Hello all, and welcome back to Husky History, a new column focusing on one accomplished UConn athlete per week. Each article should detail the athlete’s accolades at Connecticut, as well as their ability to take their games to the professional level.
This week’s Husky History focuses on UConn legend Harrison “Honey” Fitch. A trailblazer of his time, Fitch overcame racism and prejudice while playing three different sports in Storrs.
Growing up in New Haven, Connecticut with seven siblings and parents Collins and Lulu Fitch, “Honey” excelled in athletics, attending Hillhouse High School and notably contributing to their historic basketball program. After graduation, it was time for Fitch to take his talents to Storrs, enrolling in Connecticut State College – now the University of Connecticut – in 1932. At the time, Fitch was the only black student enrolled and became the first African American student-athlete in the school’s history.
“He had a high level of character, a state of dignity about himself and also a high level of strength and perseverance. Those are the key components that were critical to endure what he endured [as a black student-athlete],” said Brooks Fitch, Harrison’s son in an interview with UConn Athletics.
Fitch was a three-sport athlete on campus, playing end in football, guard in basketball and first baseman for the baseball team. He quickly picked up the nickname “Honey” because of how smooth he was on the field and court.
Despite being a black athlete even before the likes of barrier-breakers Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, Fitch was well received at Connecticut State. In his sophomore and junior years, he was voted the top athlete at the college by the student body in the annual Connecticut Campus – now The Daily Campus – poll. On a state level, Fitch was also honored as the top athlete in Connecticut during his tenure at Connecticut State.
While he was adored and respected by his peers at school, most other colleges didn’t share the same sentiment. In a Connecticut Campus article in 1934, it was noted that every opponent that the basketball team played had “ridden” Fitch about the color of his skin, except for Brown and the University of New Hampshire. UNH gave the barrier-breaker a standing ovation on his way out of the gymnasium.
Conflicts with opposing teams escalated in January of 1934, when the Huskies took on the Coast Guard Academy in nearby New London, Connecticut. After Fitch and Connecticut State had warmed up to play, the staff for the Coast Guard made it known that they would not take the court if Fitch was playing. An argument involving the Connecticut coaches, players and athletic director ensued for around an hour, until it was decided that Fitch would not start. At least, that’s what Fitch’s teammates thought. Head coach John Heldman made the decision not to put “Honey” in at all during the contest to the outrage of the team and the student body at UConn.
“It was a hard, rough contest in which fouls were plentiful and feelings ran high,” said the Hartford Courant in 1934.
The incident created a lot of publicity, and became national news. Even Congressman Oscar S. De Priest, the only black member of Congress at that time, released a statement in support of Fitch.
“The story was about Harrison Fitch, his character, the way he handled that, and also about the students at the University of Connecticut, but how they handled that, how they stepped up,” said Brooks Fitch. “It was a very good story at a very challenging time.”
Upon returning to campus, the some-700 students of Connecticut State made their voices heard. The sports editor of the Connecticut Campus at the time called for opposing teams to give Fitch his due respect, saying “We believe that most of our opponents are good enough sports to agree to such a demand.” Basketball captain Connie Donahue led a committee in March of 1934 to display the student’s opinions on Heldman and the athletic director at the time, Roy Guyer. In a campus poll, the students voted overwhelmingly to fire Heldman, and around 70 percent voted against Guyer. While the college didn’t fire Heldman as a result of the polls, he left the following year, with Guyer leaving the year after that.
After the spring 1934 semester, Fitch decided to leave Connecticut State due to financial reasons, as well as the aftermath of the incident at Coast Guard. He took his talents to American International College, excelling in basketball. After graduation, Fitch played football for the Boston Shamrocks of the AFL and the Wallingford Walcos of the Connecticut State Football League. In his remaining years, he wore many hats, being a husband and father, a researcher, basketball referee and a member of the Freemasons. After his death, Fitch was posthumously inducted into the Huskies of Honor in February 2022.
“To see Harrison Fitch up there with the champions, leaders and legends of UConn really provides inspiration for all of us… We know he would be very proud,” said Brooks Fitch on induction night.
“We are thrilled to welcome the Fitch family back to Storrs to celebrate the enduring legacy of Harrison Fitch,” said UConn athletic director David Benedict before Fitch’s induction. “Harrison Fitch is a hero and, while his bravery may have revealed the worst in some, it helped bring out the best in most, especially within a University community that rallied around him during his time at Storrs.”
Perhaps the most inspiring features of Fitch’s life was the legacy he left behind at the college and nationwide. His participation through adversity paved the way for hundreds of black student athletes at UConn to thrive.
“I’m very proud of what he accomplished, as well as how he accomplished it,” said Brooks Fitch. “At the end of the day, now more than ever, character is critical. Because of his character and the way carried himself every day, that brought the support level that allowed [black athletes excelling at UConn and nationwide] to go forward.”