The Myth of the NFL’s Color Ban
[Author’s Note: Originally written as a two-part article in 2014, I combined and updated this essay in 2020.]
The myth of the causes of the NFL’s 1934 color ban has been recited over and over so many times that I feel it needs proper refuting. To be clear, despite the catchy, controversial title to this post, I’m not disputing that the color ban in the NFL from 1934-1945 actually existed…I mean, clearly it did. The myth of the NFL’s color ban has to do with why it existed and, more specifically, how it came into being.
A Depressing Ban
A recent documentary, “Forgotten Four”, tells the stories of four players – Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Bill Willis, and Marion Motley – who reintegrated pro football in 1946 after a 12-year NFL ban on Black players. This documentary, like many before them, gives a shallow, slanted discussion of the causes leading to the NFL’s ban on African-American players from 1934-1945. Documentaries like “Forgotten Four” pin all the blame for the color ban on two factors: the Great Depression and George Preston Marshall.
Let’s think about this for a second, beginning with the Great Depression. The popular theory is that white players didn’t want African-Americans taking their pro football “jobs” once the Depression hit, so that was an impetus for driving Black players out of the league. Bear in mind, NFL “jobs” in the 1930s weren’t the full-time, high-paying jobs they are today…Duke Slater made no more than $175 per game during his career, and trust me, playing football in the 1920s and 1930s meant that he earned every penny of that. Still, I’m sure that salary probably looked pretty good during the Depression, so at first it seems like the whole theory could make sense.
But those of you who love U.S. history know that the Great Depression started with a drop in stock prices in September 1929, culminating in the stock market crash on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929. So here’s the question that none of these pro football historians have been able to adequately address: if the Great Depression started in September 1929 with the fall (and subsequent crash) of the stock market, why did it take until September 1934 for NFL owners to institute the color ban? Why did it take a full FIVE YEARS after the start of the Depression for white players to get jealous enough of Black players to rip these coveted jobs out of their hands?
Redeeming George Preston Marshall (Well, Somewhat)
Now let’s move on to George Preston Marshall. Marshall and three partners founded the Boston Redskins franchise in 1932, and the following year his three partners left, leaving Marshall in control of the Redskins franchise in 1933. Marshall was famously opposed to African-Americans in pro football – after the color ban was lifted in 1946, Marshall’s Redskins were the last team to integrate, remaining whites-only into the 1960s.
“Forgotten Four” repeats the popular theory that Marshall walked into the NFL – as a second-year owner, mind you – and single-handedly forced a color ban on the entire league in 1934. Where did this notion that Marshall was responsible for the color ban begin? The earliest reference I can find for this theory is Charles K. Ross’ landmark book, Outside The Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League, written in 2001. Here is the relevant snippet of Ross’ text, with emphasis mine:
“George Preston Marshall was likely the driving force behind the color ban…to avoid offending Marshall, southern white players, and fans, NFL owners may have tacitly agreed to shun black athletes.”
Note that this passage is far from conclusive…in fact, it sounds more like Ross was just spitballing and throwing out something he saw as a possibility. But ever since 2001, lightweight “historians” have been using this quote to blame Marshall for the 1934 color ban like it’s a verifiable fact. And if you repeat something enough times, people start to just assume it’s true.
It’s a convenient narrative. I mean, we already know that Marshall was prejudiced against African-Americans, so the fact that he appeared on the scene just before the color ban came into effect has to be more than coincidence, right? And don’t get me wrong…I’m sure Marshall was supportive of the ban and perhaps one of its leading proponents. But was he the reason it took effect?
Consider this: Marshall believed his segregationist policies were justified; he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. On the contrary, he believed his position to be virtuous. When Marshall was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, his Hall of Fame bio actually listed the prolonged segregation of the Redskins as one of his attributes! He certainly didn’t shy away from his beliefs on this matter…he truly felt his exclusion of African-Americans was the “right” thing to do.
With all that in mind, I haven’t seen a single reference from Marshall’s lifetime in which he acknowledges (or where it is even suggested) that Marshall played a leadership role in instituting the color ban. Now, maybe it’s out there. But I’ve done a lot of research on this era of football and I haven’t come across anything – not a single thing – to suggest that Marshall was the key figure behind this, a statement now passed off as absolute truth.
