Strength and character

The life of Ernest J. Marshall, class of 1904, Exeter's first black sports captain.

Panos Voulgaris
November 2, 2023

Steeped in the Academy’s history is a remarkable football tradition dating to 1878. It is widely known that Exeter shares the country’s longest continuing high school foot-ball rivalry with Andover, beginning 145 years ago. It is less well known, however, that Exeter has more alumni in the College Football Hall of Fame than any other high school in the nation. Among them is Amos Alonzo Stagg, class of 1885, dubbed the “Grand Old Man of Football,” who helped establish the game over his 70-year coaching career. 

Stagg also headlines an impressive list of Exonians who have served as the head football coach at one of at least 41 colleges around the U.S. Included in that roster is Ernest J. Marshall, who entered football lore when he was named the first Black captain of a Phillips Exeter sports team in 1903. Marshall, who graduated from Exeter in 1904, later made a significant impact as a coach and educator at Howard University. But his story before and after his time at Howard is equally notable. He was a passionate leader, student, athlete, outdoorsman, coach, professor and physician.

Born to humble beginnings in Baltimore, Maryland, in the post- Reconstruction era, Marshall left home in 1897 to spend three years at the famed Hampton Institute. A precursor to Hampton University, the institute was founded in 1868 to educate formerly enslaved people. The Virginia Museum of History and Culture notes that it trained an “army of Black educators,” including Booker T. Washington. 

At Hampton, Marshall was mentored by the Institute’s president, Hollis B. Frissell, an Andover graduate. After graduating from Hampton in 1900, Marshall trekked to Boston where he worked for a year to raise funds for his education. In a December 1900 letter to Frissell, Marshall expressed having experienced racial challenges in the north while also laying out his goals: “During the few months I have been here I see [the] value [of your warnings] a great deal more than ever before. This I think is due to experience. … As I have told you before … Next year, I expect to go in some school and after I finish, I shall then go in the South to do the best I can.”

Marshall arrived at Exeter with minimal resources as a 10th grader in 1901 to prepare for college. In Marshall’s time, Black students encountered a difficult social experience at the Academy. For instance, one of Marshall’s housemates, the Black poet Charles Frederick White, a member of the class of 1907 for a short time, later wrote that despite being “exceptionally well and brotherly treated by the faculty [and] other non-Negro-hating boys,” he was met with “southern prejudice,” by a particular group of threatening students, which cued his departure prior to graduation.

Indeed, during the 1902 spring track season, Marshall and another Black member of the team were not welcome to eat at the training table with their white teammates, provoking them to withdraw from the team. The Boston Globe reported that while many in town supported the protest, “In student circles … feeling against them [was] very bitter, and in the march of the school from the campus after the [track] meet, they were treated with contumely.”

The Globe contended that Marshall’s treatment was “in direct variance with the Exeter spirit,” given that in previous years Black athletes had typically eaten at team training tables.

Others who lived with Marshall in the segregated J.W. Field’s House succeeded at Exeter, leading to impressive careers. Marshall’s housemates included two members of the class of 1904: his lifelong friend Eugene Clark of Washington, D.C., a preeminent educator in Black schools, and Newlyn Cashin, a distinguished physician in his native Alabama. In addition, Fenwick Watkins, class of 1905, from Burlington, Vermont, who starred in football, basketball and baseball at the University of Vermont, had a successful career in coaching and real estate in North Dakota; and Benjamin Seldon, class of 1907, from New Jersey, was an early promoter of Pan-Africanism and a regular collaborator with W.E.B. Du Bois. Seldon conveyed lifelong gratitude to the Academy for helping him become a trailblazing educator.

Marshall persevered during his time at Exeter. A strong student, he became one of the top athletes in the school and served on the PEA Athletic Association, the student voice for athletics at the time. In competition, Marshall rejoined the track team and found renown on campus for his exploits, becoming the school record-holder in both the shot put and discus in 1903. Further, Marshall was a standout on the football team, earning a spot on the “Academy Eleven” for all three of his years at Exeter, the only player to do so during his time.

During the spring of 1903, the team met to determine its captain and Marshall emerged as the top choice. Marshall’s selection was monumental for the Academy as well as the American sports scene of the time because Black players were a rarity on major athletic teams. Though Black players began playing on the Exeter football team as early as 1893, none had ascended to the role of captain before Marshall, moving news agencies around the country to pick up the story. “Colored Man Elected Head of Exeter Football Eleven — He is Popular Here,” The Boston Globe reported on June 6, 1903. The following day The New York Times wrote, “Ernest J. Marshall, ’04, of Baltimore … is the only colored boy to be honored with a captaincy of an athletic team at Exeter,” and The Trenton Evening Times declared, “Negro Boy Captains Exeter.”

