In the fall of 1926, the same year that Oregon finally repealed its exclusion law that forbade blacks from entering or owning property in Oregon, 19-year-old Bobby Robinson and 22-year-old Charles Williams, two young high school football stars from Portland (at Jefferson High School and Washington High School, respectively), became the first black student-athletes at the University of Oregon.
When Robinson and Williams first arrived at the university in 1926 they encountered a campus not yet ready to embrace them in all aspects of everyday life. According to an article in the Register-Guard Emerald Empire (Dec. 1, 1974), Williams noted that since the university recruited them as full-fledged scholarship athletes and students, neither man anticipated any difficulties. And they were correct, except in one area—university housing.
Apparently, concerned over how the black men living in university dorms would be accepted by the larger campus and Eugene citizens, the university instead required that Robinson and Williams live off campus for their first year. In recalling this situation, Williams reflected, “They were afraid—that’s what I thought. It was a Ku Klux town and they thought there might be trouble from the townspeople. We accepted that.” Thus, they lived in an apartment at 825 E. 13th Street (currently occupied by Espresso Roma), which actually became a popular retreat for the other athletes and students who were weary from fraternity hazing.
The university’s perspective toward allowing the two to live on campus would only change after their white teammates signed a petition demanding they be allowed to live on campus. By their sophomore year in 1927, the university permitted Williams and Robinson to live in the men’s dormitory, Friendly Hall. Rather than being given a room in the main part of the building, they were forced to occupy an apartment that was part of the dormitory that had a seperate outside entrance. As Williams reflected on this situation, “I suppose to the university it wasn’t quite the same as putting us right in the dorm, but it was to everyone else. We had the use of the dorm. We were right with the fellows we knew. We visited back and forth and did everything we wanted.”
Although the living situation initially challenged them, Williams and Robinson went on to have illustrious football careers at the university from 1926 to 1930. Both were moved up to varsity after their freshman year and took turns starting the games—fast becoming favorites of Webfoot fans of the day. The university wasn’t always as willing to stand up for their stars as their teammates though; Oregon capitulated to Florida’s demands that the two players not participate in the 1929 game in Miami. Eventually Robinson earned his bachelor’s degree in Zoology. However, although Williams completed four years of college, he did not earn a degree due to a change in major.
By Jennifer O’Neal, University Historian and Archivist and Zach Bigalke, Student Research Assistant