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The NFL's Jackie Robinson
October 12, 2009
He broke professional football's color barrier in 1946, yet even though he played alongside Robinson in college, few people remember the great running back Kenny Washington or the shameful history of segregation in the NFL
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October 12, 2009

The Nfl's Jackie Robinson

He broke professional football's color barrier in 1946, yet even though he played alongside Robinson in college, few people remember the great running back Kenny Washington or the shameful history of segregation in the NFL

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By the end of 1945 the future of the Hollywood Bears—indeed, the fate of the entire PCFL—hung on two developments. One was a vow by the fledgling All-American Football Conference (AAFC) to plant a flag in Los Angeles with a team owned by actor Don Ameche and called the Dons. The other factor was the decision by NFL owners, eager to checkmate the new league, to grant Cleveland owner Dan Reeves permission to move his Rams to L.A.

That city, however, was no longer the one Washington and Strode had known upon leaving Westwood. The war had fed the East Side's growth as blacks poured into Southern California to work in the defense industries that FDR barred from discriminatory hiring. Restrictive covenants kept blacks from settling in much of the L.A. basin, but the Double V campaign waged by the Courier—"victory over fascism abroad and segregation at home"—elevated expectations, especially among returning African-American troops.

Meanwhile, policies barring blacks from downtown hotels and Hollywood clubs had touched off a flowering along Central Avenue. Film stars lit out for the 4200 block, which included the Dunbar Hotel, the Club Alabam and the Last Word Café, to drink in the music and the vibe. "They had to come down there because we couldn't go over there," jazz pianist Gerald Wiggins would recall in 1993, savoring the irony. One night Stepin Fetchit pulled up in front of the Dunbar in a yellow Rolls-Royce with Mae West riding shotgun. Swing had given way to bebop, and the result was an empowering headiness among black Angelenos.

Operating along "the black Sunset Strip," as Central Avenue was known, L.A.'s African-American reporters now worked to secure the second V, targeting whites-only unions and bigoted housing policies. Edward (Abie) Robinson of the Sentinel and later the California Eagle was one of the most prominent of these crusaders. Herman Hill, West Coast bureau chief of the Courier, could count some two million readers of 13 editions nationwide. But the most fearless, outspoken and tenacious of all was a former pro athlete who served as sports editor of the Los Angeles Tribune.

William Claire (Halley) Harding wrote in a voice that jumped off the page. Sarcastic, conversational, self-congratulatory and self-aggrandizing, he never lacked for an opinion or a provocation. Harding called his Tribune column SO WHAT?, and the contrariness in the title captures him perfectly. "He was a loudmouth," remembers the Sentinel's Pye, who as a junior high schooler in 1946 made pocket change emptying wastebaskets in the Courier's West Coast bureau. "I used to pass by [his] office and hear him through the door. There was a boxing gym down the street and a pool hall around the corner—I could always hear him in there too. With 90,000 people in the Coliseum you could still hear Halley Harding."

As a kid in Rock Island, Ill., Harding would have known of Robert (Rube) Marshall, the second black pro footballer, who played for the local team, the Independents, as would two other pioneers, Sol Butler and Fred (Duke) Slater. Harding himself played football at historically black colleges Wilberforce, Wiley and Fisk. At Wiley he overlapped with Melvin B. Tolson, the renowned English professor and debate coach—played by Denzel Washington in the 2007 film The Great Debaters—whose team memorably defeated national debate champion USC in 1935. Tolson served as an assistant coach of the Wiley football team, which went 8-0-1 in 1928 with Harding at quarterback.

Through the late '20s and '30s, Harding was a kind of black sports Zelig, playing Negro leagues baseball after the college football season ended and basketball for Abe Saperstein's Savoy Big Five, the Chicago-based forerunner of the Globetrotters. When the NFL drew the color line, all-Negro pro football teams popped up, and Harding spent the mid-'30s with Pollard's Chicago Black Hawks and New York Brown Bombers. By the end of the decade he had landed in Los Angeles. In 1939 and 1940 he appeared in a couple of films with all-black casts, including Gang War, in which he throws a mean right cross during a barroom brawl.

On the afternoon of Jan. 15, 1946, representatives of the Rams and the Dons appeared before the L.A. Memorial Coliseum Commission to lobby for leases to a stadium that had never before hosted pro football. Commission president Leonard Roach, an L.A. County supervisor who enjoyed broad black support, had tipped off the black press that the meeting was open to the public. Just off a plane from Cleveland, Rams G.M. Charles (Chile) Walsh surely had no idea what the black man seated beside him had in store.

While minutes of the Coliseum Commission note that "Hally Hardin [sic], representing 30 colored newspapers," was present and delivered one of a number of "short talks" that day, they don't record exactly what he said. But from surviving accounts we do know that Harding set his sarcasm aside and stood and delivered like a Wiley College debater. He walked the commissioners through the NFL's early, integrated history. He highlighted pioneers like his old teammate Pollard. He invoked the Double V campaign and the contributions of black soldiers during World War II. He fingered Marshall as the handmaiden of Jim Crow pro football and appealed to Southern Californians' tradition of tolerance. And he declared it "singularly strange" that no NFL team had signed Kenny Washington.

After Harding sat down, the Sentinel's Abie Robinson told Ron Bishop, a Drexel communications professor, in 2002, "You could have heard a rat piss on cotton."

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