Don’t you find it odd that not a single original source from Marshall’s lifetime credits him as being behind the 1934 color ban? I mean, think about it – if Marshall spearheaded the movement to exclude African-Americans from the entire league, why wouldn’t he have ever once taken credit for it? This isn’t a guy who shied away from openly acknowledging his segregationist beliefs…again, as someone who felt that segregation was virtuous and right, he was quick to “take credit” for his segregationist policy with his own team, going so far as to see it included in his Hall of Fame bio. Why, then, wouldn’t he proudly claim a lead role in instituting the 1934 color ban, if that’s indeed how it all went down? Why did he never, ever come out and say, “Yeah, that NFL color ban? My idea.”
I want to be clear here…I’m not saying that Marshall wasn’t prejudiced against African-Americans. I’m just saying that the common tactic of pinning the color ban all on him alone doesn’t necessarily have basis in fact anywhere that I’ve seen. I’m all for blaming Marshall for the things he was actually responsible for, but putting the color ban entirely on his shoulders sure seems like revisionist history.
The Exceptionalism of One, or the “Marshall the Lone Racist” Theory
In “Forgotten Four”, Khalil Gibran Muhammad of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture had an interesting quote about how “we’re always looking for that one, that archetype.” Muhammad made that quote in reference to Jackie Robinson and why we have elevated his singular accomplishment in shattering baseball’s color ban above the “forgotten four” doing the same in pro football. That’s an incomplete picture…there are other perfectly understandable reasons why the two accomplishments are not treated the same (specifically, because they weren’t the same). But that’s a discussion for another post.
What Muhammad doesn’t realize is that while his “exceptionalism of one” theory falls short of fully explaining why the sporting public doesn’t equate the “forgotten four” with Jackie Robinson, it actually perfectly explains why the inaccurate history of the color ban stated elsewhere in the documentary continues to be advanced. It’s much easier for NFL owners of that era to force George Preston Marshall to fall on his sword, so to speak, and take full responsibility for the 1934 color ban than it is to acknowledge they had any hand in it. After all, Marshall’s legacy with respect to African-Americans isn’t salvageable…that ship has sailed. So it’s a simple remedy to simply pin the whole thing on Marshall and wipe your hands of it.
“Forgotten Four” producer Ross Greenburg even acknowledged advancing this “Marshall as the lone scapegoat” narrative because he felt his story needed a clear antagonist. And the public (and even historians, who should be thinking more critically than that) eats it up, because, well, “exceptionalism of one.” It fits a simple narrative – one lone, vilified racist bullying a bunch of well-meaning, timid NFL owners into following his corrupt agenda. And Greenburg has his antagonist.
Let’s shift gears a bit and talk about George Halas, Papa Bear, the iconic owner of the Chicago Bears. Woody Strode’s son told a story in “Forgotten Four” that caught my attention. In the documentary, he claims that in 1940, Halas wanted to break the color ban and sign Kenny Washington. The younger Strode alleges that Halas went to Marshall to ask permission and Marshall told him no, so the color ban was upheld.
While the Bears flirting with the idea of signing Washington in 1940 is common knowledge, I’ve never heard this particular telling of the story. At the risk of disputing the younger Strode, it sounds completely absurd. I mean, can you imagine the great George Halas meekly saying, “Um, excuse me, Mr. Marshall, I hate to bother you, but this Kenny Washington player is really good. Would it be okay, I mean, can I pretty please sign this Washington guy to my team?” And I’m supposed to believe Marshall responded, “No, Halas! I told you before…no Blacks in this league! Now shut up and shine my shoes!”
He’s George freaking Halas! You’re telling me that this great tower of strength in NFL history didn’t have the clout to sign Washington if he really wanted to, despite whatever objections this neophyte Marshall had? That’s the “Marshall the Lone Racist” theory so many NFL historians want you to believe…the notion that this whole color ban was Marshall’s idea and everyone else was an innocent victim caught up in it. In fact, Halas is even portrayed as a civil rights hero courageously waging an unsuccessful fight against the tide of prejudice, solely because he contemplated signing Washington (yet didn’t)!
George Halas and Duke Slater
Here’s something to consider. Duke Slater was an all-pro lineman for the Rock Island Independents from 1923-1926, widely regarded as one of the top linemen in the entire sport. When the Independents went bankrupt in 1926 and Slater became a free agent, the Chicago Bears didn’t come calling. The Green Bay Packers didn’t come calling. None of these NFL teams came calling except the Chicago Cardinals, a financially struggling team that nearly went bankrupt themselves in 1928.
And it’s not like George Halas was afraid to aggressively pursue players he wanted. In 1922, the Rock Island Independents had two great tackles – Duke Slater and Ed Healey. After the season, Rock Island’s franchise was in dire financial straits, so Halas bought Healey’s contract from the Independents for $100. It is considered by many to be the first “acquisition” (some would call it a trade, others just a flat-out sale) of a player’s contract in NFL history. Yet Halas didn’t make a move to acquire Slater, a similarly great player.
