Pigskin Pioneers


Remember the Titans, the Denzel Washington vehicle on high school football and racial tolerance, brings a crucial part of our sports history to a huge audience that likely knows little about it. It’s a feel-good rendering of that history, to be sure, but not all of the hard edges are rubbed smooth, and the film reminds viewers who assume black dominance of the major sports that there was a time, not too long ago, when African Americans had to fight for the opportunity just to compete.

High schools throughout the South played out some version of Remember the Titans in the 1960s and ’70s. Moreover, major colleges like LSU, Ole Miss, and the University of Georgia did not yet have integrated football teams in 1971, when the film is set, and the Washington Redskins had been integrated for just nine years. Outside the South, a long history of discrimination and prejudice had played out more messily.

Football has no Jackie Robinson, the lone racial hero whose achievement changed baseball forever and whose story is common knowledge thanks to the recent 50th anniversary celebration of his breaking the color line. Instead, the gridiron has William Henry Lewis, an All-American at Harvard in 1892; Paul Robeson, the first black student at Rutgers, who earned Phi Beta Kappa as well as All-American honors in 1918; Fitz Pollard, an All-American at Brown who played in the first integrated Rose Bowl in 1916; Duke Slater, another All-American, who played for Iowa in the late ’20s and later became a judge in Chicago; as well as Oze Simmons, Kenny Washington, Marion Motley, Bill Willis, and Levi Jackson—a collective “Jackie Robinson” who broke down racial barriers not in a single burst but a step at a time.

College football was integrated outside the South as early as the 1890s, but only marginally and unevenly. Lewis played for Harvard in 1892, but Princeton and Yale—the rest of the Big Three in football’s earliest years—had no black players until the ’40s (Levi Jackson’s election as Yale’s captain in 1949 warranted a front-page account in The New York Times). In any season before the Second World War, no more than two or three dozen African Americans played in what the black press called “mixed football.” Until UCLA fielded a team in 1939 with Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, and the one and only Jackie Robinson (with a fourth black player as a sub), no team had had more than a couple of black players at any one time.

Notre Dame, the “home team” for every despised immigrant in the ’20s and ’30s, had no black players before the ’50s. Army and Navy, as national institutions with numerous Southern students, were also late to integrate. The Big Six Conference (forerunner of the Big Eight and now the Big Twelve) officially integrated in 1947, the Missouri Valley Conference in 1950, the ACC in 1963, the Southwest Conference in 1966, the SEC in 1967. I’m old enough to have played (for Notre Dame) against Georgia Tech in 1969 and Texas in the 1970 Cotton Bowl, before those teams were integrated.

The National Football League, too, was only marginally integrated from its beginnings in the ’20s, until an unofficial yet absolute ban kept blacks out of the league from 1934 through 1945. Black college stars such as Iowa’s Oze Simmons (class of ’36) and UCLA’s Washington graduated not to the NFL but to semipro clubs on the East and West coasts. A threat by black leaders in Los Angeles to block the Rams’ lease of the L.A. Coliseum forced the team to sign Washington and Strode in 1946. In that same year, the Cleveland Browns of the new All-America Football Conference signed Bill Willis and Marion Motley and proceeded to dominate professional football over the next decade with conspicuously integrated teams. Other NFL clubs gradually desegregated during the late ’40s and ’50s, with only the Redskins holding out until 1962. A large number of those early black players are now in the Hall of Fame.

Those few who were given opportunities to play suffered countless indignities: abuse by opponents and antagonism from teammates. College players dealt with discrimination in housing and social opportunities on their own campuses, as well as periodic benchings for games against Southern opponents. The latter were the most humiliating experiences. When Michigan played Georgia Tech at Ann Arbor in 1934, for example, the Northern school deferred to its visitors’ sensibilities by keeping its best player, Willis Ward, out of the game because he was black. A national champion sprinter and jumper, and a potential gold medalist in the decathlon, Ward was so demoralized that he declined to try out for the ’36 Olympic team. Such accommodations were made dozens of times; by the late ’30s, the typical arrangement for North-South intersectional games was to follow home-team custom: integrated games on the Northern campus, the visitors’ black players held out of the games played in the South. Although some of these benchings were protested locally, most of them went nearly unnoted.

The South’s last stand for racial purity took place before the 1956 Sugar Bowl—the first major battle over segregation in football to become a truly national event. The attempt by the segregationist governor of Georgia, Marvin Griffin, to prevent Georgia Tech from playing against Pittsburgh and Bobby Grier, its one black player, caused a small riot by some 2000 Georgia Tech students and provoked responses from sports columnists and editorial writers throughout the country. Georgia Tech did eventually play in that game, but the Louisiana legislature passed an anti-integration statute for athletic events that precluded a second integrated Sugar Bowl until 1965, when the Supreme Court struck down the law. It would be seven more years before all of the schools in the SEC had integrated football teams.

To forget this history would not doom us to repeat it—that is unthinkable—but it skews our understanding of the sporting and social world we live in today. Recalling this history can help us comprehend, say, the disproportionate role athletics have come to play among young black males with few other prospects, and puts in context the current talk about black athletic superiority. Early in the 20th century, bad science had “proved” that African Americans were a physically inferior race. The triumphs of Jesse Owens and Joe Louis in the ’30s exploded that myth but provoked another—one about blacks’ “natural” ability in contrast to whites’ hard work and determination.

Football’s racial history can also help us recognize the tangled relationship between opportunity and exploitation. The early black football players at integrated schools—men like Lewis, Robeson, and Slater—tended to be remarkable students as well as athletes, but the ’30s saw the start of the recruiting of talented black athletes with weak academic backgrounds, who had little chance of graduating. Football was a powerful force for integration, but powerfully limited as well.

There are countless great stories here, though most of them are more painful than exhilarating. Remember the Titans cannot distill much of this history, but in bringing to life a single triumphant moment near the end of football’s Jim Crow era, it at least hints at the torturous decades that preceded it. In particular, it tells young viewers, both black and white, who have no memory of a time when the NFL and the NBA were not dominated by black stars, that the current arrangements are neither natural nor inevitable.