Warren Report: The Integration, Segregation and Re-integration of the Detroit Lions

The following are sample chapters of the book Doug Warren is writing about the history of Detroit, Michigan from roughly the end of World War Two (1945), through 1960.


On September 3, 1948 at United Sound Systems, located at 5840 Second Avenue in Detroit, a then-unknown janitor at the Dodge Main Plant in Hamtramck, named John Lee Hooker, recorded a song that would forever define him and his trademark sound. The song was a tribute to Detroit’s center for black nightlife, Hastings Street. Combining Hooker’s sparse Mississippi blues guitar with his “stark, chilling vocal,” the song was called ‘Boogie Chillin.’ And by early 1949, it was the number one single on the national R&B chart.[i]

While Hooker was set to make a name for himself on radios, jukeboxes and juke joints all over America, the Detroit Lions and their first-year head coach, Bo McMillin, had made history only a few months earlier.

In April 1948, the Lions signed black players, Bob Mann and Mel Groomes, to contracts. The duo would become the first two black players to play for the Detroit Lions. Mann was a second-team All-American end at the University of Michigan in 1947, while Groomes had played halfback for McMillin at Indiana.

The fact that McMillin opened the door to Groomes and Mann is very notable. At the time of their signings, there were only two other NFL teams, the Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants, with a black player on their roster. The Rams had former UCLA star, Kenny Washington, while the Giants suited up University of Iowa rookie, Emlen Tunnell, who would one day become the first black player elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Meanwhile, over in the rival All American Football Conference, the Cleveland Browns, New York Yankees, Chicago Rockets, Los Angeles Dons and San Francisco Forty-Niners had a total of eleven black players on their rosters in 1948. Those names included four future Canton inductees; San Francisco’s Joe Perry and Cleveland’s Marion Motley, Bill Willis and Len Ford. Ford, by the way, was a teammate of Bob Mann at Michigan.[ii]

While Mel Groomes would play in just nine games for the Lions next in two seasons, Bob Mann would become a star.

“We’re tickled to get Mann. We’ve been after his name on a Detroit contract ever since I came here as coach. We know he will be a valuable professional performer,” McMillin said to the Associated Press.[iii]

Mann signed a contract for $7,500 with a $2,500 bonus, which was quality NFL money in the late 1940s. In addition, Mann was also hired by the Goebel Brewing Company as a salesman. Lions’ team President, Edwin J. Anderson, also served as President of Goebel Brewing.

In 1948, in a reserve role, Mann would catch 33 passes for 560 yards and 3 touchdowns. The following season, Mann led the NFL in receiving yardage, catching 66 passes for 1,014 yards and 4 touchdowns. His catch total was second-highest in the NFL, behind Tom Fears of the Rams who grabbed 77 pigskins.[iv]

McMillin made NFL history again in 1949 when he selected Penn State halfback Wally Triplett in the 19th round of the draft. McMillin’s selection made Triplett the first black man drafted in league history.

As a reserve in his rookie season, Triplett would average 4.2 yards rushing, 13.4 yards per-punt return, gain 592 total yards and score 2 touchdowns.

Despite Triplett and Mann’s abilities, Triplett said he, Mann and Groomes, for the most part, felt unwelcome with the Lions.

“Half of the Detroit players wouldn’t speak to me,” Triplett recalled. “I was made to feel like I was ‘intruding.’ I know Bob Mann felt the same way. Pro football did not welcome Negroes, the term we used to use, in the 1940s.”[v]

Not only did the Leo trio not feel welcome in their own lockeroom, they also had to suffer indignities on the road.

In the 1949 preseason, the Lions were scheduled to play the Philadelphia Eagles in New Orleans. Like most of the Jim Crow south, Louisiana forbid black athletes to share the field with whites. Prior to the Lions departing for the Big Easy, McMillin met in his office with Mann, Triplett and Groomes. McMillin told the three that the sponsors of the game had left the decision to him as to whether the black Lions could play. While McMillin would sign and draft blacks in Detroit, he didn’t want to betray his Texas roots by making history in New Orleans. The three would not be able to play in the game or stay with the team in the same hotel.

“Bo told us he didn’t think he should be the one to break it,” a still angry Mann said in 2005. “I thought to myself, ‘fine that’s his decision.’ Bo could have ended all that. He was supposed to be Mr. Great Liberal. But he didn’t do it. He just passed it by. He could have been a big guy, a big fellow, but he didn’t do it. I’ve never forgotten that. Don’t tell me how liberal Bo was; he wasn’t. He had a chance to be a hero, step up to the plate, but he didn’t do it.”[vi]

Despite being drafted by him, Wally Triplett never thought much of Bo McMillin either.

“I never got along with Bo,” Triplett said. “Bo felt like I had a ‘chip’ on my shoulder, and he didn’t like that, no matter how good you were.”[vii]

While the Detroit Lions had broken the NFL color barrier by 1948, it would be another ten years before the Detroit Tigers would suit up a non-white player in their “Old English D” uniform.

The fact that the Tigers remained segregated well into the Eisenhower Administration was due to the influence and legacy of Walter Briggs Sr. Briggs was a Detroit industrialist who opened Briggs Manufacturing in 1908. His company specialized in the manufacturing auto bodies for Detroit’s car companies. Briggs soon made a fortune and bought a 25 percent stake in the Tigers in 1919. He kept that stake until 1935, when he became sole owner after the death of Frank Navin.

Briggs was an unabashed bigot. Throughout his ownership, he steadfastly refused to sign black players. Long after Jackie Robinson became a Brooklyn Dodger, the unofficial Tigers’ motto remained, “No jigs with Briggs.”

When Briggs Sr. died in 1952, his son Walter “Spike” Briggs took over ownership of the team. That summer, seven black ballplayers who graduated from Detroit high schools signed major league contracts with teams outside the Motor City. By 1953, every team in major league baseball has black players in their farm systems except Detroit.

Protests, bad press . . . and losing became the norm during Fifties at the corner Michigan and Trumbull. In 1956, Spike Briggs was bought out by a consortium of eleven men led by radio and television broadcasters, Fred Knorr and John Fetzer. Knorr personally and immediately pledged $75,000 to sign seventeen black players into the Tigers’ farm system. Nevertheless, two years later it was still just the Tigers and Boston Red Sox who remained Caucasian on the professional baseball diamond.[viii]

In that fateful summer of 1958, the Michigan Association of Negro Trade Unions and pastors of several leading black churches in Detroit called for a boycott if the Tigers remained segregated.

Finally, in June 1958, the Tigers broke their color barrier by trading with the San Francisco Giants for utility player and Dominican Republic native, Ozzie Virgil. Virgil made his debut with the team on June 6, 1958.[ix]

Why did the Detroit Lions and Tigers – despite Detroit having over 500,000 black residents – and prospective ticket buyers by 1950 – remain the second to last teams – before the Washington Redskins and Boston Red Sox – to integrate in their respective leagues during the decade?

To better answer that question, it is necessary to explore the history of racial tension in Detroit in the first half of the 20th century.

The evolution of the Detroit’s racial problems began with the beginning of the Great Migration, which was the period between 1910 and 1970, when roughly six million blacks left the southern United States to escape the oppression of Jim Crow. They migrated north and west into America’s growing industrial regions seeking better jobs, higher pay and overall better lives.

As a result, Detroit’s black population grew from just 5,741 in 1910, to roughly a half-million people by 1940. Meanwhile, Detroit’s overall population stood at 1.6 million by the start of World War II.[x]

It was during the first twenty years of the migration (1910-30) that municipal governments and their partners in business, real estate and finance began to create a systematic, institutional system of residential and economic apartheid in Detroit and other northern cites.[xi]

Of course, in Detroit, the biggest victims of that apartheid would be the residents of the city’s segregated black ghetto.

