African-American Pioneers in Hawkeye Sports History
[Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of an article I wrote in 2013, highlighting the great African-American sports pioneers in Hawkeye history. Enjoy.]
The University of Iowa has been blessed over the years with an enviable number of African-American sports pioneers. For instance, did you know the following trailblazers were Hawkeyes?
- The first Black lineman in NFL history and the first African-American in the College Football Hall of Fame
- The first Black athlete to play for the NFL’s New York Giants and the first African-American in the Pro Football Hall of Fame
- The first Black captain of a Big Ten football team
- The first Black father-son pair to play in the NFL
- The first Black football players to compete in Miami’s Orange Bowl stadium
- The first Black player featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine and the first African-American to win the Outland Trophy
- The first Black athlete to play basketball in the Big Ten
- The first Black athlete to earn All-American honors in cross country
- The first Black athlete to win an individual national championship in cross country
- The first Black athlete to win an individual national championship in wrestling
- The first Black Big Ten assistant football coach and the first African-American to serve as Director of Player Personnel for an NFL team
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Take a journey with me as we honor some of the greatest Black pioneers in college sports, men we are proud to call Hawkeyes.
African-Americans in Hawkeye Sports – The First Three
The first three African-American athletes to represent the University of Iowa were Frank Holbrook, Archie Alexander, and Duke Slater.
Frank Holbrook, who I discussed indepth in a previous post, was Iowa’s first Black athlete, lettering for the Hawkeye football team in 1895 and 1896 and the Hawkeye track team in 1896 and 1897. Holbrook endured some of the worst treatment due to the color of his skin in Iowa sports history during an 1896 game against Missouri, yet he played with courage and determination. Kinney Holbrook, as he was called, set the foundation for African-American athletes in the state of Iowa. Please read the links above for more information on Holbrook…it’s well worth your time.
Archie Alexander, a Black tackle for the Hawkeyes from 1909-1911, was second. Alexander faced the same discrimination from the Missouri Tigers that Holbrook did; he was benched for Iowa’s 1910 contest at Missouri rather than incite the Missouri fans into another situation similar to what Holbrook faced. Nevertheless, Alexander was a outstanding player who received the nickname “Alexander the Great” for his powerful play. He later earned an engineering degree and had a successful career in engineering and politics, ultimately being named the territorial governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands by President Eisenhower in 1954.
The third Black athlete at the University of Iowa was one I have covered repeatedly here on this site – Duke Slater. Slater played at Iowa from 1918-1921, earning second-team All-American honors in 1919 and first team All-American honors as a senior in 1921. He was the only African-American elected to the College Football Hall of Fame’s inaugural class when the Hall opened in 1951. Slater then became the first Black lineman in NFL history in 1922, and for most of the late-1920s, he was the only African-American in the entire NFL. Yet he earned seven all-pro selections in his pro career and was widely praised as one of the greatest players of his era.
Duke Slater earned his law degree from Iowa in 1928 and later became just the second Black judge in Chicago history in 1948. He remained a longtime fan of his alma mater and became the school’s chief recruiter in the Black community, luring a number of exceptional Black athletes to Iowa City. I wrote a book on Duke many years ago and have written extensively about him since. I have been particularly pleased to see Slater’s legacy honored with a relief outside Kinnick Stadium in 2019 and his long-overdue election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020.
African-Americans in Hawkeye Sports – The 1920s
Slater’s accomplishments at the University of Iowa drew other Black football linemen to Iowa City, looking to duplicate Slater’s success. Ledrue Galloway and Arlington Daniels in 1924, Harold Bradley Sr. in 1926, and Wendell Benjamin in 1929-1930 were all African-American linemen who drew inevitable comparisons to Slater. Although none of them came close to matching Duke’s achievements, all of them made a memorable contribution to the Hawkeye football team.
Galloway and Bradley are particularly notable. Ledrue Galloway played for the 1924 Hawkeye football team, but he was hospitalized with tuberculosis before the following season. He is probably best remembered in Iowa football history for a game in which he didn’t even play. Galloway sent a telegram from his hospital bed to the 1925 Hawkeyes before a game against an outstanding Illinois team, led by senior Red Grange. Galloway wrote, “There will be twelve Iowa men on the field to beat Illinois. I am with you.” The Hawkeyes pulled off the improbable upset, 12-10, but Galloway died of his illness less than a year later.
Harold Bradley Sr. attended Iowa and played for the football team in 1926 but didn’t actually earn a letter on the squad. Even so, he went on to be just the second Black lineman in NFL history – after Slater – in 1928. Bradley’s son, Harold Bradley Jr., would follow in his dad’s footsteps, lettering for the Hawkeye football team in 1949 and 1950.