He has been one of the most popular students at the school and stands high in his studies, as well as in athletics."
The Baltimore American

The headline of Marshall’s hometown Baltimore American read: “Colored Lad Captain of Football Team: Ernest J. Marshall, of This City, to Head the Crack Eleven of Phillips Exeter.” The article continued: “He has been one of the most popular students at the school and stands high in his studies, as well as in athletics. Although personally well liked, there was dissatisfaction when his name was first suggested [for] the captaincy of the school football team, but this appears to have died away and his election was unanimous.” The Cleveland Gazette added, “He was the only logical candidate for the captaincy.”

In 1903, the Academy hired noted coach Eddie N. Robinson, who had previously been the head coach at the University of Nebraska (1896-97) before a legendary run at Brown University (1898-1901, 1904-07, 1910-25), where he coached the school’s first Black player, Hall of Famer Fritz Pollard, in 1915 and 1916. At Exeter, Robinson took over a program that had struggled to a 2-4-3 record in the previous season, including a demoralizing 29-17 loss to Andover.

Roughly 60 players returned to campus vying for a spot on the Academy Eleven. The roster featured a “who’s who” of football greats including future college All-Americans, Ivy League team captains, prominent head football coaches and three members of the College Football Hall of Fame. That Marshall captained this distinguished group was an inspirational undertaking given the racial climate of segregation in America at the time. 

The 1903 schedule featured daunting competition against college varsity teams including the University of New Hampshire, Tufts, Bates and Bowdoin. Exeter had, in fact, defeated the Boston College varsity during Marshall’s lower and upper years. Coach Robinson and captain Marshall guided the Academy to an 8-0-2 record, including eight shutouts, while outscoring opponents, 134-16. 

Prior to the Andover game, Robinson commented in The Exonian, “Marshall, captain and left tackle … is a hard worker, and sets the team a good example in this respect.” The Boston Journal reported: “Up in the Granite State Exeter will meet its greatest rival, Andover. … Andover will undoubtedly be the favorite … No matter what … Capt. Ernest Marshall, the colored leader at Exeter, will be surrounded with a team up to the standard.” 

In a 14-11 triumph, Marshall ushered his team to victory by opening holes on offense and making a timely fumble recovery to secure the game and undefeated season. The Exonian headline read: “A GREAT VICTORY FOR CAPTAIN MARSHALL AND HIS MEN.” In short, despite the racial challenges, Marshall’s captaincy proved to be exceptionally successful. His 1903 unit was the greatest Exeter football team to that point and remains one of the best in Academy history.

Less than a month after that win over Andover, Marshall announced his college plans. The opening page of the December 1, 1903, Boston Journal sports section reported, “Ernest J. Marshall, the colored lad who successfully brought the Exeter team to victory in the annual game with Andover, intends [on] entering Williams College next year.” 

Upon arriving in Williamstown, Massachusetts, Marshall excelled in the classroom and for the football and track teams. He and his Exeter classmate Eugene Clark were among only four Black students on campus. Marshall set a new standard for the track team by smashing the school record in the shot put in 1906, while earning six letters in football and track. Alumni notes remembered Marshall as “a star athlete at Williams who rated the highest honors” in his studies.

Marshall left Williams after three years to complete his bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan. Afterwards, he spent the summer of 1908 preparing for Yale Graduate School but was unable to afford the move and began graduate school at Michigan. Writing to the Hampton Alumni Office, he said: “I did not have a very successful summer [earning wages] so I came back to Michigan because it is cheaper.”

Marshall’s student experience spawned his desire to remain in education: “I finally decided to devote my time to the study of foods, both from the chemical and bacteriological sides. ... [There’s] a good chance to get a position at some school to teach this branch of chemistry. If necessary, I shall be perfectly willing to teach the foundation subjects such as Elementary Chemistry, Hygiene, and Biology.” 

In fact, shortly into his graduate school stint in Ann Arbor, Marshall accepted a post at Howard University in Washington, D.C. At Howard, from 1909-21, he held numerous roles, including assistant professor in chemistry, instructor in English, director of athletics and head football coach. 

