In 1934, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy was scheduled to host a basketball game against Connecticut State College (precursor of the University of Connecticut). One of the UConn players, Harrison Brooks Fitch, was the first African-American student-athlete at the university.
Before the game, the University of Connecticut team who had travelled to New London was informed by Coast Guard Academy staff that the Coast Guard players would not compete against a black athlete.
The game was delayed while coaches and officials determined whether Fitch, who earned the nickname “Honey” because of his smooth playing style, would be able to play. In the end, Fitch, who was a standout athlete in baseball, football, and basketball, was not allowed to play. Newspaper accounts of the game which UConn won reported, “It was a hard, rough contest in which fouls were plentiful and feelings ran high.”
The ugly incident, an example of the kind of racist behavior that unfortunately was a common part of life during that era in the United States, might have been forgotten by most people if not for a prominent article published in 2021 in the Hartford Courant.
After reading the article, Rear Adm. Bill Kelly, current Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, was determined to learn from the regrettable event and committed to act on his mantra of moving forward together.
“The Hartford Courant article was a low point for the Coast Guard Academy,” said Kelly. “The incident in 1934 is not indicative of the inclusive institution we have worked so hard to become. We are at an inflection point, where we can sit back and hope the story fades away or we can engage and reach out to ensure we learn and grow as an institution committed to the development of leaders of the highest character.”
When Harrison “Honey” Fitch was inducted into the Huskies of Honor program at UConn, Kelly sent a letter to his son, Harrison Brooks Fitch Jr., not only congratulating his family on the honor, but also apologizing for the incident in 1934 and inviting him to visit the Academy in hopes to “move forward together.”
After much deliberation and careful consideration, Fitch accepted Kelly’s offer and visited the Academy where he met with faculty, staff, cadets, and both the men’s and women’s basketball teams.
Fitch’s son, who is also a UConn alumni, started the Harrison Fitch Leadership Fund to honor the legacy of his father and make a future impact in developing young leaders by learning about his character and story. The fund focuses on leadership and creates opportunities for underrepresented students to engage, learn, and make a difference at the university and beyond.
Through this visit, it was determined there were several areas where the Academy and the Harrison Fitch Leadership Fund could collaborate to enhance each organization’s leadership programs and impact the futures of students within the region.
After the visit Fitch noted, “History happened. We will decide what happens next together. The Harrison Fitch Leadership Fund collaborative initiative with the U.S. Coast Guard Academy will impact students, benefit our economy, and provide tangible examples of selfless leadership with character.”
The collaborative partnership with the Harrison Fitch Leadership Fund will be initiated with the assistance of three different divisions at the Academy, the Loy Institute for Leadership, the Office of Inclusion and Diversity and the Athletics program.
Joint opportunities being coordinated include developing a new leadership curriculum regarding the USCGA/Harrison “Honey” Fitch story, a keynote speaking engagement between Fitch and Kelly at the Academy’s flagship diversity and inclusion event in the spring of 2023, as well as other athletics and leadership focused activities to benefit the community at large.
Kelly stated, “It has been the honor of my time as the Superintendent to meet Mr. and Mrs. Fitch. The Fitch family didn’t owe us anything, yet they had the fortitude to provide us an opportunity to demonstrate our growth as an institution and a service. I am grateful for Mr. Fitch’s strength of character, and I know we are both excited to see where this relationship may go as we commit to moving forward together.”