Just about every time my 10-year-old daughter visits Nationals Park, she remarks on the “Robinson 42″ display across the stadium facade, indicating that Jackie Robinson’s number is retired. She and I have had multiple conversations, sitting there in the stands, about Robinson breaking the color line, and about why he’s honored in every MLB park. I’m no historian or sociologist, but these seem like ideal reactions to a historical marker: curiosity, and reflection, and discussion.
This country, as your blood pressure can attest, is again debating how history should best be memorialized. And that debate has again spread to sports, with Red Sox owner John Henry telling the Boston Herald that he’s “haunted” by his club’s racist history and would like to rename the iconic Yawkey Way — named after former owner Tom Yawkey, who ran the team when it was baseball’s last to integrate, a dozen years after Robinson’s arrival.
The response to Henry’s announcement was what you’d expect: some noisy anger, some enthusiastic agreement, and maybe a few quiet reflections about how to remember the past. The announcement made me think, anyhow — mostly about Washington’s related history. The Redskins were the NFL’s last team to integrate, remaining all-white as late as 1961, at which point there were 83 black players in the league, an average of about six per team. Then-owner George Preston Marshall’s franchise then was compared to the Red Sox, and he was pressured to integrate by picketers, activists, journalists and eventually the federal government, whose efforts were publicly cheered by Jackie Robinson.
Robinson called the Interior Department’s decision to use the new D.C. Stadium as leverage against Marshall “both inspirational and encouraging,” saying Marshall’s attitude “has no place in sports or in our American way of life.” The owner responded by saying, “Jackie Robinson is in the business of exploiting a race and makes a living doing it. I’m not. He doesn’t qualify as a critic.”
Now, there’s no Marshall equivalent to the famous Yawkey Way. Nothing remotely close. But there is a memorial to Marshall that remains outside RFK Stadium, whose future soon will be decided as that campus approaches a comprehensive change. And there is the “Hail to the Redskins Walk,” a historical explainer inside both FedEx Field and Redskins Park that pays tribute to Marshall without mentioning his shameful legacy. And the main bowl at FedEx Field is still formally named the “George Preston Marshall Lower Level,” joining the “Pete Rozelle Upper Level” and the “StubHub Club Level.” (Formerly the “Joe Gibbs Club Level,” for those worried about erasing history.)
Not that anyone knows this, of course. I stopped 13 Redskins fans before Saturday’s preseason game: black and white, older and younger, male and female. None had any idea whom the lower level was named for. When I broke the news, just three even knew who Marshall was. But when I asked one of those fans, 52-year-old Darrell Stoney, what he knew about Marshall, he immediately said, “Racist.”
“The last guy to allow an African American to join his football team,” Stoney said. “I can tell you this: He’s the reason why Washington, D.C. has a whole lot of Cowboys fans.”
Which is indeed part of this complex story. You could write a book about the team’s eventual integration — and in fact, historian Thomas G. Smith did. “Showdown,” Smith’s comprehensive 2011 look at that history, offers gobs of context, which I tried to summarize for these fans as we talked about the complicated business of remembering.
Such as how Marshall had his band play “Dixie” on the field for 23 years; the song was “as much a part of the Redskins as George Preston Marshall and Sammy Baugh,” columnist Morris Siegel once wrote. Or how as early as 1949, Otto Graham was telling the Washington Touchdown Club that he wished “the people of this country and the world had the philosophy of our [integrated] Cleveland football team,” and that “the prejudiced people could take a tip from our success.” Or how the NAACP’s D.C. chapter staged a two-day protest against Marshall outside league meetings in 1957 — five years before the roster was finally integrated — and later picketed Marshall’s home.
We learn that black sportswriter Sam Lacy boycotted the team for years, writing in 1956 that Washingtonians “should now hang their heads in shame” over their all-white football team. That black leader Lawrence Oxley said, “When Dixie is played instead of the Star Spangled Banner at a football game or any other place, we know what the score is.” That the Redskins were already the only all-white team by the mid-’50s, but persisted into the next decade, with Marshall saying, “All the other teams we play have Negroes; does it matter which team has the Negroes?” and asking whether the government would similarly “demand that the National Symphony Orchestra have Negroes.”
Maybe it’s unfair to judge historical actors by contemporary standards. (Opinions, as you might have noticed, vary wildly on this point.) But even that caveat doesn’t absolve Marshall, because his intransigence went beyond any of his NFL peers, turning the team’s integration into a national story.
