Perry, Lowell 1931–2001
Lowell Perry 1931–2001
Football player, businessman, government official
In the 1950s, Lowell Perry seemed destined to join the ranks of the talented African-American athletes who were desegregating professional football. In 1951, Perry was named an All-American receiver at the University of Michigan, becoming the second black Michigan player to receive that honor. In 1956, after playing football for the U.S. Air Force, he was signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, just six games into his rookie season, Perry was injured so severely that he was forced into early retirement. Despite this setback, Perry continued to make significant contributions in the world of professional sports. In 1957, when he took a job coaching receivers for the Steelers, he became the first black coach in the National Football League’s modern era. Nine years later, CBS hired him as an analyst, making Perry the first African-American NFL broadcaster.
Later in life, Perry matched his athletic achievements with successes as a businessman and government official. After earning a law degree, he worked in management positions for the Chrysler Corporation and Michigan Bell Telephone Company. He also served as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, director of the Michigan Department of Labor, and director of the Michigan Office of Urban Programs. “He was a sports pioneer, but his contributions went well beyond that,” Perry’s nephew, sportswriter Drew Sharp, wrote in the Detroit Free Press. “Perry remains an important history lesson, a hard-fought chronicle of staring down obstacles and tearing down barriers.”
Lowell W. Perry was born on December 5, 1931 in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He was the son of Lawrence C. Perry, a doctor, and his wife Lillian Bass Perry. The family was prominent in the Ypsilanti community; a school in the town is named after Perry’s father. After graduating from Ypsilanti High School, Perry enrolled at the University of Michigan. At Michigan, he was a sure-handed offensive end, a safety on defense, and a punt returner. In 1951, his senior year, his accomplishments on the field included scoring five touchdowns and returning 22 punts for 232 yards. That year, he was named an All-American receiver—the second black All-American in the rich tradition of Michigan football—and played on the team that defeated California in the Rose Bowl.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in 1953, Perry played football for the U.S. Air Force. On his return to civilian life in 1956, he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Perry quickly showed his talent as both a receiver and kick returner. Raymond Berry, one of the greatest receivers in NFL history, once referred to Perry as “the best athlete I ever saw” (quoted as saying in the Detroit Free Press).
While more and more African Americans had joined the NFL in the years after World War II, they still faced open bigotry, especially when they traveled to southern states. On one occasion when the Steelers traveled to Jacksonville, Florida, for an exhibition game against
At a Glance…
Born Lowell W. Perry on December 5, 1931, in Ypsilanti, MI; died on January 7, 2001, in Southfield, Ml; son of Lawrence C Perry (a doctor) and Lillian Bass Perry; married Maxine Lewis; children: Lowell Jr., Scott, and Merrideth. Education: University of Michigan, B.A., 1953; Detroit College of Law, J.D., 1960. Military Service: U.S. Air Force, 1st Lt.
Career: Receiver for Pittsburgh Steelers, 1956; receivers coach, 1957; talent scout, 1958-60; law clerk for Frank A Picard, 1960-61; General Motors, personnel department, 1961-62; National Labor Relations Board, attorney, 1962-63; Chrysler, labor relations lawyer, director of personnel, 1963-79; CBS, analyst, 1966; Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Chairman, 1975-76; Michigan Bell Telephone Co, director of Government Affairs, 1983-91; Michigan Department of Labor, director, 1991-96; State of Michigan Office of Urban Programs, director, 1996-99.
Awards: NCAA Silver Anniversary Athlete Scholar Award, 1978; honorary law degrees from Ferris State University, Wilberforce University, and Eastern Michigan University.
the Chicago Bears, Perry and the other black players were barred from the team’s parade in town and had to stay at a segregated hotel. Perry recalled in an interview with the New York Times, “Later that day we were practicing at the Gator Bowl, and Art Rooney (the team owner), who had come on a later plane, told all of the black players, ’I promise you, this will never happen to one of my teams again.’” Rooney remembered his promise the following year, when he learned that the Steelers’ black players would probably have to stay in a separate hotel in Atlanta; instead of subjecting his team to those conditions, Rooney decided to cancel the game.
Perry easily made the transition to professional football and seemed to be off to a promising start. In the sixth game of his rookie season, however, he suffered a fractured pelvis and dislocated hip when he was hit by the New York Giants’ star tackle. Perry was in the hospital for 13 weeks, and his athletic career was ended forever—but not his career in football, Perry recalled in an interview with the New York Times. When Rooney came to visit him in the hospital, “he told me, ’Lowell, as long as I own the Pittsburgh Steelers, you have a job in my organization,’” Perry was quoted as saying.
