October 11, 2012 at 1:00 am

After girl's efforts, Willis Ward will have his day

Genna Urbain, 8, of Brighton successfully lobbied state legislators and the U-M regents to make Oct. 20 Willis Ward Day. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

Brighton — Genna Urbain is only 8, but she recognizes injustice.

She saw it in a documentary revealing a dark period in the University of Michigan's history, and was moved into action.

"A lot of people like to listen to little kids, and you should speak up and make a difference," said Genna, a Brighton third-grader.

She addressed the university's board of regents in March and lobbied state legislators in June to name a special day after star U-M football player Willis Ward, who was benched for a game against Georgia Tech in 1934 because he was black.

Genna succeeded, and Willis — a friend and teammate of future President Gerald Ford — will be honored by the state and school next week.

State Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, led the charge in the state Legislature to name Oct. 20 Willis Ward Day, and U-M followed with plans to honor Ward that day, when the Wolverines play Michigan State in Ann Arbor.

Genna's mother, Alicia Urbain, a lobbyist, captured her child's reaction to the university's decision on video and posted it on YouTube. In the video, the girl, a student at Hilton Elementary School in Brighton, jumps for joy and says, "Yes!."

"I'm very happy because I really wanted him to have his own day, and I wanted to see it all the way through to the end," Genna said.

Schuitmaker was elated.

"It's great that someone her age cares about important issues like civil rights, equality, acknowledging mistakes of the past, and honoring someone like Ward for his lifetime of accomplishments," she said."It should be inspiring to see that someone her age can make a difference. She worked hard, she was persistent, and it paid off."

The senator also acknowledged the 78 years since Ward, of Detroit, was benched, and pointed to the recognition given to other key players in the incident: Ford, Coach Harry Kiepke and athletic director Fielding H. Yost, who decided to sideline Ward because Georgia Tech threatened to boycott the game if he played.

"Like Genna said in her testimony: Yost has a stadium, Kiepke has a street, and Ford has a library and school named after him.Ward didn't have anything," Schuitmaker said.

Dave Ablauf, an associate athletic director at U-M, said the university planned to acknowledge Ward as part of Gerald Ford Day this weekend.

"Because Ward and Ford are so intertwined, we already had something in place," he said. "The recent decision by the state to honor Willis Ward Day bought it to our attention, and we're additionally going to honor him that day. So you could say Genna's efforts were a catalyst."

Genna's journey to victory began after watching "Black and Blue," a film produced by Brian Kruger and Buddy Moorehouse that documents the events surrounding U-M's game against Georgia Tech on Oct. 20, 1934.

According to Moorehouse, during the Jim Crow era of segregation, teams from the South generally refused to play against any team that fielded a black player. The filmmakers described Ward as U-M's best player that year.

"Like most Michigan fans, I didn't have a clue who Willis Ward was — and I thought that I knew everything there was to know about Michigan football," said Moorehouse. He and Kruger researched Ward, thinking someone already had produced a documentary. "What we discovered, though, is that nobody had ever done anything major on it."

Moorehouse and Kruger began their research in earnest.

"At every step, we fell more in love with the story, and more in love with the character, class and amazing dignity of Willis Ward," he said.

Genna said she felt both angry and sad after watching the documentary with her mom.

"Black people should have been allowed to play with white people," she said. "It wasn't right."

Her crusade continued after delivering her speech to the university board of regents March 15. She became increasingly impatient with the university, saying officials were taking a long time to make a decision. So she asked her mom to take her to Lansing to lobby.

They visited Lansing on June 5, meeting with legislators and staff. That afternoon, she and her mom attended the Wolverine Caucus lunch, where U-M athletic directorDavid Brandon was the guest speaker.

"Before the lunch started, David was in front of the room gathering things," Urbain said. "Genna said she wanted to talk to him. We walked up to him together. She handed him the handouts she was giving legislators, and asked, 'Have you decided what you are going to do for Willis Ward?'"

Urbain said she explained to Brandon that her daughter had written a speech and addressed the board of regents, and she knew they voted to ask him to do something.

"Brandon said, 'We will do something and thank you for the information,'" said Urbain.

Genna and her mom, dad and two siblings plan to attend the game Oct. 20.

"It makes me feel pretty good," said Genna.


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Gerald Ford, left, almost left the team when athletic director Fielding ... (The Detroit News)