“How come the Redskins are the only team in the pro league that doesn’t sign a Negro football player?” The Post’s Shirley Povich asked as early as 1957, after the appearance of picketers.
The Redskins were “spotting their rivals the tremendous advantage of exclusive rights to a whole race,” Cleveland writer Gordon Cobbledick wrote.
“When we note the thousands of young people throughout the South risking life and limb and going to jail rather than submit to the indignity of racial discrimination, why should we not be able to deny ourselves the luxury of supporting Marshall’s racism?” wrote black leader E.B. Henderson, in calling for a boycott.
Marshall was “one of the few remaining Jim Crow symbols in American sports,” Interior Secretary Stewart Udall said. His team was “hopelessly handicapped by Marshall’s white skin policy” wrote Dan Parker in the New York Mirror. “People who can’t play together, can’t live together” read signs carried by picketers at Washington’s 1961 opener.
“Marshall is an anachronism, as out of date as the drop kick,” Povich wrote in 1960. “The other club owners have passed him by. Marshall, with his dedication to white supremacy on the football field, is still hearing a cry that doesn’t exist.”
Marshall finally gave in, while insisting that the team’s integration was entirely coincidental to this public pressure. And in his will, he required that no money from the Redskins Foundation go toward “any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form.”
Maybe this is all ancient history, although Marshall’s bigotry has been referenced throughout the ongoing debate about the team’s name. But it’s history you couldn’t learn from the stadium’s historical display, which devotes more space to the team’s cheerleading squad than to its racial legacy. (Bobby Mitchell “broke the color barrier for the Redskins franchise,” the display explains, without any context or follow-up.) You can’t find that history on the RFK Stadium Memorial, either; that hulking tribute merely describes Marshall as “founder of the Washington Redskins” and “pioneer in the National Football League.”
Marshall was a pioneer, an innovator and a master showman. You can’t tell the history of sports in Washington without him. But he also watched his team go 2-21-3 in the final two years before integrating; “his bigoted racial views hurt his team competitively and marred his reputation historically,” as Smith writes. He hamstrung his coaches, hurt his fans, and divided the community such that two black fans on Saturday told me they still catch hell from friends for rooting for Marshall’s ex-team.
So what’s the point of all this? Well, officials at Events DC already are trying to figure out what to do with the memorials to Marshall and Clark Griffith in a post-RFK Stadium world, and intend to remove them in the near future. It might make sense to shift the Griffith memorial near Nationals Park, but good luck convincing anyone to adopt Marshall. (“We are motivated to find a way to resolve this that could be viewed as acceptable to all parties,” said Events DC Senior Vice President and Managing Director Erik Moses, who has spoken with critics of the memorial and Marshall’s granddaughter about the coming decision but noted that “there are no immediately viable places to relocate the Marshall monument.”)
And what of FedEx Field? The ways Marshall is honored there are insignificant and mostly ignored, but then what would be the harm of improving them? Instead of the George Preston Marshall Lower Level, why not name it after Bobby Mitchell, with a display in the main concourse explaining his legacy? Why not add details about Marshall’s racial intransigence to the Hail to the Redskins Walk? Why not prompt the sort of discussions I had on Saturday night with fans on all sides of these issues, who had all sorts of reactions to Marshall’s legacy? That’s not erasing history; that’s engaging with it.
(A team spokesman declined to comment on these issues, other than noting that the Marshall memorial is on RFK’s grounds and is not affiliated with the Redskins.)
A new stadium will be built at some point in the next decade, which will necessitate even more choices. Will Marshall be honored? Will his past be explored? Will one of the worst chapters in franchise history receive as much attention as the history of the team’s cheerleading outfit?
These are all symbolic questions, but those can be plenty powerful, like Henry’s outspokenness about the Red Sox’s unpleasant past. Grappling with Marshall’s legacy would be virtue signaling, perhaps, although why wouldn’t you want to signal shame over an ignoble episode that divided a community? Wouldn’t that be worth the price of a StubHub Club Level sponsorship?
The stakes here are small, especially compared to the front-page debates. But seeing Jackie Robinson’s name at Nationals Park has, in my family, prompted some real engagement with history, however brief. Seems like we all could use a bit more of that in our lives.