Kenny Washington: Broke Color Line in NFL

Kenny Washington (1918-1971) was the first African American to Kenny Washingtonsign with an NFL team after a 13-year unspoken pact among owners to bar black football players from teams.

Kenny Washington signed with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946, pre-dating baseball legend Jackie Robinson’s 1947 signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Jackie Robinson’s tale is well-known and oft-told, so why isn’t Kenny’s?

Here is Kenny Washington’s story. 

Kenny Washington: Early Life

Washington grew up in the Lincoln Heights section of downtown Los Angeles. Kenny’s father was a ne’er-do-well who was absent for much of Washington’s childhood. Kenny was primarily raised by his grandmother, Susie, aided by his uncle, Rocky. (Rocky was the first African American to be accepted in the Los Angeles Police Force.)

At Abraham Lincoln High School, Washington excelled at both baseball and football. When he went on to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), he found an athletic department Kenny Washingtonthat considered ability rather than skin color. During Washington’s era in the late 1930s, the UCLA Bruins counted four African American team members on their football squad. Washington was joined by Jackie Robinson and two other fine players: Woody Strode and Ray Bartlett.

While most college teams did not ban blacks, the Bruins were unusual for their high number. Nationwide in that era, only a few dozen African Americans played college ball.

Kenny Washington was a remarkable athlete and earned the esteem of many. While his right arm, his main passing arm, was described as a “cannon,” he could also throw well with his left arm. He set rushing and passing records at UCLA, and by his senior year, he led the entire nation in total yards rushed. (These records are particularly remarkable in an era when players played both offense and defense.)

Jackie Robinson described him as “the greatest long passer ever.”

College Career

Washington was selected for the College All-Star roster of 1940. The college team was scheduled to play a game for charity against the pro champions, the Green Bay Packers. Time magazine covered the game, which the Packers ultimately won.  The reporter ended the piece with a summation of college players and which men had signed with pro teams. The article concludes: “[One] of last week’s college stars whom football fans will probably see no more is kinky-haired Kenny Washington. Considered by West Coast fans the most brilliant player in the U.S. last year, Washington cannot play major-league pro football because he is a Negro.”

The All-Star team was coached by George Halas, the highly-Kenny Washingtonregarded coach of the Chicago Bears. After the game, he asked Kenny to come to Chicago. Halas hoped to sign Washington to the Bears.  One week later, Washington returned to Los Angeles without a contract; it couldn’t be done.

Many speculated later that had Washington’s pro career begun at that time, he would have been remembered as one of the greatest football players ever.

Both Washington and fellow Bruin Woody Strode went on to play in the Pacific Coast League, a semi-pro league that used black players. Both played for the Hollywood Bears.

As the Bears’ first season with Washington progressed, Washington’s fame grew. So did attendance at the game.  Washington was clearly a superstar.

Black Players in Early Football

Kenny Washington
#13 in action

From the early 1900s through 1933, Black players were often featured on collegiate teams. That was where the action was in the sport at that time. As the college became more competitive with one another, teams woud hire professional players—often Black men—by the twos and threes. This strengthened the college team, and the practice continued for a time. In this way, America edged into professional football.

As time went on, pro football teams sprouted up in small towns. Charles Follis was the first Black to play for an integrated town team. (In general, however, there was no particularly concern about skin color in early football.) Follis played for the Shelby Blues in the Ohio League from 1902-1906.

These local games were popular for spectators, and ripe for offering gambling opportunities. As a result, the teams proliferated.

By 1920, there was American Professional Football Association. Fritz Pollard was the first Black to play for one of its teams. He began as a player-coach for the semi-pro Akron Indians which became the Akron Pros.  He went on to become head coach of the Akron Pros, a team that was a charter member of the APFA. The APFA became known as the National Football League in 1922.

Some people feel Pollard deserves credit as the first Black to play for the NFL. Others agree that Kenny Washington was first. He pioneered the way through the post-war modern NFL and was first to sign an NFL contract with the League as we know it today.

The Unspoken NFL Lockout

From the 1920s-1946 was a difficult time for Black players. The owners seemed to have come to an agreement that they would no longer put Black men on the team. The last two players were Joe Lillard and Ray Kemp. They each played during 1933 but were offered no playing contracts the following year. It was said that Lillard was not invited back to play for the Chicago Cardinals “for his own good.” Ray Kemp accepted a coaching offer.

What happened to create this change?

Experts cite two events. Certainly the Great Depression was a contributing factor. Racism always intensifies at times of economic strife; i.e., whites want to employ whites when jobs are scarce.

The other factor was the arrival of George Preston Marshall who, along with a couple of partners, became owners of the Boston Braves football team. Within a year, Marshall, who was heir to his family’s fortune from the laundry business, bought out his partners and moved the team south to Washington, D.C.  There they became the Washington Redskins.

Marshall was born in West Virginia in 1896, but seemed to have Kenny Washingtonabsorbed a Deep South sensibility. He wanted no African Americans on his team, and he pressured the other team owners to follow suit. Team owners never admitted to a “no blacks” policy, but this is the only way to explain that no African Americans played in the professional leagues for thirteen years.

During World War II, most able-bodied men were serving in the military. The league was so desperate for players that they considered signing high school players. Yet Kenny Washington, who spent a year recovering from a football injury that kept him out of the service, found himself returning to the semi-pro leagues after he was deemed well enough to play again. Why wouldn’t an NFL team snatch him up?

War Ends and Football Ramps Up

With the conclusion of the War and the return to a more normal life for Americans, the focus once again turned to recreational interests like football.  Los Angeles had long wanted a professional team, and the newly formed AAFC (1946), had in its fold an L.A. team known as Coliseumthe Dons. The Dons hoped to play in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

As word got around that the Dons had their eyes on the Coliseum, the NFL owners took steps to make life difficult for the new AAFC.  When Cleveland Rams owner Dan Reeves expressed interest in moving his Rams from Cleveland to Los Angeles, the NFL supported the idea.

