NFL’s Black Pioneers Overlooked — Until Now

By Chuck Curti
Updated: July 21, 2006

Kenny Washington

Kenny Washington

Woody Strode

Woody Strode

BEAVER, Pa. — You likely didn’t notice it. It probably didn’t even make the sports segment on the 6 o’clock news.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the color barrier being broken in the NFL. The Senate recognized the milestone this past Tuesday with a resolution that will be part of the NFL’s commemoration at its Hall of Fame game next month.

While Jackie Robinson’s debut in Major League Baseball in 1947 sent shockwaves across the nation, the full integration of the NFL in 1946 caused barely a ripple by comparison.

In 1946, Kenny Washington – who, coincidentally, was Robinson’s roommate at UCLA – suited up for the Los Angeles Rams. Woody Strode, who later went on to a respectable acting career, also played with the Rams that season.

Perhaps it was pro football’s still-lowly status that rendered Washington’s accomplishment so unheralded. After all, baseball was still king in those days, and the NFL was still trying to win over a public smitten with the college game.

Or maybe it was because the NFL started out integrated when it was formed in 1920. The color line was drawn after the 1932 season during the Great Depression. The rationale was that black football players would take jobs away from whites.

Once the ban was lifted in 1946, it took until 1962 for every NFL team to have a black player. The last team to integrate was the Washington Redskins, who, after a losing season in 1961, traded for eventual hall-of-famer Bobby Mitchell.

It’s an injustice to men like Washington and Strode that they are not recognized on the same level as Robinson. They experienced persecution and resistance just like Robinson.

In the NFL’s “75 Seasons” production, Strode illustrated their plight this way: “If I have to integrate heaven, I don’t want to go.”

Fortunately, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, recognizes the NFL’s black pioneers with a special display. Unfortunately, Washington and Strode are not likely to get their just due on a larger scale.

l While we’re on the subject of players getting their just due, there is a movement afoot to get Roberto Clemente’s No. 21 retired on a major-league-wide scale the same way Robinson’s No. 42 is.

During All-Star festivities, the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez said that Clemente is the Hispanics’ version of Robinson.

While there’s no question Clemente made a tremendous impact for Latin American players, he probably shouldn’t be held in the same esteem as Robinson.

Without Robinson’s effort, there might not have been a Clemente in the majors. Robinson opened the door for all minorities, which enabled Clemente to walk through.