As early as 1919, the Research Bureau of Associated Charities of Detroit reported that, “Seventy-five percent of the Negro homes have so many lodgers that they are really hotels. . . . The pool rooms and gambling clubs are beginning to charge for the privilege of sleeping on pool room tables overnight.”[xii]

In 1924, the Detroit Realtors Association instituted restrictive covenants as official policy to bar blacks from moving into white areas. Banks and insurance companies also during the 1920s began to restrict access to home and business mortgages as well as home improvement loans to blacks in Detroit.[xiii]

In addition, the Klu Klux Klan made major inroads into the North after the First World War. Sending their first recruiter into Detroit in 1921 – the “Invisible Order” amassed thirty-five thousand members in Detroit by 1924. In Chicago, that number had reached fifty-thousand by mid-decade.[xiv]

In the 1924 runoff election for Mayor of Detroit, the Klan – in a write in campaign – elected an unknown lawyer named Charles Bowles by over 7,000 votes over his Republican and Democratic opponents.

It was only by the actions of the Democrats and Republicans – and their pals on the Detroit Election Commission, who managed to throw out 17,000 Klan votes on technicalities – that burning crosses and white sheets did not join automobiles as Detroit’s biggest exports.[xv]

On September 8, 1925, a black Detroit doctor named, Ossian Sweet, attempted to move his wife and young daughter into their newly purchased home at the corner of Garland and Charlevoix on Detroit’s east side. By dinner time on September 9, hundreds of angry whites had gathered in front of the Sweet home. Inside, Dr. Sweet and his wife Gladys, along with Sweet’s brother, Henry, and six other friends, armed themselves with guns for what was to come.

As darkness fell on the neighborhood, rocks began to rain onto the Sweet home.[xvi]

“Here’s niggers!” “There they go!” “Get them! Get them!” Shouted the angry mob outside as Dr. Sweet’s second brother, Otis Sweet, and another friend, William Davis, raced up the front steps after exiting a taxi cab that had brought them there for night two of the siege.[xvii]

A few minutes later, as another window shattered from a projectile, someone in one of the upstairs rooms of the Sweet home opened fire into the crowd outside. When the shooting stopped, two white men were on the ground. The first, Eric Houghberg, had been shot in the leg, bleeding but alive. The second, Leon Breiner, lay dead from a single shot in his back.[xviii]

The Detroit police, who had been on the scene for hours but had done nothing to stop the rocks, swooped into the home and arrested everyone inside. The Wayne County prosecutor would charge all eleven, including Ossian and Gladys Sweet, with murder.[xix]

In their trail, the defendants were represented by an NAACP-funded defense team led by the immortal defense attorney, Clarence Darrow. Darrow and his team managed to get a hung jury in the initial trail. In the second trial in 1926, where just Henry Sweet was tried for murder after admitting he fired the fatal shot, Darrow got the all-white jury to acquit the accused. The Sweet trials were possibly Darrow’s greatest victories, cementing his place in history as the “Attorney of The Damned.”[xx]

The judge who presided over both cases in Detroit Recorders’ Court was 35-year old Frank Murphy. Mayor Murphy would later be elected Mayor of Detroit and Governor of Michigan. He would later serve as U.S. Attorney General, with his final stop being the U.S. Supreme Court in 1940, upon Franklin D. Roosevelt’s nomination. Murphy would serve on the nation’s highest court until his death in 1949.[xxi]

The Ossian Sweet case and other events helped shape the racial order in Detroit during the 1920s and 1930s. The result was that by World War II, systematic housing, economic, educational and job discrimination resulted in most of Detroit’s 149,000 blacks being locked into a 60-square-block area on the city’s Lower East Side. The residential and business sections of this territory became known as “Black Bottom.” Meanwhile, the entertainment district, located just to the north of Black Bottom, became known as “Paradise Valley.”[xxii]

During his first year and a half with the Detroit Lions, Wally Triplett lived in a rooming house in a section of Black Bottom. The area was filled with speakeasies and “houses of ill repute,” Triplett said. But as Paradise Valley became the center of Detroit’s night life in the late Forties, players from the Lions and other professional teams would head out to “black and tan” integrated nightclubs such as The Flame Showbar and the 666 Lounge, to see entertainers like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington.

Triplett remembers running into a blonde Texan in the black and tans who was just beginning to become a Motor City legend himself, on and off the field.

“Bobby liked a good time,” Triplett said of Bobby Layne, “Bobby would put a $100 bill on the bar and tell the waitress, ‘When I’ve used that up, call me a cab.’ He was a great tipper.”[xxiii]

Bobby Layne’s willingness to integrate with black Detroit was the exception rather than the rule. By the start of World War II, the geography, politics and culture of Detroit had largely come to be defined in terms of black and white. A example of that fact is that at the outbreak of the war, nearly 90 percent of Detroit’s white population would have had to move from one census tract to another for there to have been an equal distribution of black and white over Detroit’s 140-square mile area.[xxiv]

Because of federal policies constructed during the Great Depression that insisted that mortgages and loans be restricted to racially pure neighborhoods – white Detroiters came to expect a vigilant government to protect their segregated neighborhoods.

On February 28, 1942, on the city’s Northeast Side, whites fought blacks as the city attempted to move a black family into the public Sojourner Truth housing project. In the months leading up to the battle, Detroit City Councilman and University of Detroit Mercy football coach and athletic director, Gus Dorais, led four of the nine Detroit councilmen to rescind their original ruling that allowed Negro occupancy in the project. Only a bi-racial effort by Detroiters to lobby local and federal housing officials kept Dorais and company from keeping Sojourner Truth segregated.[xxv]

In January 1943, Gus Dorais was hired as head coach of the Detroit Lions. He would split his time between coaching and bigoted politics until the Lions fired him in 1947 after compiling a 20-31-2 record.

As 1943 warmed with the summer heat, racial tensions and violence followed suit. On June 20, racial brawls on Belle Isle spilled into downtown as blacks looted Paradise Valley’s white-owned stores. The following day, more than ten-thousand whites – aided by a sympathetic police force – stormed through Paradise Valley. The result was the deaths of 34 people, 25 of them black – 17 shot dead by police – 675 serious injuries and 1,893 arrests before federal troops restored order.

Detroit’s 1943 race riot was the most violent and destructive U.S. unrest since the Civil War draft riots eighty years earlier. Unfortunately for Detroit, it wouldn’t be the last time such an incident would occur.[xxvi]

On VJ Day, September 2, 1945, which marked the end of hostilities on World War II, now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Frank Murphy, spoke in front of Detroit’s City Hall, reminding his fellow Detroiters about the importance of overcoming their city’s racist past as they moved into the post-war era.

“Unless we cleanse our hearts of hate – racial and religious – this war will only be half won,” Murphy cautioned. “We still have to stand guard against those in our midst who have been nurtured on the myths of the superior and inferior races and who practice discrimination against fellow Americans because of the color of their skin.”[xxvii]

Apparently Gus Dorais, and a prominent former Detroit Tigers’ infielder, we’re not in attendance that afternoon to hear Justice Murphy’s words.