Black Press Turns Up the Heat

The Los Angeles Coliseum is publicly funded, and for that reason, the Coliseum Commissioners must hold public meetings. The black press had a friend among the white Commissioners who got word to them that there was going to be a public hearing for the Dons and the Rams.

William Claire (known as Halley) Harding, a former baseball player in the Negro Leagues, was now sports editor for the Los Angeles Tribune, a paper that covered the African American community. Harding was larger-than-life and whip-smart. He was the perfect spokesperson to be at the public meeting.

The Dons and the Rams were there to plead their cases, and when Charles Walsh, general manager of the Rams, finished his presentation, he asked for questions.

LA TribuneHalley Harding seized the opportunity. He took the microphone and outlined how the Coliseum was funded by public funds and that the stadium could never be used by a segregated team.  Harding explained to the owners, commissioners, and the public that in L.A. and other parts of the West, they didn’t see black and white differences the way some of the country did. He noted that blacks had served in World War II, that they had been key to much of the war preparation that had taken place in Los Angles, they had helped build and helped fund the Coliseum, and that it was “singularly strange” that no NFL team had signed a player like Kenny Washington.

Woody Strode’s family has recreated an approximation of what Harding said. It is well worth listening…

The Rams’ manager was reportedly taken aback but responded that Washington was certainly welcome to try out but there were no guarantees. Harding was relentless. Washington had to be on the team.

The final decision was to be made when the Commission reconvened.

Pressure Continues

About a week later, Walsh and his #2 arrived at the local hang-out where the black press gathered. The team representatives assured the press that Washington would have his opportunity.

Harding wouldn’t have it. Kenny Washington needed to be a Ram.

Rams hatThe Coliseum ultimately gave permission to the Rams to use the Coliseum if they integrated the team.

The Rams put out a press release on March 21, 1946, that announced Kenny Washington had signed with them. The release denied the existence of an unspoken league rule against Negroes and also stated that no precedent was being set with Washington’s signing.

They did, however, consult Washington as to who should be brought along with him. Washington requested that good friend and UCLA teammate Woody Strode be signed as well.

Washington and Strode: Away Games

As was the custom in most towns, the traveling team stayed in segregated hotels. One of the team managers would pull out a hundred dollar bill each for Washington and Strode, telling them to find themselves “acceptable accommodations.”  Most of the time, this wasn’t very convenient or comfortable.

In Chicago, however, they did well for themselves. Washington and Strode located an integrated cellar bar where Count Basie was playing. The bar was filled with people, black and white laughing, talking, and enjoying the music. As Strode told it, they each took a seat and ordered a Tom Collins.

Sometime during the evening a couple of their teammates found them. The white players felt badly for Washington and Strode, and they’d come up with a way to sneak the men into the hotel. When they located them listening to Count Basie and having a fine time, Washington and Strode declined the invitation. “No way. We’re just going to stay segregated,” said Strode.

In general, Strode and Washington paid a high price. They were targeted by others, both on and off the field. If they were at the bottom of a pile of guys on the field, it was just plain dangerous. Despite that, Strode described Washington as the kind of guy who helped the other guy up after a take down on the field.

Kenny Washington: Playing Career

When he signed with the Rams in 1946, Washington had had five knee operations. Despite this, his next few years were good ones. His second year he finished fourth in the NFL in rushing yardage and led the League with a 7.4 yards per carry; his 92-yard touchdown run against Chicago was a franchise record.

But by the end of the 1948 season, Washington’s knees had seen all the action they could. He had to retire.  Strode described the moment when Washington entered the Coliseum for the last time: It was as if “the pope of Rome had come out.”

And About the League

Integration slowly came to other teams. The newly formed AAFC accepted integration more willing than the NFL, but in 1948, the Detroit Lions took Mel Groomes.  The draft was not used to select an African American until 1949 when George Taliaferro was selected by an NFL team, who quickly traded him to the L.A. Dons.

As for Marshall, he continued to maintain his position: “We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites,” he was known to have said.

But as the 1960s dawned, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall threatened to evict the Redskins from the DC stadium if they didn’t sign a black player. They drafted Ernie Davis but he refused to play for them so they traded him to the Cleveland Browns for Bobby Mitchell. It was 1962 and they finally had their man.

Kenny Washington Honors

Kenny Washington received numerous honors but they were primarily related to his time at UCLA. He was the first UCLA player K wash plaqueto be named All-American.  It was only fitting that when he was inducted into the College Hall of Fame UCLA retired #13, Kenny Washington’s jersey number.

One year after his death in 1971, the Los Angeles Coliseum Commissioners dedicated a plaque in his honor at the Coliseum.

Woody Strode outlived Washington by a good number of years and as a result, he was left to speak for both of them. When asked about the years spent integrating the NFL, Strode replied: “If I have to integrate Heaven, I don’t want to go.”

Kenny Washington likely would have agreed.

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10 thoughts on “Kenny Washington: Broke Color Line in NFL”

  1. I used to drink with Kenny Washington at the Cork Club on Adam Blvd. in Los Angeles! He was a liquor representative for Cutty Sark scotch! He and a lot of retired L.A. athletes would meet at the Cork to play American Contract Bridge! Players like Don Newcomb, Jim Gilliam of the Dodgers and others! Back in the day as they say!

  2. Thank you so much for posting! I did not know that he was a liquor representative, and yes, he certainly knew all the big athletes of that day. It must have been fun to be there! A great memory, I’m sure.

  3. Man so amazing to find out the information about the stride made by blacks before integrating

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