Film follows early integration of college football

Courtesy of Maya Washington Gene Washington with daughter and filmmaker Maya Washington

For daughter of Black trailblazer it was ‘a passion project’

The Big Ten Network (BTN) next week looks back at the “Underground Railroad of college football.” A 2018 film about the first fully-integrated college football team in America, “Through the Banks of the Red Cedar,” makes its national television premiere on BTN November 10, 7 pm CST.

Since it premiered at the Detroit Free Press Film Festival, local filmmaker Maya Washington’s film has made its rounds at colleges, universities and community groups around the country. The MSR attended a 2018 screening at the Capri on West Broadway.

Her film, which Maya calls “a passion project” that took nearly a decade to complete from start to finish, features her Texas-born father, Gene Washington. “I got excited when I learned about his history,” the daughter said after the screening.

Washington was recruited by then-Michigan State football coach Duffy Daugherty along with other Black players such as Bubba Smith, George Webster and Clinton Jones. They later formed the nucleus for the winning Spartans teams of 1965 and 1966 at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement.

Michigan State wasn’t the only Big Ten school that recruited Black players in the post-World War II years. Minnesota signed the likes of Sandy Stephens and Bobby Bell, two of the school’s all-time greats, among others, but Daugherty innovatively kept a pathway open from the Jim Crow South to mid-Michigan that was first created in the 1940s.

Asked last week during an MSR phone interview if the late Daugherty’s recruiting motives were more about integration or that he simply wanted to win football games, Maya said, “I think it was a combination of both.

“It didn’t hurt that [the Black players] were the fastest among the best Black men he could find,” she continued. “It gave [Daugherty] an advantage because other schools weren’t looking in the same place he was.”

MSR News Online Gene Washington as a Viking player in the 1970s

“Red Banks” also shows the difficulties off the field that Gene Washington and his Black teammates still endured despite leaving the South, simply because of their skin color.

The country throughout the latter part of the 20th Century wrestled with change, and that struggle continues decades later in this year of deadly coronavirus, lockdowns, and racial unrest. This prompted Maya to point out that her film “is still relevant today.

“We are all trying to grapple with the same concerns, and how do we make sure that everyone has a fair shot in the world, and in this country to achieve their personal potential in athletics or in other fields,” she said.

She hopes that viewers after seeing “Red Cedar” next week will be inspired to seek out more about her father’s generation. “I do think there is an urgency for all of us to not only find ways to spend time with our elders…but to be able to watch the film that really is about family, about giving back and finding your heritage, and figuring out who you are through your elders. I think it is important for us as Black people because there is a lot my dad’s generation, the Baby Boomers, have to offer.

“There are so many stories. We really need to take the time and sit down with your aunties, your uncles, parents and grandparents and just ask them what you were doing in 1963,” Maya urged. “There are so many rich stories of contributions they have made, and they’ve done it outside of the limelight.”