Black History: Special Delivery!!
Dr. Charles Fremont “Pruner” West (1899 – 1979) led Washington and Jefferson College to its first and only Rose Bowl appearance in 1922 against the UCLA Golden Bears. West was the first African American quarterback to play in the Rose Bowl. He was playing the position of half back at the time but was asked to play quarterback due to another player’s injury. West led his team to the first scoreless tie in Rose Bowl history. The small liberal arts college located in Washington, PA was not expected to be a contender against such a formidable opponent.
The cost of travel limited the number of players who could accompany the team to the Rose Bowl. Just 11 players made the trip. During the trip one of the players became ill and had to be hospitalized. Another player who had stowed away in the baggage car, took that players seat on the train and then played in the game. West’s appearance in the Rose Bowl would take place 25 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball. In 1916, Fritz Pollard of Brown University became the first African American to play in the Rose Bowl. West was the first to play in the Rose Bowl in the quarterback position.
An outstanding athlete, Pruner was also a two-time national pentathlon champion. He was named to the 1924 Olympic team but ultimately was not allowed to participate. West had sustained a hamstring injury but still traveled with the team while recuperating. Upon arrival, he was healthy enough to compete; however French Olympic officials refused to let him do so because he was listed as an alternate. This decision was heartbreaking for West.
West is also remembered for his participation in a 1923 college football game against the Washington and Lee Generals. It was the southern schools’ tradition to “request” that northern teams bench their black quarterbacks. When asked how he felt about possibly being benched, West indicated that he could not prevent himself from being benched but vowed to never play for the college again if he was benched. Washington and Jefferson refused to play without West and dropped out of the game. West often experienced racial discrimination when traveling with his college team. During the 1921 season, the team traveled to a game in West Virginia. A local pharmacist put up a display in his store window of a doll painted jet black in a football uniform next to a toy ambulance (implying what would be done to West during the game). Washington and Jefferson defeated the West Virginia team. Following the victory, West went over to the pharmacy and asked if he could have the display. Embarrassed, the pharmacist gave it to him. West’s daughter still has the display.
West went on to play for the Akron Pros an NFL franchise that folded in 1926. He then retired from sports to attend medical school at Howard University. He would go on to a successful 50 year career in medicine in Alexandria, VA. He died of cancer in 1979. He was 80 years old. West was posthumously inducted in the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame on December 30, 2017.