All of these teams knew how good Duke Slater was…they’d played against him on numerous occasions. Slater was a four-time all-pro and one of the top linemen in the league. So why didn’t Halas and the Bears pursue him? Halas didn’t make a move to acquire Slater in 1922 when he picked up Healey, and he didn’t make a move to acquire him in 1926, either. This despite the fact that Slater was from Chicago and would have relished a chance to play for the dominant team in his hometown.
The Chicago Bears were one of the NFL’s founding members in 1920 but didn’t sign their first Black player until Eddie Macon in 1952. Here’s the truth: George Halas could have signed Duke Slater or Kenny Washington or any number of other Black players over the course of those first three decades. He had plenty of opportunities. But he chose not to…specifically, he decided that signing a Black player wasn’t worth the blowback he would have received from Marshall and many others.
To be clear, I’m not going to call Halas a racist; as a white guy, I don’t feel I have the standing to make that kind of reputation-tarnishing claim. Fritz Pollard didn’t have any reservations; Pollard, to the day he died, swore that Halas and New York Giants owner Tim Mara were racists who blackballed him from the league and were driving forces behind the color ban. On the other hand, even though he never signed Slater, Halas was very complimentary of Duke all of his life, and vice versa. So it’s a complicated situation.
But I strongly disagree with “Forgotten Four” characterizing Halas and Mara as two bullied, victimized NFL owners who succumbed to Marshall’s discriminatory ban (which, naturally, was all his idea). When we think about the “exceptionalism of one,” there’s a strong temptation by many to label Marshall “bad” and all the other NFL owners “good”, and reality is much more complex than that. George Halas and the other NFL owners of the time could have done more – should have done more – to keep the league open to Black players. They weren’t as prejudiced as George Preston Marshall, clearly, but it’s easy and overly simplistic to just pin the whole color ban on Marshall alone and absolve everyone else of any blame. Truth be told, the color ban on Black players from 1934-1945 is not the fault of any one man but a stain on the league in which all NFL teams and owners had some level of involvement.
One Era or Two?
So if Marshall and the Great Depression weren’t the root causes of the color ban, what’s the real story? Well, one big mistake pro football historians make – and you’ll see this all the time – is that they say that African-Americans played in the NFL from 1920-1933 and regard that entire time frame as one era. I mean, it’s easy to do. Black players played (1920-1933), then they didn’t (1934-1945), then they did again (1946-now).
But that’s an obvious mistake. Yes, there were Black players in the NFL from 1920-1933…but their participation wasn’t constant, uniform, or homogeneous.
Twelve African-American players played in the NFL from 1920-1933. But let’s look at the number of Black players in the NFL each of those seasons:
1920 – 2 (Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall)
1921 – 4
1922 – 5
1923 – 5
1924 – 3
1925 – 5
1926 – 5
1927 – 1 (Duke Slater)
1928 – 2
1929 – 1 (Duke Slater)
1930 – 2
1931 – 2
1932 – 1 (Joe Lillard)
1933 – 2 (Joe Lillard and Ray Kemp)
You can see from the above chart that participation was much higher from 1920-1926 than it was from 1927-1933. After the initial NFL season in 1920 when there were just two Black players, there were anywhere from three to five African-Americans every year from 1921-1926. But from 1927-1933, there were never more than two Black players in the league in any given year. It’s truly two separate eras.
If we view it that way, more interesting notes pop out. First, of the 12 Black NFL players prior to World War II, Duke Slater was the only one who spanned both eras, playing five seasons in both (Slater played from 1922-1931). Throw Duke Slater out for comparison’s sake, and the numbers are even starker.
Omitting Slater, seven of the remaining 11 pre-World War II Black NFL players played in the first era (1920-1926); only four played in the second (1927-1933). The seven exclusively first-era players combined for 24 seasons in the NFL, for an average career length of 3.4 seasons per person. The four exclusively second-era players logged just six total seasons, an average of 1.5 seasons per person.
Five of the seven exclusively first-era Black players had careers of three seasons or more, with Fritz Pollard and Ink Williams lasting six years each. Conversely, every single one of the four exclusively second-era Black players played just two seasons or less.
It’s clear as day from this comparison that the participation of African-American players in the NFL suffered a dramatic shift in 1927. In 1926, there were five Black players in the NFL; the following year, only Duke Slater remained. African-American players weren’t common in that first era, but there was a lot more participation, relatively speaking, from Black players from 1921-1926 than there was in the second era.
