The National Football League was founded in 1920, but before that, several professional football teams were formed. Without the benefit of an organized league, these teams nevertheless found competition with other nearby squads, and many played very respectable schedules.
I mentioned in my profile on Frank Holbrook that he played in a semi-pro game in 1897. Those were often the types of games that made up post-collegiate football back then…games where residents of one town scrimmaged against another. Such games took place from coast to coast, many with little or no records of rosters or outcomes, and it’s impossible to say how many African-Americans – like Holbrook – participated in these contests.
Thanks to the work of the Pro Football Researchers Association, documentation on African-American professional football players, by which we mean true paid professionals, is much more clear. The first African-American professional football player on record was Charles W. Follis. Follis played right halfback for the Shelby Athletic Club from 1902-1906. Records indicate that Follis was a paid professional at least by the 1904 football season, although he might have been paid as early as 1902. Either way, Follis stands out as the first paid African-American football player on record. One of his teammates on the Shelby Athletic Club roster was Branch Rickey, who would go on to own the Brooklyn Dodgers and break baseball’s color ban by signing Jackie Robinson.
As a black sports trailblazer, Follis suffered a number of injuries playing football, including one in a 1906 game that ended his football career. He limited his athletic pursuits to baseball after that, playing catcher for the all-black Cuban Giants. After a Giants game in 1910, however, Follis caught pneumonia and died at age 31.
The second black pro football player was Charles “Doc” Baker, so nicknamed because he served as a doctor’s assistant in Akron, Ohio. Baker competed at halfback for the Akron Indians of the Ohio League from 1906-1908 and again in 1911. Little is known about Baker’s life outside of football, and he is presumed to have died in the early 1920s.
The best-known quote about Baker’s play came after a 1911 Akron game against the Canton Bulldogs. “Halfback Baker, from appearances a second Jack Johnson, was Akron’s best man,” the Canton Repository reported. “He was in every play both on offense and defense and seemed impervious to injury. On several occasions he was thrown hard, with several others on top of him. But he always came up smiling. His plunges through and outside of tackle were the best ground-gainers for the Akron team.”
The third African-American pro football player was probably the most accomplished as well in the pre-NFL era. Henry McDonald played a remarkable seven seasons with the Rochester Jeffersons from 1911-1917. McDonald, a halfback, later said that in seven years playing pro football, he only recalled one negative racial incident.
It took place in McDonald’s final year in 1917, when his team traveled to play the great Jim Thorpe and his Canton Bulldogs. During one play, Canton’s Earle “Greasy” Neale threw McDonald out of bounds and then started to taunt his opponent. Neale reportedly said, “Black is black and white is white where I come from, and the two don’t mix.” McDonald and Neale were about to get into it when Thorpe scolded Neale, “We’re here to play football.” The two sides separated, and McDonald had no more trouble with Neale or anyone else the rest of the game. “Thorpe’s word was the law on that field,” McDonald recalled.
The fourth and final black pro football player to participate exclusively in the pre-NFL era was Gideon “Charlie” Smith. The former Michigan State tackle played in just one professional game – on November 28, 1915, for the Canton Bulldogs against the Massillon Tigers. Smith was a late fourth-quarter substitute in his only pro football game, but he made his presence count, recovering a fumble that preserved a 6-0 Canton victory. Smith’s one professional game was the only thing that kept Duke Slater – the first black lineman in NFL history – from being the first black lineman in the history of pro football.
African-Americans in Pro Football – NFL, 1920-1933
Thirteen African-Americans played in the National Football League during the league’s formative years. Here is a quick look at each of these 13 trailblazers.
Fritz Pollard (Seven seasons: 1919-1923 and 1925-1926)
Fritz Pollard, the halfback from Brown University, was the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl game in 1916. After college, he played for several NFL teams, including the Akron Pros, Hammond Pros, Milwaukee Badgers, and Providence Steam Roller. Pollard actually played one year with the Akron Pros in 1919 before the NFL was formed; he then went on to play six seasons in the NFL for various teams. Along with Bobby Marshall, Pollard was one of two African-American players that played in the NFL’s inaugural season in 1920.
Pollard is responsible for a large number of firsts among African-Americans in NFL history. He was the first black player (along with Marshall) in 1920; his Akron Pros won the first NFL championship in 1920, making Pollard the first African-American to claim an NFL title; he was named a first team all-pro by the Rock Island Argus in 1920, making Pollard the first black all-pro; and he served as the head coach of the Hammond Pros in 1923 and 1924, making Pollard the first black coach in NFL history. Put it all together, and it’s easy to see why Pollard became the first (and thus far, only) African-American from the pre-World War II era inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Bobby Marshall (Four seasons: 1919-1921 and 1925)
Bobby Marshall was a star end for the University of Minnesota from 1904-1906. Marshall fit in well at Minnesota in large part because he was so fair-skinned, as an African-American, that he could pass through white society with little objection. After graduation, the versatile Marshall played baseball and hockey and the occasional semi-pro football game.