The following year, Perry accepted a job as the Steelers’ receivers coach, becoming the first African-American coach in the modern era of the NFL. Perry was not the first-ever black coach; former Brown University star Fritz Pollard served as a head coach in the 1920s, when professional football was just coming into existence. During the 1930s and the early 1940s, however, an unwritten rule banned African Americans from playing football, let alone coaching it. Perry became the first African American to hold a coaching position since the game was re-integrated. His achievement is all the more remarkable given the extremely small number of African-American coaches in the NFL nearly half a century later.
After coaching for just one season, Perry decided to leave the job and pursue a degree at the Detroit College of Law. During this period, from 1958 to 1960, he continued to work as a talent scout for the Steelers. “Unlike many of today’s athletes, who are rudderless upon premature retirement, Perry rechanneled his ambition, daring to advance through doors previously shut for blacks,” Sharp wrote in the Detroit Free Press.
Perry received his law degree in 1960 and immediately took a job as a law clerk. In 1961 he landed his first job in the automobile industry, working in the personnel department of General Motors. In 1962 he left that position to serve as an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board.
In 1963 Perry joined the Chrysler Corporation as a labor relations lawyer. He worked at Chrysler until 1979, holding a variety of management positions. He was a leading member of the company’s management team in negotiations with the United Auto Workers on a national contract in 1971. Two years later, Perry was appointed manager of Detroit Universal Division, one of Chrysler’s gear and axle operations. The first African American to manage a U.S. automotive plant, Perry oversaw more than 3,800 employees.
Even as he built a successful, pioneering career in corporate management, Perry continued to break racial barriers in football. In 1966 CBS hired him to be an analyst for its football coverage, making Perry the first African American to serve as an NFL broadcaster. Perry was also a charter member of NFL Charities, co-founded by Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford, Steelers owner Art Rooney, and then-league commissioner Pete Rozelle. Since the foundation was established in 1973, NFL Charities has awarded more than $41 million in grant commitments to more than 250 different organizations.
In 1975 Perry achieved yet another milestone: he was named by President Gerald R. Ford to run the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As chairman of the EEOC, Perry was responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws governing private employers. In accepting the position, Perry, a Republican, became one of the first African Americans to head a major government agency.
However, Perry had taken over an agency that was plagued with severe, long-standing management problems. During its ten years of existence, the agency had been run by five different chairmen and had amassed a backlog of more than 100,000 complaints. After just a year, Perry resigned in frustration and returned to Chrysler. In 1983, Perry became director of government affairs at the Michigan Bell Telephone Company, a position he held for eight years.
During the 1990s, Perry returned to government service, holding two major posts under Michigan Governor John Engler. (Perry’s wife, Maxine, was also a part of the Engler administration, serving on the Liquor Control Commission.) In 1991, Perry became director of the Michigan Department of Labor. Five years later, he was appointed the first director of the newlyestablished Michigan Office of Urban Programs, retiring from that post in 1999.
Despite the demands of his corporate and government careers, Perry always made time to give back to the community. In addition to his work for NFL Charities, Perry served on the boards of several other not-for-profit organizations, including the Detroit College of Law, University of Michigan Club of Detroit, Black Child and Family Institute, and Boys & Girls Club of Southeast Michigan. “My father used to say that you make a living by what you earn, but you make a life by what you give,” Perry’s daughter, Merrideth Perry Moore, told Mike Wowk of the Detroit News. “My dad was a gentle giant. He affected so many people.” Among his many honors, Perry received the NCAA Silver Anniversary Athlete Scholar Award in 1978, and honorary law degrees from Ferris State University, Wilberforce University, and Eastern Michigan University. He was a lifetime member of the NAACP and a member of the Urban League.
Perry died of cancer in Southfield, Michigan on January 7, 2001. In the days after Perry’s death, many remembered his kindness and generosity. “He was the best person many of us ever knew,” Sharp wrote in the Detroit Free Press. “He was never hesitant in using his influence to help, but ever hesitant in accepting gratitude.” NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was quoted as saying in the Detroit Free Press that Perry “was unselfish in his dedication to NFL Charities and contributed an enormous amount of time and energy to helping those in need through our charitable foundation. His leadership and, just as importantly, his friendship will be missed.”
Cope, Myron. The Game That Was: The Early Days of Pro Football, World Publishing Company, 1970.
Detroit Free Press, Jan. 9, 2001; May 1, 1999
Detroit News, Jan. 11, 2001
Michigan Daily, Jan. 11, 2001
New York Times, Jan. 11, 2001
Ypsilanti Courier, Jan. 11, 2001
"Perry, Lowell 1931–2001." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/perry-lowell-1931-2001
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