In 1946, Dorais and fellow councilman, Billy Rogell, who was most famous as being the shortstop on the Detroit Tigers’ World Series teams of the 1930s, proposed the establishment of an exclusively Negro section of the city. Under the Dorais and Rogell plan, whites currently residing in this designated apartheid zone would be paid to leave.[xxviii]

“[We] have talked about taking an area and moving the whites the hell out – and moving the Negroes in. You won’t have peace and quiet until you have such an area. I’d like to see the Negro get a city of his own, with his own school. We need a Harlem for them,” Rogell declared at the time. Thankfully, this proposal was too radical even for racially charged Detroiters to pursue beyond the suggestion box.[xxix]

On May 3, 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in the case of Shelley v Kraemer that restrictive covenants could not be enforced by the state. What resulted was that real estate brokers and developers now encouraged the formation of “neighborhood improvement associations” to enforce the long standing restrictive covenants.[xxx]

In addition, realtors who disobeyed the Supreme Court by breaching Detroit’s color line faced penalties or expulsion from the Detroit Board of Realtors. They were also denied access to the board’s cross-listing service. Most of all, they faced harassment from angry whites who made up the ranks of the new improvement associations.[xxxi]

Between 1943 and 1965, Detroit whites founded at least 192 neighborhood organizations throughout the city. These groups “shared a common bond of whiteness and Americaness.”[xxxii]

World War II saw Detroit’s white majority trade-in their shop aprons for combat rifles. The result was a massive local labor shortage that created new job opportunities for Detroit blacks – both male and female – as industry would use them to fill the employment void.

But as employment opportunities grew for Detroit’s black community, so would the level of racial backlash.

Between 1941 and 1944, white Detroit workers staged dozens of wildcat and hate strikes as they protested the hiring and promotions of black workers to formerly restricted jobs and positions.[xxxiii]

In June 3, 1943, white workers in the city went on strike for three days at Packard Motors’ facilities because the company had hired three blacks to work in previously restricted jobs.[xxxiv]

At the time of the 1943 race riot, the Detroit Police Department was reportedly “one of the most bigoted” departments in the nation. It was also one of the most segregated. Little had changed in that regard by 1958. That year, while Detroit blacks made up 23 percent of the city’s population, they were only 3 percent of the police force. And eighty percent of those black officers were concentrated in the four precincts that had largest black populations.[xxxv]

Grand Rapids, Michigan native, Roger Wilkins, was the Head of Community Relations in the Lyndon Johnson administration, spent a lot of time in Detroit in the early 1950s while attending the University of Michigan. Wilkins, the nephew of legendary NAACP President Roy Wilkins, recalls that the Detroit Police Department’s relationship with Detroit’s black community was strained.

“I had a lot of friends in Detroit. So I spent a lot of time in Detroit during the seven years I was in Ann Arbor,” Wilkins said. “And even in the early fifties it was taken for gospel in the black community that the police were brutal. They were known to use their batons freely on black people who didn’t do what they wanted. And those batons, in the black community, were generally referred to as ‘nigger sticks.’[xxxvi]

“Detroit wasn’t a popular city for blacks,” Wally Triplett recalled. “We’d just finished a race riot. Because of restrictive covenants, blacks had to live in certain areas of town. The police department was racist. You couldn’t be in certain areas at certain times.”[xxxvii]

Longtime Detroit resident and activist, John Sinclar, described black Detroit’s historic relationship with its police department in stark terms.

“Basically they didn’t want to look at the fact that these people were rebelling against in occupying army. I mean, this went against every rhetorical devise America had presented – about ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ and all that horseshit. Ya’ know? It’s a ghetto and in those days it was just about being suppressed [by the police] and making sure [black people] didn’t get out of line.”[xxxviii]

Ohio State University professor Kevin Boyle, author of the award-winning book on the Ossian Sweet case, Arc of Justice, agreed with Sinclair.

“From the time that the African-American population in Detroit starts growing, which it does in the late teens and twenties, the police force in black neighborhoods act as kind of an occupying army,” Boyle said. “They are infamous for the amount of harassment of African-Americans, for police brutality. In the twenties, the police force is the center of Klu Klux Klan activity. And so for decades there is this animosity between the black community and the Detroit police department.”[xxxix]

While the friction was clear between black citizens and white police, for black Detroiters who happened to wear a Detroit police badge, things were not much better. Hubert Locke, a Detroit native and pastor who also served as an administrative assistant to Detroit Police Commissioner Ray Girardin beginning in 1966, recalled a time when even a black police officer couldn’t expect equal treatment in Detroit.

“There were any number of black veterans who could remember the period in the department, in an earlier time, when they were not allowed to make arrests of white citizens who broke the law,” Locke said. “They could only apprehend the person. They would then have to call for a white officer who would then come and make the formal arrest. So that’s how bad things were, historically within the department itself. It just had a very bad reputation of treating its own black officers. So you can imagine the kind of treatment black civilians received at the hands of the department.”[xl]

In 1949, as Mann, Triplett and Groomes were working to earn playing time with Gus Dorais’ replacement, Bo McMillin; Detroit experienced one of the most historic Mayoral elections in its history. The election pitted Common Council member, former UAW organizer and New Deal Democrat, George Edwards, against Republican City Treasurer, corporate executive and real estate investor, Albert Cobo.[xli]

“George Edwards was one of the great liberals in Detroit political history,” recalled Kevin Boyle. “Edwards had come out of the UAW. He was very close to Walter Reuther and for a while had been Reuther’s protégé back earlier in the forties.”[xlii]

Edwards’ campaign was unabashed in favor of building public housing for Detroit’s minority community and championed the rights of blacks to live anywhere in the city. Cobo meanwhile, saddled up alongside the homeowners associations opposition to “Negro invasions” and vehemently opposed public housing.

Despite massive support – in the form nearly thirty thousand dollars in funding, 1.3 million pamphlets, radio ads, soundtrucks and feet on the street – from the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) and Detroit’s minority community, Cobo’s anti-public housing/Negro invasion campaign overwhelmed Edwards. [xliii] Overtly racist campaign literature from Cobo’s camp depicted Edwards as “Pro-Negro.”[xliv] With the 1943 race war still fresh on many minds, it proved to be an effective strategy for the victorious Cobo.

“I think in these municipal elections we are dealing with a people who have a middle class mentality,” said a union organizer in the aftermath. “the [union] member is either buying a home, owns a home, or is going to buy one. I don’t know that we can ever make up this difficulty.”[xlv]

According to Boyle, Edwards lost simply because in the minds of many white Detroit voters he was “too weak, too liberal on the race question.”[xlvi]

Edwards’ defeat starkly showed that Detroit’s divide between the politics of home and the politics of workplace were still firmly separate and unequal.

The loss also had long lasting effects on Detroit’s New Deal momentum from the 1930s. The 1949 defeat marked the beginning of a retreat of the UAW from labor politics in the city. Coupled at a time when the Red Scare was rearing its ugly head in Detroit and elsewhere – the era of organized labor as a driving force for social justice came to an abrupt halt from which it has never recovered.

The victorious Cobo wasted no time in paying back the forces who swept him into office. He vetoed eight of the twelve public housing projects in the city. He stacked the Detroit Housing Commission with his cronies and turning the cities energies from public housing construction to urban renewal projects which turned would soon turn Black Bottom and Paradise Valley into memories.[xlvii]

Over the next fifteen years, Detroit’s black communities on the lower east side, Paradise Valley and Black Bottom would be demolished to make way for the Chrysler Freeway (I-75). The lower west side would see the 12th Street and Highland Park areas cut in two by the John C. Lodge (M-10). And finally on the west side, construction of the Edsel Ford (I-94) would cut a major swath through additional minority communities.[xlviii]

In addition to the upheaval of urban renewal, the fear-mongering rhetoric of negro-invasions, race-mingling and Communist infiltration pushed by Detroit’s neighborhood associations had a powerful effect on Detroit politics. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, the Jefferies and Cobo administrations backed these associations at nearly every turn. And when lawful methods of Motor City Jim Crow failed, Detroit whites got violent. In the post-WWII era, white Detroiters instigated over 200 incidents of harassment, mass demonstration, picketing, effigy burning, window breaking, arson, vandalism and physical attacks against black homeowners to attempt keep them bottled up in ever shrinking areas of the inner city they had long outgrown.[xlix]

Detroit native and University of Pennsylvania professor, Thomas J. Sugrue, summed up the phenomena of the often violent Homeowners Associations in Detroit in his 1995 book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis:

In the area of housing, violence in Detroit was organized and widespread, the outgrowth of one of the largest grassroots movement’s in the city’s history. It involved thousands of whites, directly affected hundreds of blacks, mainly those who were among the first families to break the residential barriers of race, and indirectly constrained the housing choices of tens of thousands of blacks fearful of harassment and physical injury if they broke through Detroit’s residential color line. The violent clashes between whites and blacks that marred the city were political acts, the consequence of perceptions of homeownership, community, gender, and race deeply held by white Detroiters.[l]

If this wasn’t enough, during the late 1940s, the United Auto Workers and NAACP leadership in Detroit began an effort to purge the left-leaning – aka communist and socialist – elements from their ranks as the Red Scare made a monstrous comeback at the dawn of the Cold War.

