Black Press helped force integration of the NFL

Inspired by TV One’s Unsung series, this multi-part MSR series shines a well-deserved spotlight on individual or group accomplishments that unfortunately have been overlooked, or perhaps even “forgotten.” This week the spotlight is on the Jackie Robinsons of the NFL.

A year before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947, two of his former college teammates did the same for pro football. But what Kenny Washington and Woody Strode did in 1946 has sadly been largely forgotten.

Washington (1918-1971) was a star running back at UCLA in the late 1930s as one of four Black players alongside Strode, Ray Bartlett and Jackie Robinson. NFL owners earlier blocked him from being signed by Chicago, but Washington eventually was signed by the newly relocated Los Angeles Rams in 1946.

Strode (1914-1994) also signed with the Rams later that year. Then Cleveland signed Bill Willis and Marion Motley. The four became the first Black players to play modern pro football. A few African Americans had played in the NFL in the 1920s, but that was discontinued when the owners adopted an unwritten rule that only White players would be accepted on their teams. That’s why the signing of Black players in the 1930s-‘40s is referred to as “re-integration.”

“Racism delayed their chances in the pros… They were past their prime in the NFL,” wrote Gretchen Atwood in Lost Champions (Bloomsbury, 2016), a book in which she spotlights the NFL’s first four Black players.

Also overlooked and forgotten was how Los Angeles-based Black sportswriters, in particular Halley Harding, also helped break the NFL’s color line. Harding, an outspoken columnist for the Los Angeles Tribune, a weekly Black newspaper, pleaded his case before the city’s commission in charge of the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the Rams were seeking permission to play.

The Black Press regularly challenged pro teams in print to sign Black players while the mainstream media maintained the status quo in this regard. As a result, the Black L.A. scribes took full advantage after the Rams relocated west from Cleveland.

“He [Harding] was not alone in his efforts, but he defiantly was kind of the ringleader and spokesperson for the group whenever the group was pushing teams,” said Atwood of Harding, who died of a stroke in 1967. He also wrote for newspapers in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Baltimore during his decades-long journalism career that started after he played college football and Negro League baseball in the early 1920s.

“I came across his name [when] I was looking into the story of Kenny Washington and Woody Strode,” noted the San Francisco-based author in a recent MSR phone interview. Harding was “a very boisterous guy, a very opinionated man,” she explained. “He rubbed people the wrong way because he was so smart, and he didn’t try to hide it or care if he ruffled feathers along the way.”

The Black writers led by Harding met with “three middle-age White guys” from the Rams at a Los Angeles Black nightclub, continued Atwood. The team officials who originally thought they were only meeting with Harding found themselves “basically surrounded” by the other Black writers, who pushed the team into signing Washington first, then later Strode.

Washington and Strode didn’t achieve the same accolades that Robinson did in baseball, but the two later worked in movies. Strode was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role in Spartacus (1960) and in television — his last film was The Quick and the Dead (1995).  Washington also appeared in films, and he became a Los Angeles police officer as well.

Harding eventually left L.A. and wrote for several Chicago-based publications; he also wrote at various times for newspapers in Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

The Rams “definitely take credit for being the first NFL team to re-integrate,” said Atwood. “They don’t admit to the fact that they had to get pushed to do it” by a group of Black sportswriters led by Halley Harding — a fact that has been forgotten.


Read more about Halley Harding in this week’s Sportswriter’s Notebook.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to