Football wasn’t the only sport where African-American Hawkeyes made an impact. Charles Brookins was a hurdler who won an NCAA championship and set a world record in the 220-yard low hurdles at the 1923 NCAA Track and Field Championships. He served as the captain of Iowa’s track team in 1924 and participated in the 1924 Olympics in the 400-meter hurdles. Brookins initially finished second in the finals of that event, which would have been good for a silver medal, but he was disqualified for running out of his lane.
The twist to Brookins’ story is that he was very fair-skinned and therefore often not identified as African-American in mainstream newspapers, although several Black newspapers claimed him as one of their own. His great-grandson wrote a fantastic article about Brookins’ legacy that is recommended reading. While he didn’t trumpet his racial background, Charles Brookins carries the distinction of being Iowa’s first African-American Olympian and first African-American team captain.
Ed Gordon was another great Black track star for Iowa in that era. Gordon was a star long jumper for Iowa from 1929-1931. He won three consecutive NCAA championships in the event, becoming the first athlete to win NCAA championships in an event three straight years. Gordon then went on to capture the gold medal in long jumping in the 1932 Olympic Games after placing seventh in the world at the Olympics four years prior. Ed Gordon was quite possibly the most dominant track and field athlete in Iowa history – a remarkable accomplishment indeed for an African-American in that era.
African-Americans in Hawkeye Sports – The 1930s
In 1932, the Hawkeye football team had two African-American letterwinners – end Voris Dickerson and back Wilbur “Windy” Wallace. The most infamous moment of that 1-7 season came when the Hawkeyes agreed to bench Dickerson and Wallace for a road game in DC against George Washington University. Washington D.C., a distinctly southern city culturally at that time, was not receptive to the idea of two African-American players on the Hawkeye squad, so Iowa left them on the sidelines.
As skilled as Windy Wallace was, a mere two years later another Black halfback would captivate the Hawkeye fanbase in a way no African-American football player had since Duke Slater. Iowa’s Big Ten opener in 1934 was a breakout game for Oze E. “Ozzie” Simmons. Simmons racked up over 300 all-purpose yards in the Hawkeyes’ 20-7 victory over Northwestern, and Simmons became an instant star.
Ozzie Simmons was a two-time All-American for the Hawkeyes in 1934 and 1935. His most lasting contribution to Hawkeye football can be seen every time Iowa takes the field against Minnesota. A controversy over rough treatment he received at the hands of the Gophers in 1934 led to a dispute that was only tamed through the creation of the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy. There are several excellent articles about Simmons and the history of Floyd of Rosedale; here is one to get you started.
One of Iowa’s most overlooked African-American pioneers was Ozzie’s brother, Don Simmons. Although he was constantly in the shadow of his little brother, Don Simmons earned three letters with the Hawkeye football team from 1934-1936 as an end. Don also served as his brother’s biggest fan and spokesman, helping shield the talented but often shy Ozzie from the intense spotlight of athletic stardom.
One year after the Simmons brothers left Iowa, another Black Hawkeye football player made Big Ten history. Homer Harris, a Black end who was teammates with the Simmons brothers the previous year, was elected captain of the 1937 Hawkeye football team. Harris was the first Black captain of a Big Ten football team. After a stint in the Army, Harris later became a respected dermatologist in Seattle.
The 1939 Ironmen were the most celebrated team in Iowa football history. The Ironmen were bolstered by two African-American standouts – tackle Jim Walker and end Fred Smith. Smith was a reserve end for the 1939 Hawkeyes as a senior. Walker, on the other hand, was one of 13 members of that Iowa team that played all sixty minutes in a single game that season. Jim Walker played a complete game against Indiana early in the year and was counted on to be a major factor on the Hawkeye line until he suffered a severe knee injury the following game that kept him out for most of the rest of the season.
Walker came to Iowa from South Bend, Indiana. His hometown school, Notre Dame, refused to consider recruiting Walker because he was an African-American, so he went to Iowa City and became a legitimate star. Jim Walker played three seasons for Iowa from 1939-1941 and helped the Hawkeyes to an upset over the Irish in 1940. Walker was later the longtime head football coach at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.
African-Americans in Hawkeye Sports – The 1940s
African-Americans made headlines in several major sports for the Hawkeyes in the 1940s. Lee Farmer set several school records for the Hawkeye track team in 1942 and was named the team’s captain in 1943 before being called away to serve in the military during World War II.
Dick Culberson became the first African-American to play Big Ten basketball during the 1944-45 season. Culberson was a reserve for an Iowa team that went on to win the Big Ten title that season. A few years later, Bill Garrett became a star for Indiana, and Garrett is often erroneously referred to as the first Black player in Big Ten basketball history. But Culberson holds the rightful title as the first African-American to play for a Big Ten basketball team.