On August 31, 1946, the Michigan Chronicle reported that General Motors asked the U.S. Employment Service in Washington to send “white workers” to Detroit.[li]

Why would GM exercise such blatant discrimination? The answer may lie in the fact that throughout the emergence of the labor movement in the 1930s and continuing through World War II, two of the most ardent groups supporting an end to workplace discrimination in the United States were the Communist Party and their slightly less fervent comrades in the Socialist Party.

On March 5, 1930, over 50,000 people from all races and ethnicities jammed downtown Detroit to take part in a Communist Party-organized protest against unemployment. [lii]During the Great Depression, the “Reds” were among the most active and successful groups in organizing and leading the fight against joblessness, evictions, workplace discrimination – and unlike many labor unions – racial segregation. That last point proved to be a powerful one for black Detroit.

By 1942, the Communist Party in Michigan was averaging 39 new black recruits a month. In 1941, that number was just 19 per-month. [liii] Future Detroit mayor, Coleman A. Young, who was a member of the UAW as an employee of the Ford Rouge plant in the 1930s before being fired for organizing workers; summed up the Communist Party’s appeal to blacks, their white allies – and the subsequent problems it could cause – in very simple terms:

The reality of the day was that anyone who took an active interest in the plight of black people was naturally drawn toward the Communist Party – not as a member, necessarily, but at least as a friend and ally, owing to the fact that the Communists historically had been out front in the struggle for civil rights. The prevailing paranoia about communism was consequently translated into a paranoia about civil rights – although, in retrospect, it is difficult to say which was the predominant phobia. It seemed that the government was unable to make any distinction between civil rights and communism, and by extension, between civil rights and subversion. As a result, the operative federal credo was the paradoxical and alarmingly unconstitutional notion that the struggle for equality was inherently un-American. . . . It was impossible for a black person to avoid the Communist label as long as he or she advocated civil rights with any degree of vigor. By the standard of Congress and the Justice Department, the two were married.[liv]

The end of the World War II meant that the emerging military-industrial complex needed a new bogyman to replace the defeated Nazis and Imperial Japanese. They soon found their dastardly duo in the form of Stalinist Russia and, after the 1948 Maoist revolution, Red China. As a result of these events abroad, Detroit’s auto companies, in conjunction with the leadership of the UAW and NAACP, were ready to join forces to oust the Pinkos from their various rank and file to demonstrate their loyalty an America gripped in Red Scare hysteria.

One of the most glaring examples of organized labor and civil rights leaders turning on their own came at Ford’s legendary Rouge River facility. The Rouge was home to UAW 600, one of the most militant unions in the industry. The plant was also one of the largest employers of blacks in Detroit – many of whom supported the left-wing caucus of Local 600 – which as a whole had 1/3 of its membership comprised of black workers.[lv]

In the 1951 Labor Day parade in Detroit, the 60,000 member strong Local 600 marched down Woodward Avenue carried signs that read “SPEED UP AND DIE SOONER” and “SUPPORT OUR FIGHT AGAINST JOB RUNAWAY.” [lvi]Theirs was a very different message from the vast majority of the rest of the various union marchers, who waved American flags, sang songs and roared their approval for Michigan Governor G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams.[lvii]

In short, the noticeably integrated and rowdy rank-and-file of UAW Local 600 was bucking the trend of the times, which was not to rock the military-industrial boat during the Cold War and Korean War efforts to stop the dreaded threat of worldwide communism.

Shutdowns, wildcat strikes and general worker disruption at the Rouge could shut down Ford production nationwide. As a result, in the late 1940s Ford targeted the Rouge for automation by shifting stamping, machine casting, forging, steel production, glass-making and dozens of other operations from the site. Local 600 saw this development as an effort by management to destroy labor’s power through automation and the worker attrition that would come as a result.[lviii] Management on the other hand, saw Local 600 as a commie-inspired cancer hell bent on turning Ford into a workers paradise.

Thomas Sugrue described Local 600’s viewpoint and why in the minds of the Detroit power structure it was so dangerous to their bottom line:

Local 600 recognized that deindustrialization was not simply an economic issue. The flight of manufacturing jobs in the 1950s raised fundamental political questions about rights responsibilities, power and inequality that were unresolved in mid-twentieth century America. What obligation, if any, did corporations have toward the communities in which they were located? Should workers have a say in corporate decisions that affected their livelihood? How should government respond to job flight? What about the troubling fact that African American workers, because of entrenched workplace discrimination, bore the brunt of economic restructuring.[lix]

Local 600 was ahead of the curve in addressing these issues and would pay a heavy price during the Fabulous Fifties because of it.

The Red Scare glowed red hot in the Motor City when the House Un-American Activities Committee made a stop in Detroit in February, 1952. The committee’s inquisitors had made a habit of forcing witnesses to cower and plead their Constitutional Fifth Amendment right to self-incrimination. While this was a perfectly legal maneuver, the HUAC and their fellow travelers in the corporate media spun the move to be an admission of guilt. One witness who refused to yield for anything but justice was 34-year old National Negro Labor Council executive secretary and former Ford Rouge employee, Coleman A. Young.

Young recalled his mindset going into the hearings in his 1994 autobiography, Hard Stuff:

Those subpoenaed to testify at the hearings – whose ranks included me and a fair share of the people I knew best – could never be certain whether they would be grilled about their own activities or their friends’ or both. It was a common and simple strategy for a witness to invoke the Fifth Amendment as a defense against incriminating himself, but the protection of others was a trickier proposition. Against the advice of George Crockett, my attorney, I made up my mind to attack that problem with the First Amendment, asserting that any inquiry into my or another’s ideological positions was a violation of my or his freedom of speech and privacy of political beliefs. . . . I wasn’t hiding from those bastards. I wanted them to come and get me.[lx]

Young’s legendary verbal showdown with HUAC Committee Chairman, Georgia Democrat John Wood, and HUAC chief council, Virginia native Frank Tavenner, kicked off on February 28, 1952. The recount of all the dialogue from that showdown comes from Hard Stuff. [lxi] The encounter began with Tavenner telling Young, “Mr. Young, I want to state to you in advance of questioning you that the investigators of the committee have not produced or presented any evidence of Communist Party membership on your part.”

Then after some additional pleasantries, Tavenner began the questioning by asking Young, “Are you now a member of the Communist Party?” Young replied:

I refuse to answer that question relying upon my rights under the Fifth Amendment and in light of the fact that to answer such a question, before such a committee, would be, in my opinion, a violation of my rights under the First Amendment, which provides for freedom of speech, sanctity, and privacy of personal beliefs. . . . And further, since I have no purpose of being here as a stool pigeon, I am not prepared to give any information on any of my associates political thoughts.

From that point, the witness remained on the offensive.

You told us,” Tavenner drawled with his thick southern accent, “you were the executive secretary of the National Niggra Congress.”

Young cut the chief council off mid-sentence.

“That word is “Negro,” not “Niggra.”

