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.
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.
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