In eight seasons as head football coach, Marshall accumulated an impressive record of 31-4-4, including four straight seasons (1909-12) in which his team was undefeated and unscored upon. One student at Howard remarked, “Coach Marshall knows the game of football from the ground up.” 

Indeed, Marshall’s leadership profoundly changed the nature of Howard’s athletic program. In December 1911 the Howard University Journal noted, “From the very time that Coach Marshall came here, athletics took on a new life in our University, and a new spirit was shown by the student body.” 

Marshall affirmed, “As long as I am here the [Howard] colors will never trail in the dust.” But his team did not have the opportunity to play against the nation’s top white teams, at which several of his Exeter breth-ren were playing or coaching. The Howard faithful voiced strong opinions in the Journal: “There is no doubt, but that Howard has one of the best all-around elevens in the country. All of this is due to Coach Marshall’s untiring and conscientious work with his men … From the beginning he thrust himself, full of vigor [and] spirit, into his work, and has brought athletics to the high point it has never before reached.” One player said, “In Coach Marshall we have one of the best coaches in the country, a man whose judgment of men cannot be doubted.”

If you learn only what’s in a book, then one school is about as good as another. But when a student comes in contact with [a transformational teacher] he gets something he never forgets and is even thankful for having known such men."
Ernest Marshall

Always a passionate advocate for his players, Marshall pushed the university administration to raise money for a new athletic facility, and the community rallied behind him. In December 1913, the Journal wrote, “Coach Marshall has done excellent work for Howard, as everyone testifies; coming to us in 1909 when our team needed a strong guiding hand, he soon established our record in football by a string of unbroken victories.” 

In his final season as coach in 1916, the Journal reflected on Marshall’s effect on the program: “The greatest asset to the football squad is Coach Marshall. He has certainly done his share in developing a strong and powerful Howard machine … That he has succeeded can easily be attested by the large gate receipts … The men hold him in the greatest esteem, and never refuse to obey his orders or heed his calls.” 

Marshall remains the greatest coach in Howard’s history. After stepping down as football coach in 1916, he remained at Howard as a chemistry professor through the 1920-21 academic year. In 1916, one student reflected, “The fact that much of his time must of necessity be spent in the classroom has not in the least caused him to lose a single morning’s practice, or to show any sign of indifference to his pedagogic work,” and asserted that the professor and coach “is doing the work of three men.” The spirit of Marshall’s Exeter education — faithfully adhering to his non sibi principles — is evident in these statements from his students at Howard. 

Marshall’s influence extended to other historically Black colleges and universities. He co-founded the Colored Interscholastic Athletic Association, now known as the Central Interscholastic Athletic Association, an NCAA conference member. Marshall was a pioneer for HBCU football, spearheading the growth of Black athletic programs across the mid-Atlantic and Southeast. The trophy given to the winner of the football game between Howard and Morehouse College was co-named for Marshall, and the CIAA inducted Marshall into its Hall of Fame in 1985. 

The pursuit of his life’s passion to be a physician prompted his move to graduate school at the University of Chicago. He took the requisite courses during the 1921-22 academic year to prepare for admission to Northwestern Medical School, where he completed his degree in 1927. 

Marshall overcame significant adversity to become one of Northwestern’s early Black medical school graduates. To pay tuition, he took a job at the Chicago Post Office. The school’s registrar, C.W. Patterson, wrote a letter of concern to the postmaster regarding Marshall’s shift hours stating, “It appears that [Marshall] has been depending on earning a part of his expenses by outside employment … [occupying] his time from 11 o’clock in the evening to 7:30 in the morning. I have told him that it was out of the question to carry the medical course, giving so much time to outside employment.” 

The postmaster, however, was unyielding and did not shift Marshall’s hours. 

Patterson felt strongly that Marshall should receive the opportunity to continue his studies with a more convenient work schedule: “Mr. Marshall is a high-class colored man, a graduate of the University of Michigan and a graduate student of the University of Chicago. He has made a good beginning with us.” Northwestern eventually hired Marshall as a night guard and as a laborer for campus renovation projects so he could remain a full-time student. He also worked four hours a day at Chicago’s Wesley Memorial Hospital to receive room and board there.