“I said, “Negro,” replied Tavenner, “I think you are mistaken.

“I hope I am,” Young said. “Speak more clearly.”

At this point, Senator Wood decided his chief council needed help.

“I will appreciate it if you will not argue with council.”

“It isn’t my purpose to argue,” replied Young. “As a Negro, I resent the slurring of the name of my race. . . .”

“I am sorry. I did not mean to slur it,” said Tavenner.

“The hearings were as big as the damn World Series in Detroit,” recalled Young in his 1994 autobiography, “and they were broadcast live on the radio, which meant that the whole city heard me reprimand the government counselor.”

As the exchange continued, another committee member, Republican congressman Charles Potter of Michigan, questioned Young’s attitude.

“We are here to find out the extent of Communist activities in this area. You are in a position to help and aid, if you will, but the attitude you are taking is uncooperative to such an investigation.”

“I am not here to fight in any un-American activities,” said Young, “because I consider the denial of the right to vote to large numbers of people all over the South un-American. . . .”

Tavenner then cut off Young by asking, “Do you consider the activities of the Communist Party un-American?”

“I consider the activities of this committee, as it cites people for allegedly being a Communist, as un-American activities.”

Tavenner and Young continued to tangle on the issue of Communism, with Young refusing to answer any inquiries. When Young once again said the committee had him mixed up with a stool pigeon, Congressman Potter jumped in again.

Potter: “I have never heard of anybody stooling in the Boy Scouts.”

Young: “I was a member of that organization,”

Potter: “I don’t think they are proud of it today,”

Young: “I will let the Scouts decide that.”

The committee continued to bombard Young with questions about his associations with the National Negro Congress, which had been labeled as subversive by the U.S. Attorney General, and the National Negro Labor Council (NNLC), which had not garnered the subversive distinction. During the exchange, Senator Wood also butchered the pronunciation of “Negro,” making it “Niggra.”

“I might have let it pass this time,” recalled Young, “had they no pushed my by asking the same goddamn thing over and over despite my repeated insistence that I would not answer any question relating to any organization on their list.”

Young: “I would inform you also, the word is Negro.”

Wood: “I am sorry. If I made a different pronouncement of it, it is due to my inability to use the language any better than I do. I am trying to use it properly.”

Young: “It may be due to your southern background.”

Wood: “I am not ashamed of my southern background. For your information, out of 112 Negro votes cast in the last election in the little village from which I come, I got 112 of them. That ought to be a complete answer of that. Now, will you answer the question?”

Young: “You are through with it now? Is that it?”

Wood: I don’t know.”

Young: “I happen to know, in Georgia Negro people are prevented from voting by virtue of terror, intimidation, and lynchings. It is my contention you would not be in Congress today if it were not for the legal restrictions on voting on the part of my people.”

Young’s battle with the HUAC, in addition to being broadcast live, was made into a record, a record that went unofficially to the top of the charts on his native lower east side.

“Coleman did the most magnificent job I’ve ever heard before the investigating committee,” recalled legendary Detroit civil rights attorney Ernie Goodman. “He had them hamstrung, moving backward in their tracks.”[lxii]

“I was incensed that they would have the nerve to question anyone else’s Americanism,” wrote Young years later. “I thought this particularly true of the motherfucker from Georgia who headed the committee . . . my attitude was, Why should I take any crap off this son of a bitch from Georgia? If they wanted to talk about my radical politics, hell, there’s nothing as radical as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I was ready to take them on.”[lxiii]

Young’s stand as a confident, well-spoken and defiant black man in Cold War America – an America that still tolerated daily the injustices of Southern and Northern Jim Crow racism and violence – against the House un-American Activities Committee was a bellwether of things to come. By the middle of the decade, blacks in Detroit and across the nation were no longer willing to defer justice to their daily unjust lives as second class citizens. Soon, many white citizens – who could not be as easily labeled Communist or otherwise subversive – would join their black countrymen and women in their quest for equality.

The final steps of the UAW effort to oust their left-leaning membership also took place in February 1952. That month, UAW International, at the direction of UAW President Walter Reuther, took Local 600 into trusteeship, removed their left-leaning officers, took over the Local’s newspaper and assumed control of the Local’s daily operations.[lxiv]

Ultimately, the victims of the Detroit’s organized labor pinko pogrom included NAACP Detroit Branch President Reverend Charles Hill, UAW leader William Hood, Coleman Young, and his attorney, George Crockett. These men comprised some of the most outspoken, uncompromising and skilled leaders in Detroit’s black community.[lxv]

Crockett had been ousted as UAW Fair Practices Committee Chairperson by Reuther in the late 1940s. [lxvi] He later served four months in federal prison in 1950 for contempt of court charges for defending Jacob Satchel and Carl Winter, two of the eleven members of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), who were convicted during the 1949 Foley Square trials in New York City. Crockett would later serve as a judge in Detroit Recorder’s Court, and in 1980, would be sworn in as the 71-year old rookie Congressman from Michigan’s 13th District.

He would serve four terms in the U.S. House before retiring in 1991.[lxvii]

In his 1994 autobiography, Coleman Young had this to say of UAW President, Walter Reuther, who oversaw and engineered the entire UAW communist cleansing during the late 1940s:

There are hundreds of thousands of people in Detroit and in labor unions around the country who regarded former UAW President Walter Reuther as a great man. To me and those of us on the disenfranchised left, which he purged from the industrial union movement . . . he was a great adversary.[lxviii]

By the end of the Reuther’s UAW purge, American business interests had begun to perfect a propaganda campaign to capture the hearts and minds of Cold War America. According to Thomas Sugrue the:

. . . trend against structural understanding of poverty and unemployment was reinforced by the work of industrial psychologists and manpower experts who stressed the importance of individual skills in the workplace. The reason that large numbers of workers had been displaced was because of their lack of human capital. . . . to solve the problem of unemployment meant behavior modification. . . . The pro-business sentiment of the 1950s bolstered that individual deficiencies rather than structural economic and racial barriers were the roots of urban joblessness. To highlight the problems of industrial workers, to emphasize workplace inequality, was fundamentally un-American.

After World War II . . . major corporations orchestrated an extraordinarily successful propaganda campaign that associated big business with “true” American values, and tainted its critics with charges of communism. To challenge corporate policy was to risk political marginalization and disdain.[lxix]

By the summer of 1950, Detroit Lions’ record-setting end Bob Mann was in the midst of his own battles against marginalization and distain. Amazingly, the man who one year before had led the NFL in receiving yardage was about to become expendable not only in Detroit, but across the entire NFL. And the story behind that development is the beginning of a highly questionable period in Lions’ history.

In early 1950, Bob Mann met with Lions’ President Edwin Anderson to discuss his contract for the upcoming season. In that meeting, Mann was asked to take a 20 percent pay cut, from the $7,500 he had earned in 1949, to $6,000 for the 1950 season.

The reason the Lions gave Mann for the lowball offer was that “the preponderance of player material and the merger of the two leagues [NFL and AAFC] prompted a general salary slash among all teams.”[lxx]

In layman’s terms, the AAFC closing up shop meant that there were more players now available than the still-standing NFL had job openings.

By the spring of 1950, Detroit newspapers had announced that the Lions had signed highly-touted rookies Doak Walker and Leon Hart each to $12,000 offers. Naturally, Mann, a 1,000 yard receiver and proven NFL performer, balked at Anderson’s offer.

According to Mann, the meeting went downhill from there and “at one point Anderson left the room to run cool water on his wrists as a way to calm his anger.”[lxxi]

Mann and Anderson’s relationship had been rocky for some time. While working for Goebel, Mann had unsuccessfully urged Anderson to hire more black employees. Mann would often ask why the company didn’t have more black truck drivers on their payroll.

