Unsung Heroes: Integrating Professional Football

Throughout the month of February, in honor of Black History Month, we will be featuring unsung heroes and stories of the civil rights movement. You can find more stories of those well-known and not-so-well-known in our Digital Classroom’s “Making A Change” module. To access their stories, you must be signed into the Digital Classroom; registration is free. 

When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, major league baseball was changed forever.

Advertisement for the Chicago/Michigan college football game. Chicago Record-Herald, Nov. 30, 1905. (Newseum Collection)

Chicago Record-Herald, Nov. 30, 1905. (Newseum Collection)

However, professional football had a history of integration and re-integration well before Robinson stepped on the field.

Shortly after the turn of the century, one African American was featured among the players in a 1902 team photograph of the Shelby Steamfitters out of Shelby, Ohio. He was Charles Follis, dubbed “The Black Cyclone” by the media. When he signed a contract to play for $10 a game, it gave Follis the distinction of being the first African American to play professional football. (Records leave uncertainty on whether Follis’s “first” occurred in 1902 or 1904.)

After Follis, a total of 16 other African Americans played professional football through 1933, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Four of them, including Follis, played in the pre-NFL years of the pay-for-play version of the game. Frederick (Fritz) Pollard and Robert (Rube) Marshall are recognized as the first African Americans to compete in what is now the National Football League.

Joe Lillard and Ray Kemp were two of the last black players to play on integrated teams before an agreement among team owners in 1933 ended integration of professional football.

It wasn’t until 1946 that professional football was re-integrated. Four players, Kenny Washington (Los Angeles Rams), Woody Strode (Los Angeles Rams), Marion Motley (Cleveland Browns) and Bill Willis (Cleveland Browns), broke the color barrier again and faced some of the same abuses Jackie Robinson faced on the field.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

  1. Compare and contrast the stories of Jackie Robinson and the four football players that were the first to re-integrate what we now know as the NFL. Why is the story of Robinson so well known and the stories of Washington, Strode, Motley and Willis largely absent from history?
  2. In the Digital Classroom, view the Newseum’s “Press and the Civil Rights Movement” for a brief history of the movement and the press. What role did the press play in the civil rights movement? How did that role change over time?

Do you have an “Unsung Hero” that you would like included in the Digital Classroom? Visit our blog for more details on the Unsung Heroes Writing Contest

The Newseum Digital Classroom is a free resource featuring primary sources, interactives, historic newsreels, videos and lesson plans that bring history, journalism and the First Amendment to life for students.

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