• Mon. Dec 5th, 2022

Was first Black graduate at Xavier University

By Tom Eiser
Xavier University Associate Athletic Director for Communications
Reprinted with permission

Benjamin Allen, a three-time Xavier track letter winner and senior team captain, is listed as the first Black graduate of Xavier University. But that is just one part of his impressive legacy, a lifelong story of ingenuity, history, leadership and determination that makes the new Benjamin Allen Student-Athlete Leadership Award a highly-coveted honor.

Allen’s impressive story began long before and went on long after he walked across the stage to accept his Xavier University diploma in 1950 with a B.S. degree in business administration. His major was accounting, with a minor in economics, but he showed from an early age he had a talent for entrepreneurship and sales. 

Perhaps Ben’s most impressive sale was convincing Helen to marry him. They were married 57 years when he passed away at the age of 86. She smiles as she tell countless stories about her late husband, starting long before they met until the day they said goodbye in 2013.

Ben’s story began in New Jersey as the youngest of three children. Ben’s father worked as a Pullman porter and later joined the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly African American labor union that was organized by social activist A. Philip Randolph in 1925. Ben would later show some of that same leadership and determination passed down from his father, who protested with Randolph’s group.

After his father lost his job, the family went to live with his Uncle Herbert in Cincinnati. When he was 10 years old he received a bicycle for Christmas. While most young boys see the fun associated with such a gift, Ben also saw an opportunity to make some money. He convinced the corner store owner to let him sell magazines such as “Life” and “Look” by going from home to home on his bicycle. “The owner didn’t think he could sell any,” Helen laughed. “But he proved him wrong, selling out of stack after stack of different magazines and coming back for more. He loved sales and he loved people. It’s no surprise that he made a successful career out of that.”

While a student at Withrow High School, Allen wanted to find a way to make some money and approached a local dry cleaner with an idea. Instead of clients being burdened with picking up and dropping off their dry cleaning, he asked if he could use his bike to pick up and deliver. He convinced the owner to try it, a service many of us take for granted today. He almost gave up his spot on the track team because of the conflict with his work schedule. His boss, who saw the value of athletic competition based on his personal experience, would not hear of it and adjusted the schedule so Ben could do both.

Ben Allen as Xavier University track star. Xavier University file photo

After high school Ben was drafted into the Army. He loved to travel so after he took the long trip out to Sacramento, Calif., for training he couldn’t wait to see where he would be stationed. The Army put him on a boat to France, which took two weeks, and he spent time enjoying himself in Paris before being sent to Marseilles to help guard the POWs from Germany.

When the Army experience finally was behind him, Ben set his sights on a college education. He spent his first semester at Xavier of Louisiana and restarted his track career. With the help of the G.I. Bill, Ben was able to come back to Cincinnati and spent his final three years at Xavier University. He competed on the Xavier Track team for three years, being voted team captain in his final season. 

Ben liked to use the phrase “Turn anger into energy.” That became evident his junior year on a track trip to Louisville. Ben and the Black members of the team were not permitted to eat in the café or use the shower facilities like their White teammates. The following year when the coach told them he had scheduled a return trip to Louisville, the senior captain said he wasn’t going back to be insulted again. That is, unless he was assured that he would be treated like all the other competitors. The coach said he worked it out and assured him things would be different. “He agreed to make the trip,” said Helen, “but he made it clear that if he got down there and things weren’t different, he was coming home without running in the meet.” The changes were made and he did compete in the meet.

Ben’s leadership went beyond the track team at Xavier as a member of the Student Council and Chairman of the Student Athletic Committee. The Xavier President at the time, the Rev. James F. Maguire, asked Ben to help him welcome a visiting Black priest from Africa. “He was a student leader, but it was clear that he was chosen for this and the photo because of the color of his skin,” said Helen.

“That invitation from the Xavier President made what happen soon after even more disturbing when it came time for him to graduate in 1950. “He submitted the order for his cap and gown,” said Helen, “but when he came to pick up his cap and gown at the office that handled graduation, they said that they could not locate Ben’s order. Ben and another Black student who was scheduled to graduate were being encouraged to get their diplomas by mail instead of being a part of the graduation ceremony. His classmate agreed, but Ben wanted no part of that.

“I have a nice suit I can wear, if you can’t find my cap and gown” he told the man in charge of the ceremony. “I worked too hard for this, and I am going to walk with all the other graduates.” Days later they found his cap and gown, hinting it was misplaced somewhere. He was a part of the ceremony as the first Black graduate, but didn’t get to share that with his fellow Black classmate, Helen said.

Ben and Helen Allen are shown in their home with some pieces from their African American art collection. Photo by Laura Carr

“Nothing interfered with a goal for Ben,” said Helen, “Whether that was school, work or his personal life.” Ben enjoyed a long and successful career in real estate after his Xavier graduation. Ever the salesman, Ben actually obtained his real estate license while still a junior in college. 

In 1956 Ben had a client who recently was hired as the new director of the YWCA in the West End of Cincinnati. She was looking for a place and was planning to move from Washington. She entrusted her new assistant, Helen, with the key to her new place and introduced her to Ben. “Somehow she convinced Ben to help her move,” Helen smiled. “I left work that day and was waiting for the bus when Ben stopped and asked me if I wanted a ride. We enjoyed the ride, but he decided to play hard to get and didn’t call me for a couple weeks.” Ben proposed to Helen at Eden Park later that year, and they were married in 1957 in her hometown of Aiken, S.C.

Ben’s sales resume extended beyond that day in Eden Park. It includes a long list of leadership positions in the real estate business, but it would be an understatement to say it wasn’t easy. Ben tried for years to get a spot on the Cincinnati Board of Realtors, but it was clear that path was blocked by the color of his skin. “A letter from Bobby Kennedy helped open the door for Ben,” said Helen. He went on to become Vice President of the Cincinnati Board of Realtors, President of the Cincinnati Association of Real Estate Brokers and a leader with the Ohio Board of Realtors and National Board of Realtors, in addition to the N.A.A.C.P. Board of Directors and a member of the Xavier University Board of Governors. “I told you. He never let anything interfere with achieving a goal.” Their daughters, Donna and Maria, would agree.

A great man and mentor. Loving. Proud. Determined. Role model. Those are some of the words friends and family used when Ben passed away in 2013. 

Xavier University Athletics awards the Benjamin Allen Student-Athlete Leadership Award to a current or former student-athlete for making significant contributions to Xavier University and a well-rounded impact on the global community with ingenuity, leadership and determination. Yes, that sounds like Ben.