It was around this same time that Goebel was seeking to open a new beer distributorship on Detroit’s east side in a predominantly black section of the city. A local black business association, Business Sales Incorporated, decided to put in a bid for the distributorship. When Goebel decided to give the bid to two white Goebel employees, Business Sales Inc. decided to fight back.

According to the Michigan Chronicle, “Business Sales Incorporated initiated a boycott attempt against the Goebel Brewing Company, when the firm granted an eastside distributorship to two long-term employees.

“Representatives of Business Sales Inc. contended that a Negro firm should have been given consideration for the distributorship, since the delivery area was in a predominately Negro section”

Mann never became directly involved in the boycott. But in a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Mann would soon be doubly-unemployed.

Mann, an off-season sales employee of Goebel Company, became innocently involved in the boycott attempt when it was erroneously reported that he had conferred with Business Sales representatives relative to the boycott and the distributorship. . . . Mann’s position in the latter was never cleared to the satisfaction of Goebel officials . . . According to reliable sources; Mann was severed from the Goebel payroll as of July 31, which was the date of departure for all Lion players for the training camp at Ypsilanti.

Within days, Bob Mann on a flight to NFL exile with the New York Yanks, while Bobby Layne was on a path to NFL immortality as the new Detroit Lions’ quarterback.

Wally Triplett was very blunt in his assessment of why the Lions traded Mann.

“Because he wanted to own a franchise to sell beer, Bob Mann was dumped and blackballed.”

Ironically, Mann – who had caught 66 passes for over 1,000 yards in 1949 – would never play a regular season down for the Yanks.

One day after catching a 53-yard touchdown pass for the Yanks in an exhibition game versus the all-white Washington Redskins in segregated Shreveport, Louisiana, Mann was released.

“[A]fter playing a total of three minutes in four exhibition contests, the 170-pound Mann was told by New York officials that he was “too small to make the team,” reported the Michigan Chronicle on September 16.

“Has the freeze been put on Bob Mann,” asked Chronicle editor Bill Matney, “Deep mystery still surrounds the fleet star who led both leagues last year in passing yardage and who was expecting to experience his best season thus far during the 1950 campaign.”

In the biggest of ironies, while Mann got to play in the Yanks’ final exhibition in Jim Crow Louisiana versus George Preston Marshall’s Whiteskins; Wally Triplett was held out of the Lions final 1950 exhibition versus the Chicago Cardinals in Birmingham, Alabama.

On November 1, 1950, the Detroit Free Press reported that Mann claimed was being “railroaded” out of the NFL and that he was planning to take his battle to NFL commissioner Bert Bell.

“I’m convinced I was railroaded out of the league because I never had a fair chance to make the team,” Mann said of his being cut by the Yanks in September.

Bell disagreed with Man’s assertion.

“When the Yanks asked waivers in him, 12 other teams could have picked him up or he could have sold himself to any one of the 12 clubs just as many other players have done,” the commissioner said.

Bell added that he had “never heard Mann called ‘undesirable’ until Bob himself used that term,” and that there was nothing to prevent Mann from playing “if he is good enough.”

It is of note that Bert Bell was owner of the Philadelphia Eagles when the long rumored “gentleman’s agreement” among NFL owners to bar black players allegedly went into effect in 1934. Bell became NFL commissioner in 1946. The NFL color line remained Caucasian until 1946, when the Los Angeles Rams signed former UCLA stars Kenny Washington and Woody Strode.

Bob Mann would spend much of the 1950 season in exile. But on November 25, 1950, the Green Bay Packers signed him and he played for them in the final game of the season the very next day. Mann was the first black player in Packers’ history. He would produce and play for the Pack through the 1954 season, then return to Detroit and enter the business world. In 1970, he would graduate from the Detroit College of Law and open a practice in Detroit, where he would faithfully work until his death in 2006.

Bob Mann was elected to the Green Bay Packers’ Hall of Fame in 1988. At the time of his death, he was eulogized eloquently by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

It sounds incredible now, given pro football today, but at one time a myth held sway that black men couldn’t play as well as white men. That myth helped to justify the National Football League’s practice of recruiting only whites. A player who helped make a lie of the myth was Bob Mann, an African-American who integrated the Green Bay Packers in 1950. In 1948, he and Melvin Groomes had done the same for the Detroit Lions. . . . Mann pioneered the idea that skin color does not limit talents.

Despite the setbacks for Bob Mann, George Edwards, Coleman Young and others in Detroit’s black and liberal communities, the 1950s did see the UAW and the city’s black population work together to elect Detroit’s first black councilman in 1957 and the first black citizen to the city’s Board of Education in 1955.

However, the overall events and trends in Detroit between the years of 1910 and 1950 served to galvanize racial tension city-wide and created ripple effects that slowed racial progress on all fronts, including the integration of the two sports teams occupying Briggs Stadium.

[i] David A. Carson, Grit, Noise, And Revolution: The Birth of Detroit Rock ‘N’ Roll, (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2005), p. 2-4.

[ii] Charles K. Ross, Outside The Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League, (New York, New York University Press, 1999), p. 166-67.

[iii] Detroit Lions Sign Bob Mann, St. Petersburg Times, April 23, 1948

[iv] Michael Ranville, Gregory Eaton, “Bob Mann arrives in Detroit after stellar career at U of M,” Michigan Chronicle, October 26- November 1, 2005.

[v] Jim Sargent, “Wallace ‘Wally’ Triplett: Struggling for Success in the Postwar NFL,” The Coffin Corner, (Pro Football Researchers Association: Vol. 27, No. 4, 2005).

[vi] Michael Ranville, Gregory Eaton, “Bob Mann arrives in Detroit after stellar career at U of M,” Michigan Chronicle, October 26- November 1, 2005.

[vii] Jim Sargent, “Wallace ‘Wally’ Triplett: Struggling for Success in the Postwar NFL,” The Coffin Corner, (Pro Football Researchers Association: Vol. 27, No. 4, 2005).

[viii] Jack Ebling, Tales From the Detroit Tigers Dugout, (Champaign, IL, Sports Publishing, 2007), p. 51-52.

[ix] Reynolds Farley, Sheldon Danzinger, Harry J. Holzer, Detroit Divided: A Volume In The Multi-City Study Of Urban Inequality, (New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 2000), p. 39.

[x] Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 23.

[xi] Kevin Boyle, Arc Of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, And Murder In The Jazz Age, (New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2004), p. 9.

[xii] Kevin Tierney, Darrow: A Biography, (Thomas Y. Crowell, New York, 1979), p. 375.

[xiii] Boyle, Arc Of Justice, p. 145.

[xiv] Ibid, p. 8.

[xv] Ibid, p. 140-143.

[xvi] Ibid, p. 27-35

[xvii] Ibid, p. 37.

[xviii] Ibid, p. 38-40.

[xix] Ibid, p. 185.

[xx] John A. Farrell, Clarence Darrow, Attorney of The Damned, (New York, Doubleday, 2011).

[xxi] Boyle, Arc of Justice, P. 341.

[xxii] Sugrue, Origins, p. 23-24.

[xxiii] Richard Bak, “Pride of the Lions,” Hour Detroit, August 2007

[xxiv] Sugrue, Origins, p. 24.

[xxv] “The Truth About Sojourner Truth,” The Crisis, (Vol. 49, No. 4), April 1942.

[xxvi] Sidney Fine, Violence in the ModelCity: The Cavanaugh Administration, Race Relations, and the Detroit riot of 1967, (East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, 2007), p. 1.

[xxvii] Peter Gavrilovich, Bill McGraw, ed., The Detroit Almanac: 300 Years of life in the MotorCity, (Detroit, Detroit Free Press, 2001), p. ??

[xxviii] Farley, Detroit Divided, p. 151.

[xxix] Sugrue, Origins, p. 33.