What Really Happened?
This analysis completely alters the current view of African-American participation in the NFL. The commonly accepted view is that Black players played (1920-1933), then they didn’t (1934-1945), then they did again (1946-now).
However, looking at things this way, we can see that in reality Black players were rare but not unheard of (1920-1926), then they were almost completely shut out (1927-1933), then they were completely shut out (1934-1945), and then they slowly came back (1946-now).
But this analysis also completely undercuts the commonly accepted theory as to the causes of the color ban. If the NFL was trending toward exclusion of African-American players by 1927, then the common scapegoats blamed for the 1934 color ban – specifically, the Great Depression and George Preston Marshall – certainly can’t take all of the blame. After all, Marshall was not yet an NFL owner in 1927, and the Depression hadn’t started yet.
Another thing that you’ll note about African-American participation in the NFL in the first era from 1920-1926 is that most of the Black athletes played for small-market teams. In fact, four NFL teams from the first era featured three different African-American players – the Akron Pros, the Hammond Pros, the Milwaukee Badgers, and the Rock Island Independents.
All four of these teams were smaller market teams that relied on African-American standouts to survive. You’ll note that the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, and New York Giants weren’t scooping up Black players – they had no need for them. It was the desperate small-market teams, teams that needed talent to compete on the field and a box office draw to survive off it, that signed most of these early African-American stars.
So what really happened in 1927? Well, in 1926, the NFL survived its first challenge to American pro football supremacy. Red Grange organized the AFL to directly compete with the NFL as the top pro football league in America. Grange’s league lasted just one season before collapsing, but the NFL was wounded by the AFL’s challenge.
The NFL responded by narrowing its ranks in 1927. In the early days, all you needed to secure an NFL franchise was to post a relatively paltry league entry fee, and you were in. In 1927, the NFL kicked out a lot of these clubs from smaller Midwestern towns and focused on big cities in the East and Midwest. It concentrated the pro football talent on the remaining teams, allowing the NFL clubs that survived to feature stronger talent across the board.
Unfortunately for African-Americans, the elimination of the small-market teams that had supported them almost led to a color ban in 1927. Five Black players played in the NFL in 1926, but all five played for teams that folded after that season. The only thing that prevented a color ban from coming down in 1927 was the fact that Duke Slater, a four-time all-pro lineman for the Rock Island Independents from 1923-1926, was picked up by the Chicago Cardinals after his team folded. Slater, who was in the prime of his career, was not only the greatest Black player of his era but one of the top NFL linemen of any race in the 1920s, so the Cardinals quickly snapped him up when Rock Island went under.
Slater’s presence with the Cardinals delayed a color ban from taking effect in 1927. With the exception of Harold Bradley, a fellow African-American lineman Slater convinced the Cardinals to try out in 1928, Duke Slater was the only African-American in the NFL from 1927-1929. He single-handedly held the door ajar, ever so slightly, for a couple other African-American standouts to briefly join the NFL in the early-1930s.
Even after Slater retired in 1931, the Chicago Cardinals were so pleased with how well he had fit in with their franchise that they promptly signed another African-American standout, Joe Lillard, for the 1932 season, prolonging Black participation in the league for another two years. After two seasons with the Cards, the Chicago franchise cut ties with the fiery Lillard in 1933, and the color ban was underway.
Truth From Fiction
To summarize, the large-market teams in the NFL had held a color line against Black participation on their clubs for years. When the NFL reorganized in 1927, casting out most of the small-market teams, the discrimination that already existed toward African-Americans among the higher-profile, more successful league teams became much more evident. It reduced Black participation in the NFL from a rarity to one or two exceptions of a looming rule…a rule that would finally be enacted in 1934.
This post-hoc historical analysis of the color ban is a recent development. Noting that the color ban had started in 1934, historians looked at what was happening that year in football and around the country in an attempt to identify root causes of the ban. With the Great Depression having taken hold in the United States and with George Preston Marshall, a famous segregationist, assuming ownership of the Redskins franchise in 1933, those two were singled out as the fundamental causes for the 1934 color ban.
But that analysis ignored the reality that the movement toward a color ban started much sooner – league-wide at least since 1927, and among the top-tier large market teams, arguably from the very formation of the NFL. And maybe that’s why we’ve never taken a more nuanced view of the history of African-Americans in pro football. Ultimately, it reveals an uncomfortable truth: that the NFL’s color ban wasn’t the singular vision of a lone racist in Marshall. Rather, it was merely the culmination of a movement for which every owner at that time bears a certain amount of responsibility.