The Complete History Of African-American QB’s In The NFL

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: December 16, 2007

Warren Moon

Warren Moon

PHILADELPHIA — With many African American Quarterbacks achieving success in the Pee Wee, Scholastic, College, and Professional ranks and with the retirements of the first wave of prominent African American Quarterbacks (James Harris, Doug Williams, Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham, and others), I felt that reviewing the history of these men and the pioneers before them was much needed.

History has shown that the journey of the African American QB was not an easy one, but when given the opportunity these men thrived in a system that was sometimes stacked against them. African American Quarterbacks are now in 2007, no longer an anomaly and are thriving. Their journey was definitely justified this past year as Warren Moon became the first Full Time African American Quarterback inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

His induction was a testament to himself and his predecessors at the position that overcame obstacles seen and unseen. Moon rode into the Hall of Fame on the shoulders of Willie Thrower, Marlin Briscoe, James Harris, Doug Williams and other pioneering African American quarterbacks.

African American Quarterbacks in their history have been shunned, converted to other positions, fought for inclusion, stereotyped (Drastic Misconceptions about the Leadership and Intelligence of African American Quarterbacks) and chased opportunities in other leagues, but they have persevered to go from an Unwanted Oddity to Flourishing leaders. Their extensive history is documented below:

Early Years (1890-1946)

The first mention of African Americans playing football was in a College Football game played on November 23, 1892 (Thanksgiving) between historically black colleges Biddle (Later Johnson C. Smith) and Livingstone. The game was won by Biddle by a score of 4-0. After the historic game many African Americans continued to play during this era for historically black colleges and predominantly white universities.

In the early days of pro football the African American professional football player was just another player in a renegade sport. African American Football players along with Whites and Native Americans were just trying to survive in an era where baseball, boxing, and college football reigned superior on the American Landscape. The pro football was considered barbaric and illegal, because it lacked structure, a fan base, and the prestige of college football.

Teams were loosely organized around factories/colleges/athletic clubs, featured players that jumped around from team to team, sporadic to little pay, fraught with fighting, and had college players play under assumed names. In the Pre-NFL days African American players from Colleges and Schools were recruited to play, with usually a promise for a job during the week. These players included: Halfback Charles W. Follis (Wooster) Shelby Athletic Club 1902-06, who is known to be the first black professional football player, Halfback Henry McDonald (Canandaigua Academy), who played for the Rochester Jeffersons from 1911-1917, and Halfback Charles (Doc) Baker, who did not attend college, but played for the Akron Indians from 1906-08 and 1911.

Until 1906, the forward pass was illegal in the game of football, so there was not a true “Quarterback”. The first authenticated pass completion in a pro game came on October 27, 1906 when George (Peggy) Parratt of Massillon threw a completion to Dan (Bullet) Riley in a victory over a combined Benwood-Moundsville team. Before the forward pass, the ball was hiked to the “Back” or “Signal Caller” and he negotiated behind his blockers (line of scrimmage) against the defense toward the goal line to score and he could only lateral the ball backward until he was tackled.

One of best “Signal Callers” of this time was Frederick (Fritz) Pollard a back from Brown (Class of 1918). Pollard was born on January 27, 1894 in Rogers Park, Illinois and though even standing only 5’9 and weighing 165 pounds, he ran with a hard slashing style that defied his size. At Brown as a freshman in 1915, Pollard led his team to the Rose Bowl against Washington State, becoming the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl. In his senior year he was named to Walter Camp’s All- American first team, the first African American in the backfield.

Professionally he played in the American Professional Football Association (Precursor to NFL) for seven years for Akron (1919-1921, 1925-26), Milwaukee (1922), Hammond (1923, 1925) and Providence (1926). Even though Pollard faced discriminatory tactics by fans and opposing players, including the racially insensitive song “Bye Bye Blackbird” and dressing away from his teammates, he continued to prosper as he did in college. He led the Akron Pros to the championship in 1920, attaining All League status and was lauded along with Jim Thorpe as the major gate attractions.

Later on he was the first African American head coach in the NFL (Hammond, Indiana) and is credited on the Fritz Pollard website ( and by the Pro Football Hall of Fame as being the first African American Quarterback, playing the position and taking direct snaps from center in a T-Formation for the Hammond Pros in a couple of games in 1923. He was elected to the College Hall of Fame (1954, 1st African American) and was finally inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005 almost 80 years after his playing days were over. He died in 1986 at the age of 92 and was a true pioneer of the game and left a lasting legacy for future African American Quarterbacks and players.

Also during this period African Americans were playing quarterback in the college game. One of the first documented African American Quarterback only players was Wilmeth Sidat-Singh of Syracuse. He played quarterback in 1937 and 1938. Sidat-Singh was known for having a strong and accurate throwing arm.

Teams sometimes after learning that Syracuse had a black player refused to let Sidat-Singh play. One of these teams was Maryland, which refused to let Sidat-Singh play in 1937 and won the game, but in October of 1938 Sidat-Singh would not be denied leading Syracuse to a 53-0 victory.

The NFL did not have black players from 1934 to 1946. When the league started to gain popularity in the 1930′s and to avoid public “backlash” from a lack of white players during the depression, the league no longer signed black players due to a “Gentleman’s Agreement” to keep the league like Pro Baseball, “All White”.

This was an unfortunate bad spot in the NFL’s history. During this time African American Players formed their own teams and played against each other and in some interracial exhibition games. One of the more famous teams of football’s “Negro Leagues” was the New York Brown Bombers backed by Joe Louis and coached and managed by Fritz Pollard. Pollard also coached and managed the Chicago Black Hawks football team during this time.

Next: The Modern Era Years (1946-1969)