On this date in 1922, the Fargo Forum sports pages told about NDSU’s baseball team and its eagerness to get outdoors for spring practice. The winter snows were gone, but the baseball diamond was muddy. Coach Fenwick Watkins had worked with the team indoors for two weeks of “limbering up,” bunting, and “chalk-talks” about the rudiments of the game, but Watkins said his team was ready for some real practice as soon as they could get outdoors.
There was nothing remarkable about Fenwick Watkins’ coaching, for he had been a baseball, basketball and football coach in Fargo ever since his graduation from the University of Vermont in 1909. He had been a Vermont high-school football star and played three sports at the University of Vermont. Watkins began his coaching career at Fargo College, a Congregational Church college, and his teams had held their own against bigger schools, even beating UND and NDSU in 1910.
What was remarkable about Fenwick Watkins was that he was the first African-American head coach in North Dakota, coaching at Fargo College from 1909 to 1920. In the fall of 1921, NDSU hired Watkins to be assistant athletic director and assistant coach in football and basketball. It was noteworthy that Watkins became the first black NDSU head coach in 1922.
Interestingly, local sportswriters never mentioned his race, partly because his complexion was light enough to pass for being white. Also, census-takers listed him as “white.”
Fenwick Watkins’s NDSU baseball team, in the short 1922 season, won five of six games against college teams, and lost three to non-college ballclubs. Watkins parted ways with NDSU after one season, going across the Red River to become Concordia College’s first African-American coach, serving there until he retired from coaching in 1926.
Mr. Watkins sold real estate in the Fargo/Moorhead area until his death in 1943, at age 57. His obituary in the Fargo Forum never mentioned how Watkins broke the color line in coaching in North Dakota, and his place in the historical memory of the region faded quickly. He had been married and divorced and had no children to carry on his legacy. His body was taken back East for burial in his hometown of Burlington, Vermont, where his sporting feats as a college star have been kept alive to the present day.
Today’s Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.
Sources: “Bison Dicker With Minnesota For Ball Game; Team Working,” Fargo Forum, April 5, 1922, p. 10.
“A.C. Ball Men Work Outside,” Fargo Forum, April 8, 1922, p. 17.