A Black History Month Salute to the Black Professional Football Player

Today as the world gets ready to watch the Superbowl we look back at the history of Black players in professional football. 

Details of the history of black players in American professional football depend on the professional football league considered: the National Football League(NFL), which evolved from the first professional league, the American Professional Football Association, or the American Football League, (AFL), a rival league from 1960 through 1969, which eventually merged with the NFL.

 

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Early years

Charles Follis is believed to be the first black professional football player, having played for the Shelby Steamfitters from 1902 to 1906. Follis, a two sport athlete, was paid for his work beginning in 1904.

From its inception in 1920 as a loose coalition of various regional teams, the American Professional Football Association had comparatively few African-American players; a total of nine black people suited up for NFL teams between 1920 and 1926. Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall were the first black players in what is now the NFL in 1920. Pollard became the first black coach in 1921. (Fritz Pollard lived in the DMV at the time of his death.  He passed away in Silver Spring, MD in 1986 at the age of 92.)

1927 through 1933

After 1926, all five of the black players that were still in the subsequent National Football League left the league. Several teams were kicked out of the league that year, and with a large number of available and talented white players, black players were generally the first to be removed, never to return again. For the next few years, a black player would sporadically pop up on a team.

In 1933, the last year of integration, the NFL had two black players, Joe Lillard and Ray Kemp. Both were gone by the end of the season. Many observers will attribute the subsequent lockout of black players to the entry of George Preston Marshall into the league in 1932. Marshall openly refused to have black athletes on his Boston Braves/Washington Redskins team, and reportedly pressured the rest of the league to follow suit. Marshall, however, was likely not the only reason: the Great Depression had stoked an increase in racism and self-inflicted segregation across the country, and internal politics likely had as much of an effect as external pressure.

Most black players either ended up in the minor leagues (six joined the American Association and several others found their way into the Pacific Coast Professional Football League) or found themselves onto all-black barnstorming teams such as the Harlem Brown Bombers. Unlike in baseball, where the Negro Leagues flourished, no true football Negro league was known to exist until 1946, and by this time, the major leagues had begun reintegrating.

By 1933, there were no more black players in the league. The NFL did not have another black player until after World War II.

 

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Post-WWII

During this time the NFL did not have any African American players. In 1946, after the Rams had received approval to move to Los Angeles, members of the African American print media made the Los Angeles Coliseum commission aware of this and reminded the commission the Coliseum was supported with public funds. Therefore, its commission had to abide by an 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, by not leasing the stadium to a segregated team. The commission advised the Rams that they would have to integrate the team with at least one African American in order to lease the Coliseum, and the Rams agreed to this condition. Subsequently, the Rams signed one of the greatest collegiate football players in history, Kenny Washington from UCLA on March 21, 1946. The signing of Washington caused “all hell to break loose” among the owners of the NFL franchises. The Rams added a second black player, Woody Strode, on May 7, 1946, giving them two black players going into the 1946 season.

Even after this incident, racial integration was slow to come to the NFL. No team followed the Rams in re-integrating the NFL until the Detroit Lions signed Mel Groomes and Bob Mann in 1948. No black player was selected in the NFL draft until 1949 when George Taliaferro was selected in the 13th round; Taliaferro signed instead with the rival All-America Football Conference. The AAFC, which formed in 1946, was more proactive in signing black players; in 1946, the Cleveland Browns signed Marion Motley and Bill Willis, and by the time the AAFC merged with the NFL in 1950, six of the league’s eight teams had signed black players, most by the league’s second season in 1947. In comparison, only three of the ten NFL teams (the Rams, Detroit Lions and New York Giants) signed a black player before 1950. The Green Bay Packers followed in 1950, but the bulk of NFL teams did not sign a black player until 1952, by which time every team but the Washington Redskins had signed a black player. 

Marshall was quoted as saying “We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.” The Redskins had no black players until Interior Secretary Stewart Udall threatened to evict them from D. C. Stadium unless they signed a black player. The Redskins eventually signed Bobby Mitchell and two other African American players by 1962.

Quotas limiting the number of black players were commonplace, and black players were often stacked into the same positions to allow them to be eliminated as a matter of competition. Reportedly, black players routinely received lower contracts than whites in the NFL, while in the American Football League there was no such distinction based on race. Position segregation was also prevalent at this time. According to several books, such as the autobiography of Vince Lombardi, black players were stacked at “speed” positions such as defensive back but excluded from “intelligent” positions such as quarterback and center. However, despite the NFL’s segregationist policies, after the league merged with the more tolerant AFL in 1970, more than 30% of the merged league’s players were African American.

 

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American Football League influence

Conversely, the American Football League actively recruited players from small colleges that had been largely ignored by the NFL, giving those schools’ black players the opportunity to play professional football. As a result, for the years 1960 through 1962, AFL teams averaged 17% more blacks than NFL teams did. By 1969, a comparison of the two league’s championship team photos showed the AFL’s Chiefs with 23 black players out of 51 players pictured, while the NFL Vikings had 11 blacks, of 42 players in the photo.

The American Football League had the first black placekicker in U.S. professional football, Gene Mingo of the Denver Broncos (Mingo’s primary claim to fame, however, was as a running back, and was only secondarily a placekicker); and the first black regular starting quarterback of the modern era, James Harris of the Buffalo Bills. (Marlin Briscoe, a wide receiver/defensive back for the Denver Broncos, also started several games as the Broncos’ third-string quarterback at around the same time as Harris, but he returned to wide receiver after leaving the Broncos; Briscoe attributed the forced change of position to “95 percent” institutional racism, even in the more liberal AFL.) Willie Thrower was a back-up quarterback who saw some action in the 1950s for theChicago Bears.

Today

Today, recent surveys have shown that the NFL is approximately 57–61% non-white, including African Americans, Polynesians (an anomalously high 1.7% of NFL players are American Samoans), non-white Hispanics, Asians, and people of mixed race. This statistic is in contrast to the general population of the United States, which is 28% non-white.

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