Brighton 8-Year-Old Helps Honor Former UM Athlete Benched Because He Was Black
Willis Ward, a University of Michigan football player in the 1930's, will be honored by his school for the first time on Saturday.
Not many 8-year-olds recognize injustice when they see it, and fewer still decide to stand up and do something about it.
This is not the case with Genna Urbain, an 8-year-old third-grader at Hilton Elementary, when she saw the documentary Black and Blue, a story about Willis Ward, an African-American University of Michigan football player who was benched on Oct. 20, 1934, when Georgia Tech refused to play football if Ward was allowed to take the field.
Not only was he benched for that game, Ward was barred from the stadium, as well. It was the only time in school history that a player was benched because of his race.
Genna decided instantly that the whole situation was unfair to Ward, especially since he has never been honored by the University of Michigan.
"It was unfair," Genna said. "He was treated badly."
Genna's mom, Alicia Urbain, said after her daughter's reaction to the movie, she asked her what she was going to do.
"I told her: 'You don't have to do anything, but I just want you to know there comes a time in your life when you have to decide if there's something you don't like. Are you going to be quiet and live with it or are you going to stand up and do something about it? This doesn't have to be that time. But I want you to know there's going to be times in your life when you have to make that choice. If you don't like it and you don't do anything about it, then you have no right to complain,'" Urbain said.
So Genna decided to do something about it. Her first step was speaking to the University of Michigan Board of Regents on March 15, just a couple weeks after first seeing the film. She pointed out that the head coach of UM sports, the football coach and former president Gerald Ford, Ward's teammate and good friend, all had buildings named after them and asked the board to consider naming a street or building after Ward as well.
The board listened to what Genna had to say, but didn't commit to doing anything to recognize Ward.
But she didn't give up.
Genna's next step was a trip to Lansing to speak to lawmakers and lobbyists. State Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, sponsored a resolution and the Senate voted unanimously to declare Oct. 20, 2012, as Willis Ward Day in Michigan.
On Saturday, 78 years to the day that Ward was banned, he will finally be welcomed back to Michigan Stadium and will be honored during the home game against Michigan State. After eight months of hard work, Genna will see her efforts come to completion when she attends the game with her family.
When she found out about Willis Ward Day, Genna said, she jumped up and down and shouted.
Urbain said she and her husband, Joe Urbain, are very proud of Genna's tenacity in seeing this project through.
Black and Blue was written by Buddy Moorehouse and directed by Brian Kruger of Stunt3 Multimedia in Detroit. Moorehouse said they pair had been looking for interesting stories about Michigan football when they came across Ward's.
"We discovered this incredibly fascinating story that had never really been told before," he said. "We really didn't know all the different levels of things that were involved in this story. We had no idea that it would ever reach this point. And we're just thrilled by it because that's the main point goal for making the film in the first place. We really feel that everyone needs to know the story of Willis Ward. He is an amazing person of character and class with not only the way he handled everything in that situation, but in his life. We're thrilled the word is finally getting out."
Ward died in 1983 at the age of 71. He became the head of Ford Motor Co.'s ad hoc Civil Rights Division, serving as liaison between black and white workers. He also served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and attended law school to become the first black chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission and the first black Wayne County probate judge.
And now, thanks to the lobbying efforts of an 8-year-old girl, he'll finally get his day.