By the time pro football really caught on in the late-1910s, Marshall was already well past the prime playing age of most football players in those days. Nevertheless, Marshall found a home on the Rock Island Independents; like Pollard, Marshall played one season of pro football in 1919 before the creation of the NFL. He then went on to play two seasons in the NFL in 1920 and 1921, joining Pollard as the league’s first black player and first black all-pro by earning all-pro honors for his play in 1920. Marshall spent a number of years in semi-pro ball before concluding his NFL career with the Duluth Kelleys in 1925. Bobby Marshall continued to play semi-pro football and baseball into the 1930s, in what was quite possibly the longest professional sports career of any pre-World War II African-American athlete.
Paul Robeson (Two seasons: 1921-1922)
Paul Robeson was an All-American halfback at Rutgers University in 1918. After his college career, he spent two seasons in the NFL as a teammate to Fritz Pollard – in 1921 with the Akron Pros and in 1922 with the Milwaukee Badgers. Robeson then retired from professional football to pursue other interests.
It’s those other interests that earned Robeson global fame. He became a renowned singer and theatre and film actor, playing Othello in London to massive acclaim. Robeson then used his fame to become a social activist, championing the rights of African-Americans and drawing ire from the U.S. government for his criticism of American political policies.
His career as an artist and activist has led many observers to overstate his role as an NFL pioneer. Make no mistake…I have a lot of respect for Paul Robeson and everything he accomplished in his life. However, he had a short-lived pro football career that drew little attention at the time. It was only after he became famous for life after football that observers have gone back and singled him out for attention among these 13 football pioneers. Because of his post-football success, his accolades in professional football have been, in my opinion, vastly overstated.
Inky Williams (Six seasons: 1921-1926)
In contrast to Robeson, very, very few fans know Jay Mayo “Inky” Williams. Yet I believe that Williams was one of the most talented African-American players to play in the NFL before World War II.
Ink Williams played end at Brown University, Fritz Pollard’s alma mater. He then went on to have a six-year career in the NFL, which ranks second among African-Americans in this era (behind Duke Slater and tied with Fritz Pollard). He had short-lived tenures with the Canton Bulldogs, Dayton Triangles, and Cleveland Bulldogs, but he played six years with his primary team, the Hammond Pros. Williams started 34 games in the NFL, two fewer than Pollard but more than twice as many as any other pre-World War II African-American (excluding Slater).
In 1923, as a left end for the Hammond Pros, he was named a first-team all-pro by the Green Bay Press-Gazette. That was no small feat; only three other black players (Pollard, Marshall, and Slater) earned all-pro honors during this era. The Green Bay Press-Gazette, considered by many the top NFL all-pro team in the land from 1922-1931, was particularly hard on African-Americans. Pollard and Marshall, you’ll recall, earned all-pro honors in 1920 from the Rock Island Argus, a paper which was much more lenient toward naming black players as all-pros. The Press-Gazette, on the other hand, only named two black players as all-pros: Williams in 1923 and Duke Slater (on five occasions).
Duke Slater (Ten seasons: 1922-1931)
Well, well…look who it is. I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about Slater here…I’ve done so elsewhere on many occasions. Suffice it to say that Duke Slater, a tackle who was the first black lineman in NFL history, was the most decorated African-American pro football player prior to World War II – and it wasn’t remotely close.
Duke Slater earned seven all-pro selections in his NFL career – the other twelve black players in this era earned seven combined. Five of those all-pro selections were from the Green Bay Press-Gazette, who, as mentioned, honored only one other black player during this period: Inky Williams in 1923. Slater played more seasons than any other black player in this era; he played in more than twice as many games as any other black player in this era; and he started as many games as the next four closest African-American players in this era combined. And all of those comparisons include Fritz Pollard, who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Duke Slater, of course, isn’t…but we’ve covered that too, I guess.
John Shelburne (One season: 1922)
John Shelburne (often misspelled Shelbourne) played six games for the Hammond Pros in 1922. He had been a standout high school track and football star in Boston in 1914 and enrolled at Dartmouth University. He left school to serve with other black troops in World War I, but he returned to Dartmouth after the war and graduated in 1919. Shelburne played one season of pro football in 1922 before taking a head coaching job at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
Shelburne also coached high school football in Indianapolis before returning home to Boston in the 1930s. He served as a social worker there for three decades, working to mentor young people.