[xxx] Ibid, p. 45.

[xxxi] Ibid, p. 220-21.

[xxxii] Ibid, p. 211-12.

[xxxiii] Ibid, p. 29.

[xxxiv] Ibid, p. 28.

[xxxv] Fine, Violence in the ModelCity, p. 11.

[xxxvi] Roger Wilkins, interview with author, June 2007.

[xxxvii] Bak, “Pride of the Lions,” Hour Detroit, August 2007

[xxxviii] John Sinclair, interview with author, June 2007.

[xxxix] Kevin Boyle, interview with author, June 2007.

[xl] Hubert Locke, interview with author, June 2007.

[xli] Sugrue, Origins, p. 82.

[xlii] Boyle interview, 2007.

[xliii] Sugrue, Origins, p. 82-83.

[xliv] Heather Ann Thompson, Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City, (Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 2001), p.14.

[xlv] Sugrue, Origins, p. 84.

[xlvi] Boyle interview, 2007.

[xlvii] Sugrue, Origins, p. 84-85.

[xlviii] Ibid, p. 47-48.

[xlix] Ibid, p. 233.

[l] Ibid, p. 233.

[li] Thompson, Whose Detroit?, p. 19.

[lii] Peter Gavrilovich, Bill McGraw, ed., The Detroit Almanac: 300 Years of life in the MotorCity, (Detroit, Detroit Free Press, 2001) p. ??.

[liii] Thompson, Whose Detroit?, p. 19.

[liv] Coleman Young and Lonnie Wheeler, Hard Stuff: The Autobiography of Coleman Young, (New York, Viking, 1994), p. 128-129.

[lv] Sugrue, Origins, p. 153.

[lvi] Ibid, p. 153.

[lvii] Ibid, p.153.

[lviii] Ibid, p. 132.

[lix] Ibid, p. 155.

[lx] Young, Hard Stuff, p. 117-18.

[lxi] Young, Hard Stuff, p. 117-24.

[lxii] Steve Babson, Dave Riddle, David Elsila, The Color of Law: Ernie Goodman, Detroit, and the Struggle for Labor and Civil Rights, (Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2010), p. 216.

[lxiii] Young, Hard Stuff, p. 119.

[lxiv] Sugrue, Origins, p. 161.

[lxv] Ibid, p. 171-72.

[lxvi] Babson, et al., The Color of Law, p. 158.

[lxvii] Scott Martelle, The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial, (New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 2011). P. XV, XVII, 216-17.

[lxviii] Young, Hard Stuff, p. (photo gallery caption).

[lxix] Sugrue, Origins, p. 156.

[lxx] “Chronicle Editor Tells Inside Story on Bob Mann Trade,” Michigan Chronicle, August 12, 1950.

[lxxi] “Bob Mann arrives in Detroit after stellar career at U of M,” Michigan Chronicle, October 26- November 1, 2005.

Chapter Ten: White Lions – The Integration, Segregation and Re-integration of the Detroit Lions

At the end of the 1951 season, there were a total of seventeen black players in the National Football League. Those seventeen players had found homes on six of the NFLs thirteen teams. The members of that exclusive club included:

Cleveland Browns: Marion Motley, Bill Willis, Len Ford, Horace Gillom, Emerson Cole

Los Angeles Rams: “Deacon” Dan Towler, Paul ‘Tank’ Younger, Bob Boyd, Harry Thompson, Woodley Lewis

New York Giants: Bob Jackson, Emlen Tunnell

New York Yanks: Buddy Young, George Taliaferro, Sherman Howard

San Francisco Forty-Niners: Joe “The Jet” Perry

Green Bay Packers: Bob Mann

As you can see, ten of those seventeen players were on either the Cleveland Browns or the Los Angels Rams – the teams that squared off for the 1950 and 1951 NFL championships.[1]

The Detroit Lions, who had been a member of the league’s integrated club from 1948 through 1950, were once again segregated in 1951. The Lions would remain virtually all-white through the 1956 season.

With both Mann and Mel Groomes gone from the Lions’ roster by the start of the 1950 season, the Lions had only one black player on their roster, Wally Triplett. As a result, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Triplett’s isolation within the team that season became more acute.

“I was the only Negro on the Lions in 1950,” Triplett remembered, “and most of the guys wouldn’t talk to me. The Notre Dame guys and the Michigan guys would speak, but most of the others wouldn’t.”[2]

Two teammates who made Triplett feel welcome right away upon his arrival in 1949 were team captain John Greene and superstar halfback Bill Dudley. It was a gesture that Triplett fondly recalled more than sixty years later when Greene passed away at the age of 90.

“I want to say ‘thank you’ to John because what we have now in the NFL would not have been possible had it not been for him and others like Bill Dudley,” said Triplett in a Lions’ press release upon Greene’s death. “John was a star and a captain for the Lions. So, when he and Bill came over to me in the locker room, shook my hand and welcomed me to the Lions, it made a huge impact in my acceptance on the team and in the League.  I will always appreciate what John and Bill did for me.”[3]

While Greene, a former Michigan Wolverine, was still on the 1950 squad, Dudley was long gone. As a result, by 1950, those friendly gestures were fewer and farther between for the lonely Triplett.

While Triplett disliked head coach Bo McMillin, the man who had drafted him, he did like McMillin assistant, George Wilson. Wilson had joined the Lions’ staff in 1948 after a long stint as a player and assistant coach for the Chicago Bears.

“George Wilson’s influence kept me with the team,” Triplett said in a 2005 interview.[4]

However, Triplett didn’t have the same feelings for Buddy Parker when he joined the staff as an assistant in 1950.

“We didn’t see eye-to-eye,” Triplett said of Parker. “I was one for speaking my mind rather quickly. I guess Parker, who was from Texas, didn’t like that. I only had one conversation with him the whole time I played for Detroit.

“By the end of the 1950 season, I think (Buddy) Parker wanted to trade me,” he added.[5]

Nevertheless, Triplett would excel when he got on the field in 1950; most notably during a record setting performance in a 65-21 road-loss to the L.A. Rams on October 29.

Triplett, who got plenty of chances to return kicks that afternoon because of a porous Lion defense, rolled for a then-NFL record 331 total yards, including a 97-yard kickoff return for a score. Astonishingly, Triplett’s yardage total came almost exclusively on returns. In addition to the 97-yarder, he had kickoff returns of 74, 81 and 42 yards, respectively.[6]

Triplett’s total yardage record would stand until a rookie comet from Kansas named Gale Sayers gained 336 on a muddy field in Chicago in 1965.[7]

Triplett’s performance in the Ram loss, coupled with his lack of every-down playing time all season long, promptedMichigan Chronicle sports editor, Bill Matney, to call the Lions onto the literary mat three days later in his weekly column:

THE DETROIT LIONS won’t like this warm column. . . . But it’s time somebody wrote something, and since the daily guys refuse to do the job, I’ll do it myself. . . . There’s been a lot of talk about the Lions becoming a real winning ball club. With this thought in mind, the owners spared no dollar in bringing highly-touted in big name stars. . . . It may be factitious to say that “there’s something wrong with the Detroit Lions.” Okay, but we’re still saying it. First of all, a lot of real football fans were mad as you know what when the Lions pulled that beautiful deal that sent the league’s most elusive receiver (Bob Mann) to the New York Yanks. . . .

Another puzzling case is that of little Wally Triplett, whose talent has been wasted thus far. . . . A glance at the record books will show that Triplett was the second best ground gainer on the Lions last year, and in limited service as a runner this season, compiled the best running average on the squad.

The book will also show that Triplett holds the team record for the longest run from scrimmage – an 80-yard touchdown jaunt against Green Bay last year.

