Friday, August 25, 2017

James Burney McAlester: The First Native American to Play Football for Vanderbilt University

By Will Thomas

James Burney McAlester was born in North McAlester, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) June 7, 1876*. He went on to become the first Native American to play football for Vanderbilt University. His father, James J. McAlester, served as U.S. Marshal for the United States Court in the Choctaw Nation from 1893 to 1897. His mother, Rebecca Burney, was a member of the Chickasaw nation, and his uncle, Benjamin C. Burney, was Governor of the Chickasaw Nation from 1887 to 1880.

J. B. McAlester, Nashville, Tennessee, 1898. Calvert Brothers Studios Glass Plate Negatives.

J. B. McAlester studied law at the University of Missouri and then at Vanderbilt University. During his time at Vanderbilt, he played left tackle on the 1897 football team. In his book 50 Years of Vanderbilt Football, famed sports writer Fred Russell calls the 1897 team the "Greatest Eleven of the Nineties." He also notes that McAlester was the only Native American to play football for Vanderbilt (at least, as of the time of the book's publication in 1938).

1897 Vanderbilt University football team in Fred Russell's 50 Years of Vanderbilt Football. Library Holdings.

During the 1890s and early 1900s, Vanderbilt's greatest rival wasn't the University of Tennessee – it was Sewanee (now named University of the South). Between 1891 and 1944, Sewanee and Vanderbilt would battle it out on the gridiron 52 times. Vanderbilt won 40 of the games, Sewanee won 8, and there were 4 tie games.

Statements by Sewanee team captain, Oscar Wilder and Vanderbilt team manager, Lester G. Fant (misspelled in the newspaper), about the 1897 game, Nashville American, Nov. 25, 1897. Newspaper Microfilm Collection.

In 1897, the two teams met in Nashville November 25 (Thanksgiving Day). The game, which Vanderbilt won 10-0, received a great deal of coverage in the Nashville American newspaper (later renamed the Tennessean).

List of players on the Sewanee and Vanderbilt football teams with their respective weights, Nashville American, Nov. 25, 1897. Newspaper Microfilm Collection.

One article lists the offensive players for each team and gives their respective weights (although it incorrectly lists McAlester as "J. E." McAlester). Tipping the scales at 190 lbs., McAlester was the heaviest player on Vanderbilt's team. Now, of course, an offensive lineman under 200 lbs. or a 134 lb. quarterback is something you might only expect to see on a junior high school team.

Illustration depicting Vanderbilt scoring a touchdown against Sewanee, Nashville American, Nov. 26, 1897. Newspaper Microfilm Collection.

*There is some discrepancy about when McAlester was born. His World War I draft registration (which he filled out) lists his birth year as 1876. His death certificate, however, lists his birth year as 1874, and his tombstone lists it as 1875. The date he himself gave is most likely the correct one.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

1 comment:

  1. Perfect story for beginning of football season!