Hard to believe that this is the tenth installment of Random Hash! February is moving right along, so let’s make this post a Black History Month batch of hash.

Third and Long: History of African-Americans in Pro Football

Readers of this site know by now how frustrated I get at how disregarded Duke Slater often is today. Slater’s place as an African-American sports pioneer is constantly downplayed or overlooked, which is maddening to me.

In a recent post, I reviewed the African-American trailblazers of professional football – specifically the 13 African-Americans who played in the NFL before World War II. As you could see from that post, Duke Slater had – by far – the longest, most decorated NFL career of that group. It’s not even close.

Yet that’s not how the media usually portrays Slater. For example, last year a documentary was released that chronicled the history of African-Americans in pro football. This film, entitled “Third and Long,” discussed the slow integration of African-Americans into the NFL. I don’t want to give the wrong impression…overall, I thought the documentary was excellent. Unfortunately, however, it perfectly illustrates how Slater’s contributions to football have been and continue to be shortchanged.

The first segment of “Third and Long” deals with pre-World War II African-Americans in the NFL. You can watch the clip below and decide for yourself.

Now bear in mind what I pointed out earlier…of this “pioneering band of brothers,” Duke Slater was clearly the most accomplished and decorated of them all. For that, he gets his photograph flashed on the screen twice for about one second each. Congratulations!

Paul Robeson, Joe Lillard, and Ray Kemp (each of whom played at most two seasons in the NFL) are all called out by name. Duke Slater, who played in the NFL for ten years, gets treated like just another face in the crowd. That’s just absurd.

What’s truly fascinating about this clip, however, is how each of the speakers misses the point regarding the timing of the color ban. Dr. Alan Levy (who wrote an excellent book, by the way) comes close to accurately depicting what happened in 1927. As Dr. Harry Edwards mentioned, the largest number of black players to play in the NFL in a single season before World War II was six, and in 1926, there were five in the league.

However, in 1927, the NFL contracted the number of teams in the league. With that contraction, the number of African-Americans in the NFL shrunk to one. Who was the one? You guessed it…Duke Slater. That wasn’t enough to get Slater a mention in this clip, of course, and honestly, it’s sad how unsurprising that is.

For the rest of the clip, the speakers go on to evaluate the eventual 1934 color ban using all kinds of well-worn post-hoc analysis. They blame George Preston Marshall. They blame the Great Depression. I’m not faulting the speakers for subscribing to that line of thinking…they’re simply advancing an already established narrative.

But it’s the wrong narrative. In truth, the owners in the NFL were actively trying to rid the league of African-Americans in 1927. That’s why every black player in the league – except Slater – was chased out of major professional football that year. Only Slater was able to rise above the looming color ban…which is a testiment to his unparalleled talent and demeanor.

Let me put it bluntly: Duke Slater is the only reason a ban on African-Americans in the NFL didn’t take place in 1927. He is the only reason a ban on African-Americans was delayed until 1934. And if it weren’t for Duke Slater, Ray Kemp and Joe Lillard would have likely faced the same fate as Ozzie Simmons and Jim Walker…talented collegiate players who had no way of breaking through an established NFL ban on African-American athletes.

So what does that say about the contention that the Great Depression or George Preston Marshall were the catalysts for the color ban? Marshall wasn’t an NFL owner in 1927, and the Great Depression hadn’t started yet. But NFL ownership was already trending toward exclusion by the late-1920s…so it seems silly to attribute their eventual success at that endeavor to factors that didn’t exist when the trend started. Marshall and the Depression may have pushed the movement over the finish line (although Lillard’s fiery personality may have had just as much to do with it), but they weren’t an influence at the starting gate.

I’m probably digressing. My point is simple – Duke Slater deserves much more recognition than a brief flash of his photograph. He was regarded as the greatest black player of his era – greater even than Fritz Pollard – but he continues to be relegated to the shadows, even on the rare occasion when sports historians discuss his much-overlooked era. That’s downright tragic, and it needs to change.