While Iowa was a national leader in providing athletic opportunities to Black athletes at the time, these men still frequently faced discrimination. Two outstanding Black football players at Iowa in the 1940s left Hawkeye football after two separate incidents in which they encountered the n-word. Joseph Howard lettered for the 1943 Hawkeyes and returned to the squad in 1944. That year, the Hawkeyes squared off against Indiana, who featured a black running back. One of Coach Slip Madigan’s assistant coaches called out to the Iowa defense to stop the Hoosier back, using a racial epithet. Howard asked the assistant coach to apologize for using the offensive slur, but the coach refused, so Howard quit the team. Joseph Howard went on to become a prominent judge in Baltimore.
Sherman Howard played football for Iowa in 1946, but after one of his White female friends was called an n-word lover, he left for Nevada. Later he played four seasons in the NFL, including a couple seasons in Cleveland under Coach Paul Brown. Other Black players at Iowa during this time included Obern Simons in 1945 and John Estes in 1947.
Two of the best-known African-American Hawkeye football stars of this era were Emlen Tunnell and Earl Banks. Tunnell played two seasons for Iowa after World War II before heading to the NFL. He was the first Black player to suit up for the New York Giants and became one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history, retiring with the record for career interceptions. Tunnell’s 79 career interceptions still ranks second in NFL history today, behind fellow Hawkeye Paul Krause’s 81. In 1967, Tunnell became the first African-American inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Earl Banks was a star guard for the Hawkeyes from 1946-1949. He later served as head football coach at Morgan State University for 14 years, never recording a losing season. Banks also served as athletic director at Morgan State for many years. Banks was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1992.
African-Americans in Hawkeye Sports – The 1950s, Football
Five African-Americans played for the 1950 Hawkeye football team, and these five made college football history. Bernard Bennett, Harold Bradley Jr., Don Commack, Delmar Corbin, and Don Riley were members of the 1950 Iowa squad that ended their season with a road game against the Miami Hurricanes. Bennett, Bradley, Commack, Corbin, and Riley – collectively known as the “Orange Bowl Five” – were the first Black athletes to play a football game in the historic Orange Bowl stadium. Although the Hawks fell in a hard-fought contest, 14-6, the Orange Bowl Five opened a door for African-Americans in the deep south.
One of those five, Harold Bradley Jr., made even more history. Bradley Jr. was the team captain in 1950, just the second Black player to earn that honor following Homer Harris in 1937. Bradley Jr. then played in the NFL for several seasons before becoming a prominent artist in Italy. As mentioned earlier, his father – Harold Bradley Sr. – played in the NFL in 1928, making the Bradleys the first Black father-son duo to ever play in the NFL.
More history was made by the Steubenville Trio – Cal Jones, Eddie Vincent, and Frank Gilliam – who played at Iowa from 1953-1956. In particular, Jones went down as one of the pioneering African-American linemen in college football history. He was the first African-American featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine, and he was the first Black lineman to win the coveted Outland Trophy. Cal Jones was so admired by his teammates that they elected him team captain in 1955, still a rare achievement for an African-American in that era.
Forest Evashevski, Iowa’s head coach from 1952-1960, utilized African-American athletes extensively to help mold Hawkeye football into a legitimate national powerhouse. The number of Black athletes who contributed to Evy’s success at Iowa are almost too numerable to mention, but a few standouts include Bob Jeter, Willie Fleming, John Burroughs, and Wilburn Hollis. Jeter and Fleming went down as two of the greatest running backs in the history of Hawkeye football. Burroughs, a lineman on both of Iowa’s Rose Bowl championship teams in 1956 and 1958, later became a respected U.S. ambassador and diplomat. And Hollis, Iowa’s outstanding starting quarterback on the Big Ten champion 1960 Hawkeye football team, was one of the first African-American starting quarterbacks in college football.
African-Americans in Hawkeye Sports – The 1950s, Other Sports
African-Americans made their mark in other Hawkeye sports during the 1950s as well. Ted Wheeler broke stereotypes as a Hawkeye cross-country star in the 1950s. While many Black runners in that era were limited to sprinting, Wheeler proved that African-American athletes could also excel at distance running. He was the first African-American to earn All-American honors in cross-country running in 1951 and later became the first Black distance runner to compete at the Olympic Games, competing in the metric-mile at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
Charles “Deacon” Jones followed in Wheeler’s footsteps and raised the bar still higher for African-Americans in the sport of cross-country. Jones won Iowa’s first and only individual cross-country national championship as a sophomore in 1955. That victory made him the first African-American in history to win the NCAA cross-country title. Jones also won an individual NCAA track championship in the two-mile event in 1957, and like Wheeler, he competed in the 1956 Olympics. Running the 3,000-meter steeplechase, Jones competed in the Olympics not only in 1956 but again four years later at the 1960 Olympic Games.