Marshall continued searching for creative ways to pay his tuition. With Patterson’s help, during his third year at the school, he forged a relationship with Julius Rosenwald, the Chicago philanthropist and co-owner of Sears, Roebuck and Co. Rosenwald had supported numerous African American causes, notably, Black education and the growth of Black YMCAs across the country. The registrar wrote to Rosenwald that Marshall “has carried his schoolwork very well under rather serious financial handicaps. … On account of his record I would wish to do everything possible to help him.” 

At the time, Marshall was in arrears for the two previous semesters and his future at the school was in peril. Rosenwald came to his aid, covering the two semesters of debt and paying future costs, to which the registrar replied, “I am very glad indeed to learn that Mr. Marshall is to receive this assistance and I have every reason to believe that he is deserving.” 

Likewise, Rosenwald’s secretary, William Graves, was happy to learn that Marshall’s studies would not be interrupted: “[He] has been under considerable pressure to support himself, and I [offer] a personal endorsement in addition to what Mr. Rosenwald is advancing.” 

When Marshall completed his studies, Graves observed, “Mr. Rosenwald shares the satisfaction … that Mr. Marshall was able to complete his work satisfactorily and to finish the course with his class.” 

Shortly after departing Chicago, Marshall wrote an emotional letter of appreciation to Patterson, the Northwestern registrar: “Please let me thank you for the many kind things you did for me while there. Without your help I never could have made it, and I shall ever be grateful to you.”

Marshall spent the following year completing a residency at Kansas City General Hospital in Missouri. He practiced medicine in Kansas City for the rest of his life. Keeping an office as a general practitioner for over 30 years, Marshall was also a member of the staff at Wheatley-Provident Hospital and General Hospital while being active in the Kansas City Medical Society, Missouri Pan-Medical Society and Alpha Phi Alpha, a historically African American fraternity. In addition to being a respected member of Kansas City society, Marshall maintained his enthusiasm for sports and the outdoors until he died in 1959. He was survived by his wife; a son, who also became a physician; and three grandchildren.

Throughout his life, Marshall understood what was important in education, not only to him, but also to students. Shortly before his death, he wrote: “If you learn only what’s in a book, then one school is about as good as another. But when a student comes in contact with [a transformational teacher] he gets something he never forgets and is even thankful for having known such men — they make the [school].” 

Marshall’s career as an educator embodied this ideal. As one of his Howard students stated, “The deepest and most profound respect exists between [Coach Marshall] and his men.” This sentiment is akin to that of the Academy’s Deed of Gift, which states, “above all, it is expected that the attention of instructors to the disposition of the minds and morals of the youth under their charge will exceed every other care.”

Marshall stayed intellectually active deep into his life. He maintained a concern for world affairs with an eye toward the future. In 1958 he wrote: “We have come through two major wars, a depression and a police action. How much has been learned — very little I fear except improving the fine art of killing. I wonder where it will end. If world leaders can’t or won’t agree, I fear the great masses of humanity will get out of control and we know what the end will be.” Marshall’s compassion and empathy, developed through his vast experiences, were evident until the very end.

When Marshall died, Eugene Clark, his lifelong friend from Exeter and Williams, wrote: “We will remember Ernest as a great athlete and a fine guy. His successful struggle to get an education without any financial backing revealed his strength of character.” 

Indeed, Marshall needed immense strength of character to live an impactful and extraordinary life when racial integration was far from commonplace in America. And he was proud to credit the foundation he received during his time at the Academy. 

In a 1958 letter to the Williams Alumni Office, he wrote, “I prepped at Exeter, the greatest in the world.” 

Panos Voulgaris is in his third year at Exeter as head football coach and an instructor in physical education. Prior to joining PEA, he led three different football programs to championship seasons and taught history for 15 years. In 2022, he guided Exeter to a 7-1 season, the team’s best record in the last decade.

This story was originally published in the Fall 2023 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.


Exonians in the College Football Hall of Fame 

Exeter's contributions to the growth and development of football at the turn of the 20th century are well remembered in the annals of the College Football Hall of Fame.


Amos Alonzo Stagg





Year inducted


Lee McClung 1888 Yale 1963
Marshall Newell 1890 Harvard 1957
James Hogan 1901 Yale 1954

Jim McCormick

1904 Princeton 1954
Howard Jones 1905 Syracuse/Yale/Ohio State/Iowa/Duke/Southern California 1951
T.A.D. Jones


Syracuse/Yale 1958
Ed Hart 1907 Princeton 1954
Eddie Casey 1915 Harvard 1968
Donold Lourie 1918 Princeton 1974