Chicago Athlete Honorary Streets

I have long advocated for Duke Slater to get an honorary street named after him in Chicago, and I recently listed 100 of the more unique and interesting Chicago honorary street names.  One of the things that I found in my research is that there are currently seven Chicagoans who had significant athletic careers that have been recognized with honorary streets.

Two of them are former Chicago Bears players who are much better known as Bears coaches – George Halas and Mike Ditka.  Outside of that, each of the three major Chicago sports teams has one athlete so honored: the Bears with Walter Payton, the Bulls with Michael Jordan, and the Cubs with (eek!) Sammy Sosa.  Finally, there are two more Chicago-area athletes recognized with honorary streets who were African-American sports pioneers: Paul Robeson and Jesse Owens.

It’s an incredible group of seven former athletes who left an indelible mark on their hometown of Chicago.  Duke Slater would fit right in with that crowd…and I hope he gets his own recognition someday soon.

University of Iowa Residence Halls

Speaking of recognition, I recently looked into the names of the University of Iowa’s residence halls to see what company Duke Slater keeps with respect to Slater Hall.

Iowa currently has ten true residence halls.  Four of those – Hillcrest, Mayflower, Parklawn, and Quadrangle – are general building names, while the other six are named in honor of a notable Hawkeye.  Other than Duke Slater, the other five namesakes of Iowa residence halls were all University of Iowa employees.

Adelaide Lasheck Burge was Dean of Women at Iowa from 1921 to 1942, while Robert E. Rienow was the Dean of Men from 1916 to 1946.  Amos Noyes Currier served as the first unofficial university librarian from 1870-1879 and the head of what is now known as the College of Liberal Arts from 1888-1909; he was also the interim president of the university from 1898-1899.  Dr. Kate Daum was the director of nutrition at University Hospitals from 1926-1955.  Finally, Carrie Ellen Stanley was a professor of English at Iowa from 1920-1954.

Duke Slater obviously contributed to the university in a much different way than those five, but that’s one reason why it’s such a great tribute to this outstanding man.

Sandra Hoskins Wilkins

The transition of DukeSlater.com over here to NealRozendaal.com/dukeslater is finally complete!  I’m excited to make this site the new home of Duke Slater on the web.

Unfortunately, there is one thing I couldn’t transfer over.  Duke Slater’s niece, Sandra Hoskins Wilkins, left a nice comment over on DukeSlater.com which I wanted to share with my readers here.  The content of her comments are below.

My name is Sandra Hoskins Wilkins.  I am the daughter of Aurora Slater Hoskins, the recently deceased sister of my Uncle Duke.  His generation is now gone.  My mother passed at the age of 101 in January of 2012.

My mother was his little sister.  He and my Uncle Richard (Duke’s brother) made sure that she had all she needed to complete her education at UCLA.  She graduated in 1932.

My husband and I visited Slater Hall this year.  What a magnificent building and tribute to him!  My oldest son and my mother were at the dedication.  I also have the football signed by the players for Uncle Duke from the 1959 Rose Bowl Game.

I will share this information with my family.  We are so pleased to learn about your book and interest in bringing ‘justice’ to Judge Slater.  I was with my uncle in Chicago the day he died.  To the end, this man exhibited the strong spirit and the gentle compassion that was present for his entire life.

It was great hearing from Mrs. Wilkins!  I wasn’t able to make contact with any of Slater’s family members during the writing of the book, but I know Mrs. Wilkins will be a great help going forward in getting her uncle the recognition he deserves!

Leatherheads of the Gridiron

I’m pleased to announce a new partnership with Joe Williams and his site, Leatherheads of the Gridiron.  I met Williams at the Pro Football Researchers Association convention in New Jersey last year.  He told me then about his site, which features articles and podcasts on football history and research.  I recently contributed my first article to the site about early African-American pioneers of pro football, which appeared here earlier this week.

Leatherheads of the Gridiron will be added to the blogroll, and I’m looking forward to being an occasional contributor to that site.  Check it out when you have a chance…it’s worth a visit for fans of football history.

Wrapping Up Black History Month

A few more posts related to Black History Month and then we’ve hit March already!  Hopefully the Hawkeye basketball teams find a way to put a little Madness into our March.  We’ll see soon…thanks for reading!

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