Willis Ward student portrait

Detroit Northwestern High School graduation photo, 1931

Early Life

Willis Ward was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1912, a city deeply marked by segregation and racist terror. While he was still young, his family joined millions of other African Americans in the Great Migration, heading north for the industrial cities of the Midwest.

They eventually arrived in Detroit, where Ward’s father found work in the city’s expanding automotive industry. Ward became an academic and athletic star at Detroit’s Northwestern High School.

During his senior year, a group of University of Michigan alumni, impressed by his achievements, worked to convince Ward to come to Michigan, where he would break its history of segregation on the football field.

This section contains the following sub-sections that tell the story of Ward’s early years in greater detail:

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