Everyone knows the story of Jackie Robinson and breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, but the real color barrier for African-Americans was broken the year before in pro football in both the AAFC and NFL.
Few minorities played in the American Professional Players Association (forerunner of the NFL) after the league started in 1920, a total of 9 through 1933, including Bobby Marshall and Fritz Pollard. Pollard was hired as co-head coach for the Akron Pros in 1921 after leading them to the first league title in 1920, also keeping his position as running back that year.
The league also had a few Indians, including and thanks to Jim Thorpe and the athletic program at Carlisle University in Pennsylvania, and the Dayton Triangles had the first 2 Asian-Americans in
Chinese-Hawaiian running back Walter Achiu and Japanese-Scottish quarterback Arthur Matsu, both in 1928.
1933 featured the last 2 African-Americans on rosters, Joe Lillard for the Chicago Cardinals, and Ray Kemp for the Pittsburgh Pirates (before they became the Steelers).
When George Marshall bought the Boston Braves in 1932 (changing to Redskins the next year), there became an unofficial ban on minorities in the NFL, lasting through the remaining years up until the end of World War II.
1946 featured the debut of the All-American Football Conference, the first major challenge to the NFL. The AAFC had many advantages over the NFL, one being founded by Arch Ward, owner of the Chicago Tribune, assuring media coverage for the league, and they also planned on teams in San Francisco and Los Angeles, while the NFL’s farthest imprint west was Chicago.
With the Cleveland Browns signing of local legend Paul Brown to coach the team, and the strong local ties the team had put together, the defending champion Cleveland Rams saw the writing on the wall and petitioned to move to Los Angeles. The league initially refused due to the cost of travel, but after owner Dan Reeves threatened to withdraw from the league and join the AAFC, and after losing the Brooklyn Tigers and owner Dan Topping to the AAFC, the league re-considered and agreed to the move.
As the Rams entered into negotiations to lease the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, members of the African-American media in Southern California reminded the Memorial Coliseum Commission that the NFL had no African-American players. With the Coliseum supported with public funds, thecommission had to abide by an 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, by not leasing the stadium to a segregated team.
With local UCLA legend Kenny Washington still living in L.A., the commission suggested to the Rams that since they had to sign at least one minority to fulfill the terms of the lease, why not sign Washington?
Washington, along with fellow African-Americans Willy Strode, Ray Bartlett, and some guy named JACKIE ROBINSON, were integral members of the 1939 UCLA football team. They had tied national champion USC 0-0 in the 1940 Rose Bowl, the first game in that series with national title implications. Washington rushed for over 1,900 yards in his college career.
With the signing of Washington on March 21, 1946, and the subsequent signing of Woody Strode on May 7, the Rams had 2 African-Americans heading into the 1946 season.
The AAFC was more pro-active, with the Cleveland Browns signing of Marian Motley and Bill Willis for the 1946 season, and by the time the AAFC merged with the NFL in 1950, 6 of the 8 teams in the league had African-Americans. In that time, only 3 NFL teams, including the Rams, had African-Americans on rosters, and it wasn’t until 1952 that 9 of the 10 teams filled roster spots with minorities.
One of the worst offenders was George Marshall, owner of the Redskins. He was quoted as saying, “We’ll start signing Blacks when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing Whites”. The Redskins had no black players until Interior Secretary of State Stewart Udall threatened to evict them from D.C. Stadium unless they signed a black player, which they did when Bobby Mitchell signed in 1962.
With the AAFC season starting 2 weeks before the NFL, the historical marker shows Marion Motley officially becoming the first African-American in Pro Football for that year.
But that doesn’t mean it was all wine and roses. Motley and Willis contended with racism throughout their careers. Although the color barrier was broken in all major American sports by 1950, the men endured shouted insults on the field and racial discrimination off of it. “They found out that while they were calling us niggers and alligator bait, I was running for touchdowns and Willis was knocking the shit out of them,” Motley once said. “So they stopped calling us names and started trying to catch up with us.”
Washington’s teammates also commented how strong he was in the face of insults and slurs as they played in an era with maybe 2 dozen African-Americans total playing college football.
Motley had a more productive NFL career, rushing for over 4,700 yards and averaging over 5 yards a rush in a career capped with induction into the Hall of Fame in 1968, while Washington played 3 injury filled with the Rams that ended with his retirement in 1949.