James Turner (One season: 1923)
Turner joins Shelburne as one of the four one-season wonders of these 13 pioneers. James Turner, a back from Northwestern, played three games with the Milwaukee Badgers in 1923. I’m going to be perfectly honest…of these 13 men, Turner is the one I know the least about. I can’t tell you anything else about Turner outside of his three games with Milwaukee.
Sol Butler (Three seasons: 1923-1924 and 1926)
Now Solomon Butler I can tell you a bit about! Sol Butler first shook up the sports world in track and field. Butler, a graduate of the University of Dubuque, broke the American record for the running long jump in 1919. He made the 1920 U.S. Olympic Track team and was considered a favorite in the running long jump event. However, Butler pulled a tendon in his right leg on his first jump of the qualifying round and had to drop out of the competition.
Butler turned to the NFL, and I mention in my book, Duke Slater, how he made his NFL debut. He stunned observers by walking onto the field for the Rock Island Independents before a game in 1923 and leading them to a major upset of the Chicago Bears. Like so many of these African-American pioneers, Butler eventually found a home with the Hammond Pros, playing three seasons with them before retiring from football. His life ended in tragedy in 1954 when, while serving as a bartender in a Chicago establishment, Butler was shot and killed by an angry customer.
Dick Hudson (Three seasons: 1923 and 1925-1926)
I mentioned Dick Hudson in my book about Duke Slater as well. Hudson, a speedy halfback, actually tried out for the Rock Island Independents in 1923 but was cut from the squad. Hudson then went up to Minnesota, where he played three games that year for the Minneapolis Marines, including one game against Slater’s Rock Island team.
Dick Hudson finished his NFL career with the Hammond Pros, playing five games across two seasons from 1925-1926. His NFL career was one of the more unusual among the members of this group – he played three seasons in the NFL but only eight games.
Harold Bradley (One season: 1928)
A lot of African-American players saw their careers end in 1926. Pollard, Williams, Butler, and Hudson all played their final season in the NFL in 1926. Only Duke Slater survived in the league and prevented a color ban from taking place in 1927. For the 1928 season, Slater helped convince his team, the Chicago Cardinals, to take a chance on another black lineman: Harold Bradley.
Harold Bradley was a guard who briefly attended the University of Iowa; however, he never earned a varsity letter with the football team. Bradley’s brief stint at Iowa drew the attention of Duke Slater, the NFL’s first black lineman, and Slater encouraged the Cardinals to make Bradley the NFL’s second black lineman! Slater and Bradley started alongside each other for the opening game of the 1928 season – Slater at tackle and Bradley at guard. Bradley then came off of the bench in Chicago’s second game of the year before being released from the team.
Harold Bradley never played another NFL game. Of these 13 African-American pioneers, Bradley’s two-game career was the shortest. Bradley went on to have a son, Harold Bradley Jr., who would follow in his footsteps – first at the University of Iowa, and then in the NFL as one of the first wave of players to reintegrate the league after World War II.
David Myers (Two seasons: 1930-1931)
Outside of those two weeks in 1928 when Harold Bradley was on the Cardinals’ roster, Duke Slater was the only African-American in the NFL from 1927-1929. In 1930, the Staten Island Stapletons signed Dave Myers to join Slater as the NFL’s second African-American player.
Myers had been a star quarterback for New York University. Yes, friends, NYU used to have a football team, and Myers starred in 1929 victories over teams like Penn State and Rutgers. Since Slater proved there was no hard color ban in pro football, Staten Island signed Myers to a contract for the 1930 season.
In the NFL, Myers alternated between the backfield and the line, playing the guard position. After one season with Staten Island, Myers played for the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers in 1931. One 1931 game against the Cardinals featured the NFL’s only two African-Americans – Duke Slater at right tackle for the Cards and David Myers at left guard for the Dodgers. After the 1931 season, both Slater and Myers called it quits and exited the league together.
Joe Lillard (Two seasons: 1932-1933)
Joe Lillard attended Mason City High School in northern Iowa and starred in football, basketball, and track. He planned to play football at the University of Minnesota and Coach Clarence Spears, but when Spears left for the University of Oregon, Lillard followed him out there. He played two games for Oregon as a sophomore in 1931 before being ruled ineligible for college football for playing semi-pro baseball in the offseason. Lillard then turned to professional football and joined the Chicago Cardinals in 1932.
Slater and Myers left the NFL after the 1931 season, but Lillard replaced Slater on the Cardinals to become the only African-American player in the NFL in 1932. Lillard also played for the Cardinals in 1933, but unlike Slater, he had a fiery temper and could be baited into altercations by opposing players. Joe Lillard was ejected from two NFL games in 1933, and after the season, he was released from the team.
