Harrison “Honey” Fitch, arrived on the University of Connecticut (then Connecticut State College) in the fall of 1932 and he made a solid impression, fast. Fitch, the first Black basketball player for the University of Connecticut (then Connecticut State College) and at the time the only Black student, had already earned the nickname “Honey” for his smooth play at Hillhouse High in New Haven. Popular and talented, he became a three-sport athlete his freshman year (football, basketball and baseball), and was voted by students as the school’s best athlete.
Not everyone was so enamored. On January 27th, 1934, the Connecticut basketball team was scheduled to play against the Coast Guard Academy in New London. The Coast Guard’s athletic administration. however, operated under a publicly avowed but unwritten rule that, since many of its cadets hailed from southern states, Black athletes would not be allowed to compete at the Academy.
Fitch’s arrival with his Connecticut team instantly generated a heated stalemate: the Coast Guard refused to play the the game if he was on the court; the Connecticut team was prepared to walk out if he wasn’t. Undaunted, Fitch took the court and warmed up with his teammates during more than half an hour of back-and-forth negotiation between coaches and officials aimed at breaking the deadlock. For reasons still unknown – perhaps it was part of an uneasy compromise – the game between the teams proceeded, but Connecticut coach John Heldman kept Fitch on the bench for the entire game. Tempers on both teams still ran high and there were plenty of fouls on both sides. At the final buzzer, Connecticut had beaten the Coast Guard team, 31-29.
By all accounts Fitch’s teammates had his back, and they weren’t the only ones. In an account headlined “Fires of Resentment Still Glow,” in February 1934 the Hartford Courant published excerpts of alumni response to the news from the Coast Guard game. “I realize that Coach Heldman did fight hard to have Fitch play and he should be commended for it,” wrote one alumna. “But the fighting did not go far enough. Harry Fitch is one of the best athletes at Connecticut, one of the most clean and fair players, as a glance at his record will show, that Connecticut has; and the silly prejudice prevailing at Coast Guard is no reason whatever for removing Fitch from the line-up.” Rather than conceding to pressure by having Fitch ride the bench, the letter-writer insisted (in all caps), “NO GAME SHOULD HAVE BEEN PLAYED SATURDAY.” Heldman, already an unpopular coach for his overall losing record, resigned in 1935 after a student poll overwhelmingly recommended firing him and he managed to lose to the alumni team.
Between personal financial concerns and the racism of the New London events, Fitch subsequently transferred to American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts to finish his degree, though he is said by his son Brooks Fitch to have maintained affection for UConn and continued to watch Huskies games throughout his life. He played for the “New England Colored All Stars” basketball team in 1945 and 1946 and is still lauded as a top starting forward. He went on to a career working for Monsanto and became a Mason of the highest achievable rank. Harrison “Honey” Fitch died on June 11, 1984 in Wallingford, leaving a legacy of breakthrough achievement, today in Connecticut history.
Laura Smith, Harrison Fitch,the First African American Basketball Player at Connecticut State College,”UCONN Library Archives and Special Collections
“Harrison B. Fitch, UConn’s First African-American Basketball Standout, Holds His Head High,” New England Historical Society
Mark J. Roy, “Son of UConn’s First Black Basketball Star Recounts Father’s Story,” UCONN Advance