Another Deacon made his mark at Iowa around this time. In basketball, McKinley “Deacon” Davis had a tremendous career for the Hawkeyes from 1952-1955. As a sophomore in 1953, he led the Hawks in scoring and was named second team All-Big Ten. However, in his final two years, some of the attention he might have otherwise received was usurped by the rise of the Fabulous Five. Five very talented players in the class just below Davis began to gain notoriety as a group, yet for the most part, Davis remained in the starting lineup. In 1955, the Hawkeyes made it all the way to the school’s first Final Four appearance, boasting four junior starters and one senior – Deacon Davis.
The following year in 1956, the Fabulous Five – all of whom were now starting as seniors – made it back to the Final Four and all the way the national championship game. It is still the only appearance of an Iowa men’s basketball team in the NCAA Championship game. The Fabulous Five was anchored by a high school classmate of Davis’, Carl Cain. Cain, a first team All-American for the Hawkeyes in 1956, later had his #21 retired by the basketball program for his role on Iowa’s two Final Four teams in 1955 and 1956.
Simon Roberts broke barriers as a Black Hawkeye wrestler from 1956-1958. Roberts arrived at Iowa as a trailblazer already; he defeated Ron Gray in 1953 to become the first African-American state wrestling champion in Iowa high school history. Four years later, Roberts and Gray squared off again – this time for the 147-pound NCAA championship in 1957. Gray was the favorite and undefeated on the year, but Roberts scored a takedown in the final 30 seconds of the match to become the first individual African-American champion in NCAA wrestling history.
African-Americans in Hawkeye Sports – The 1960s and Beyond
Beginning in the 1960s, seeing an African-American competing at the highest levels of college athletics became less and less of a rarity…even in the deep south. Black athletes continued to star for Hawkeye teams, and for the most part, their participation was met with little unrest. One notable exception took place in 1969, when 16 football players boycotted spring practice and were subsequently kicked off the team. The Black Boycott of 1969 stands out as a sour note in the racial history of African-American athletes at Iowa.
Still, University of Iowa athletics continued to be a trailblazer for African-Americans in sports as attention turned from black athletes to black coaches. The legendary Eddie Robinson had spent five summers at Iowa from 1948 through 1958, learning the finer points of Iowa’s offense from Dr. Eddie Anderson and Forest Evashevski. Robinson earned his master’s degree from Iowa in 1954 and went into coaching at Grambling University, where he compiled an incredible 408 coaching victories. Although he never coached at Iowa, his association with Iowa football is a point of pride for Hawkeye fans.
African-Americans began to break into Iowa’s assistant coaching ranks in the 1960s. Frank Gilliam, one of the Steubenville Trio that played at Iowa in the 1950s, was hired by Ray Nagel as an Iowa assistant football coach in 1966. This made Gilliam not only the first full-time African-American assistant football coach in the Big Ten but perhaps the first in all of major college football. After five years on Iowa’s staff, Gilliam left to work in the front office of the Minnesota Vikings. In 1975, Gilliam became the first African-American to serve as Director of Player Personnel for an NFL team when he was elevated to that position by the Vikings.
Dennis Green, who played at Iowa from 1968-1970, gained attention as a rising coaching prospect while serving as Iowa’s running backs coach from 1974-1976. Green later went on to become the first Black head football coach in the Big Ten (and just the second in Division I-A) at Northwestern in 1981. After that, he was hired as just third Black head coach in NFL history with the Minnesota Vikings in 1992 and had a long coaching career with the Vikings and Arizona Cardinals.
Ted Wheeler came back to Iowa in 1972 as an assistant track coach, and in 1978, the Hawkeyes hired him as their head track coach; Wheeler was the first Black head coach at the University of Iowa. In 1983, the university handed the reins of both basketball programs to African-Americans – George Raveling was hired as the head coach of Hawkeye men’s basketball, while the women’s team would be led by C. Vivian Stringer. Although Raveling only lasted three short seasons at Iowa before leaving for the warmth of USC, Stringer ignited a golden age in Iowa women’s basketball, leading the Hawks to the Final Four in 1993. Both Raveling and Stringer were later inducted to the National Basketball Hall of Fame.
Today, it might be easy to overlook just how important each of these trailblazing African-Americans was in their time. However, the history of Hawkeye sports would be less compelling – and far, far less successful – without their contributions. It is paramount that we remember and celebrate these trailblazers who left an unforgettable legacy at the University of Iowa.