Lillard and his temper were held up by segregationists as a prime example for why blacks and whites should not mix on the football field. Lillard was one of the last two black players to play in the NFL prior to the color ban of 1934-1945. A versatile athlete, Joe Lillard went on to become a pitcher in the Negro Leagues and a guard for the basketball exhibition team that later became known as the Harlem Globetrotters.
Ray Kemp (One season: 1933)
Ray Kemp, along with Lillard, was the last African-American to play in the NFL prior to the 1934-1945 color ban. Kemp, a former standout tackle at Duquesne, was recruited to the NFL’s new Pittsburgh Pirates football team, which was later renamed the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ray Kemp played five games in 1933 for the Pirates, including one game against the Cardinals and Lillard. However, Kemp was released from the team after five games by player-coach Jap Douds, a fellow tackle who kept several of his friends on the roster.
Kemp went on to have a long coaching career at multiple historically black colleges. He was recognized by the Steelers during the franchise’s 50th anniversary celebration in 1983, and when he died in 2002, he was honored as the last remaining member of the Steelers’ inaugural team.
African-Americans in Pro Football – The Color Ban, 1934-1945
With African-Americans banned from the NFL, several African-American all-star teams began to appear. These semi-pro teams scrimmaged against other local clubs in an effort to show that blacks and whites could play football together peaceably. The two most prominent of these all-star teams were both nicknamed the Brown Bombers after boxing great Joe Louis. The New York Brown Bombers, organized by Fritz Pollard, competed for eight seasons from 1936-1942 and again in 1946.
The Chicago Brown Bombers got their start in 1937 under the coaching of Duke Slater. He left the Bombers’ head coaching job after one season, but the Chicago Brown Bombers stuck around for four seasons from 1937-1940. Slater went on to coach other African-American all-star teams, notably the Chicago Comets and Chicago Panthers, in 1939 and 1940, respectively.
The most notable game in this era for a black all-star team was a 1938 exhibition between the Chicago Negro All-Stars and the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. The Negro All-Stars, coached by Ray Kemp and Duke Slater, were pummeled, 51-0, but the attention that the exhibition received and the lack of animosity between the two clubs on the field brought hope for the NFL’s eventual reintegration.
Meanwhile, several African-American standouts took their places on various semi-pro teams. This list, as compiled by the Pro Football Researchers Association, contains two players (Lillard and Kemp) who played in the NFL before the color ban and two players (Kenny Washington and Woody Strode) who played in the NFL after the color ban. The 25 known African-American players who were limited to semi-pro football on account of the color ban are:
Chuck Anderson (Five seasons)
Ezzrett Anderson (Four seasons)
George Burgwin (One season)
Ted Floyd (One season)
Carl Hancock (Four seasons)
Clem Hooks (Four seasons)
Bill “Dolly” King (One season)
Clarence Lee (Three seasons)
William “Bull” Lewis (Five seasons)
Clarence Mackey (Four seasons)
Everett “Sam” Marcell (Two seasons)
Billy Mills (Four seasons)
Tommy Mills (One season)
Earl Minneweather (Two seasons)
John Moody (One season)
Ernie “Gene” Provost (Three seasons)
Mel Reid (Six seasons)
Bernie Remson (Seven seasons)
Jackie Robinson (Two seasons)
Don Simmons (One season)
Ozzie Simmons (Two seasons)
Bobby Vandever (Six seasons)
Hugh Walker (Two seasons)
Tex Washington (Two seasons)
Ed Williams (Three seasons)
African-Americans in Pro Football – NFL Reintegration, 1946-1962
After World War II, things changed drastically for African-Americans in pro football. A new football league, the All-America Football Conference, was created in 1946 and would challenge the NFL’s supremacy in American pro football. The AAFC had no problem accepting African-Americans like Bill Willis and Marion Motley, and these two players were the first black athletes signed by the new league.
In response, the NFL lifted its own color ban in 1946, as the Los Angeles Rams signed west coast standouts Kenny Washington and Woody Strode. Washington and Strode reintegrated the NFL after a 12-year ban on African-American participation, and other league clubs quickly followed suit. The last holdout, the Washington Redskins, dragged their feet before finally integrating their franchise in 1962. From that point forward, the conversation concerning African-Americans in pro football shifted toward opportunities at various positions (particularly quarterback), in the coaching ranks, and as front office executives.
The pioneers in this post all paved the way for African-Americans in pro football. They were subjected to discrimination, prejudice, and even outright bans on their play. But by their effort, professional football is a greater game today than it has ever been, and their contributions to the sport will never be forgotten.