Despite his clear talents, no National Football League (NFL) team drafted Washington because he was African American. So he starred in the Pacific Coast Football League, a minor league that allowed Black players.
Washington finally got to play in the NFL for three seasons starting in 1946, when the Cleveland Rams relocated to Los Angeles and wanted to play in a public stadium. Local Black newspapers pressured the team to include Black players. The first one signed was Washington.
I’ll admit that his statistics for those three years don’t measure up to most Hall of Famers, although he was among the NFL leaders in rushing yards one season. Still, Washington was a very important person in NFL history. To understand that, it helps to look further into the league’s history.
The NFL did not allow Black players from 1932 to 1946. It wasn’t a rule but an agreement among team owners. One reason was that the owner of the Washington football team, George Preston Marshall, did not want Black players in the league.
Many thought Marshall did not want Black players because Washington was the farthest-south team in the NFL from the 1930s to the 1960s. Teams in Southern cities such as Atlanta, Georgia; Charlotte, North Carolina; or Tampa Bay, Florida, didn’t exist at the time.
In those days, the South was segregated. That means White people made laws that kept Blacks separate from Whites. Blacks could not go to the same schools, eat at the same restaurants or drink from the same water fountains as Whites. Marshall may have thought that if the league allowed Black players, the fans in the segregated South would not root for his Washington team.
Marshall did not allow African American players on his team until 1962. Then, the U.S. government threatened to forbid the team to play in its stadium unless the team permitted Black players. That was many years after Blacks, starting with Kenny Washington in 1946, had played in the league.
Despite his unfair opposition to Blacks, Marshall is in the Hall of Fame.
Major League Baseball began to address its segregated past last year when it recognized players from the separate Negro Leagues (1920-1955) as major leaguers. Perhaps the NFL can begin to address its segregated past by naming players who were kept out of the league because of their skin color, such as Kenny Washington, to the Hall of Fame.
Isn’t it time?
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, a photo caption identified one of the former UCLA players as Woody Strobe. He is Woody Strode. The story has been updated.