve player, where he averaged 1.6 pts. per game.

Bough graduated St. Francis in 1950 with degrees in philosophy and psychology and then received a government scholarship to continue his education in political science at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. He also played basketball there – and was even the team’s trainer – and led the squad to four Swiss University championships.

He earned his living in Switzerland as a gas station attendant and later a furniture salesman, all while remaining a basketball trainer and coach. Including his time as a player, Bough was part of 18 championship teams. He passed away in 2008 at the age of 87.

Surely the name “Levi Bough” is not among the memorable names of Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers or Jesse Jackson celebrated during Black History Month, but he paved the way for the current African-American members of the Terriers to have a chance to play.

So as the Terriers attempt to achieve history in trying to earn their first NCAA berth this season, it was Bough who initially changed the course of history at St. Francis.

Contact Jim Mancari via email at jmmanc@gmail.com.

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