YET, Triplett has warmed the bench this season, seeing action only when the other team punted or kicked off. . . . By his brilliant performance against the Rams Sunday, Triplett again demonstrated that his unusual ball carrying ability has been wasted by a team which is sorely in need of backs who can move the ball.[8]

Sadly, Triplett would not play again that season. On November 1, 1950, just three days after his incredible performance in Los Angeles, the same day as the Chronicle article hit the streets, he was ordered by Uncle Sam to report for induction into the U.S. Army. Wallace H. Triplett III was sworn into duty on November 15. He was the first NFL player to be drafted into service during the Korean War.[9]

The National Football League’s decision to rescind their 1934-to-1946, self-imposed, color line began when a twenty-eight year old New York stockbroker named Dan Reeves bought the Cleveland Rams in 1940. Reeves struggled for the next five years to win games and make money in Cleveland. Then in 1945, with rookie quarterback and former UCLA star, Bob Waterfield, leading the way, the Rams won their first NFL championship.

But they still lost at the box office. When purchasing the club, Reeves had let it be known that his dream was to move the Rams to Los Angeles at the earliest opportunity. His fellow owners, most of whom had struggled to pay bills throughout the league’s first two decades, didn’t like the idea of incurring the travel costs of a yearly road game to California. So, for the first six years of his ownership, Dan Reeves bided his time.[10]

The end of World War II brought new optimism and opportunity to America. In addition, with the emergence of the rival AAFC in early 1946, Reeves and his fellow owners didn’t want to cede the west coast to AAFC upstarts the Los Angeles Dons and San Francisco Forty-Niners. So in early 1946, Dan Reeves got the green light from his fellow owners to take his Rams to Hollywood.[11]

In 1946, there was not a bigger or better located venue in Los Angeles to play football than the L.A. Coliseum. The facility was controlled by the progressive L.A. Coliseum Commission. On January 15, 1946, the commission stated flatly that if the Rams were to take up residence in their stadium, they would need to integrate their roster.

The Rams, to their credit, agreed right away and soon signed former UCLA standout, Kenny Washington, and former Illinois halfback, Woody Strode.[12]

The Rams didn’t stop there. Reeves next hired Green Bay Packers’ assistant coach, Eddie Kotal, to be the NFL’s first full-time talent scout. Kotal was soon on the road 200 days a year. On January 2, 1948, he made a trip to Birmingham, Alabama to scout a game between historic black college rivals, Central State (Ohio) and Grambling University.

After the game, Kotal met Grambling’s star fullback, Paul “Tank” Younger, who he signed to a free-agent contract two months later. Younger became the first player from a historically black college to sign a contact with an NFL team.[13]

By the following season, the Rams were winning and winning big. With Kotal providing the talent and T-Formation mastermind, Clark Shaugnessy, coaching, the high flying, high scoring Rams made the first of three-straight trips to the NFL Championship game.

They lost in 1949 to the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles, 14-0. The Eagles got an assist on that day from a rare California downpour, which turned the Coliseum field into a muddy mess the morning of the game. Younger would later lament the Los Angeles’ loss by labeling the storm a “Louisiana frog strangler.”[14]

In 1950, the Rams lost to the Cleveland Browns, 30-28, in a thriller on Christmas Day in Cleveland. In 1951, the Rams would beat the Browns in a rematch, 24-17, giving Dan Reeves his first championship since moving from Cleveland five years earlier.

The Rams would remain, along with San Francisco, powers in the NFL’s Western Conference through the much of the coming decade. Both teams would stage many a classic battle with the Detroit Lions as the Honolulu Blue and Silver made their climb toward NFL dominance.

Wally Triplett returned stateside in November 1952 after his two-year Army stint. At that time, the Lions were in a tight division race with the Rams and Niners with just six games to play. The Michigan Chronicle heralded Triplett’s return with a headline story in their sports section on October 25:

Wally Triplett, speedy halfback of the Detroit Lions, is scheduled to arrive in Detroit Nov. 5, and rejoin his old teammates in time to help them in the bitter National Football league title race. . . . In a letter to a friend in Detroit, Triplett indicated that he would arrive in the city two days later in hopes of rejoining the squad immediately.[15]

In that same edition of the Chronicle, Bill Matney welcomed Triplett’s return. “Wallace H. Triplett III should be a welcome addition to the home forces,” Matney wrote. “Local fans still remember his tremendous parting performance against the Los Angeles Rams in 1950.”

Matney also penned a bit of info that would prophesy Triplett’s future.

Strangely enough, the Lions almost peddled Wally to Green Bay a few weeks ago. General Manager Nick Kerbawy told reporters that Trip had been traded to the Packers in return for a draft choice in 1953. But the deal was nixed a few minutes after being made when word of Lion injuries came through.[16]

Despite the eminent return of their explosive NFL record-holding return man, the Lions signed a former Arkansas and Navy halfback by the name of Clyde “Smackover” Scott, who was released by the Philadelphia Eagles after getting no carries in two games earlier in the season.[17]

When Triplett got back to the Motor City, Buddy Parker and the Detroit Lions’ promptly placed him in limbo:

Coach Buddy Parker said he will give Triplett three weeks to get into shape and learn the Detroit offense before it has to be decided whether to cut a man from the squad to make room for the 25-year old Negro.[18]

At the time, the Lions stood at 4-2 and were battling the 5-1 Forty-Niners and 3-3 Rams in the standings. The Lions were also banged up in the offensive backfield. Doak Walker has been sidelined since October 12 with a leg injury. Veteran Pat Harder was playing with his always banged-up knee. That left just Bob Hoernschemeyer, the just-signed Scott, and former Packer, Earl “Jug” Girard, as the Lions’ only healthy running backs.

Why did the Lions try to trade Triplett, sign Eagle cast-off Scott off the street, and then put Triplett on their inactive list? It was a question posed by many, including the ever vigilant Bill Matney on November 29:

As this column is being written, it appears that Wally Triplett will not appear this year in a Detroit Lions’ uniform. It is fairly definite that he will be placed on the reserve list and asked to sit out the remainder of the season as a paid employee. . . . We are sorry to see the Triplett situation handled so shabbily by the Lion management. If the club did not intend to use Trip this season, it would have been a simple matter to tell him that when he first reported on Nov. 5.[19]

At the time of Triplett’s return, the always superstitious Parker was guiding his Lions through a three-game winning streak – including a 17-6 win over Cleveland on November 2. The now 5-2 Lions had started the season 1-2, with both losses coming at the hands of San Francisco.

Would Parker have brought Triplett back if the Lions had lost to the Browns? As it stood, Doak Walker was supposed to return in December and the gritty Harder was kicking, running, blocking, and producing despite the gimpy knee. In spite of the injuries, the Lions would continue to win with a depleted backfield. On November 9, with Hoernschemeyer running for 107 yards, Detroit beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road, 31-6. The following week, Harder scored 17 points with a touchdown, 5 PATs and a field goal as Detroit trounced the winless Dallas Texans, 45-13. On November 23, the Lions lost to the Bears at Wrigley Field, 24-23, as George Blanda came off the bench to lead the Bears on a 68-yard TD drive in the final seconds.[20]

After the Bear loss, the Western Conference standings were now deadlocked in a four way tie, with the Lions, Rams, Forty-Niners and Packers all sitting with 6-3 records. Surely the last-second Bears’ loss would cause the superstitious Parker to call up Triplett?

It didn’t happen. The Lions, with Triplett still on the taxi squad, would beat the Green Bay Packers, 45-21, on Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, the Rams would down San Francisco three days later, 34-21, leaving the Lions and Rams tied at 7-3.

The following Thursday, December 4, with Doak Walker now cleared to play, the team traded Wally Triplett to the Chicago Cardinals.[21]

Triplett would play in the Cardinals’ final two games of 1952 and just four games in Chicago the following season before being released on October 21, 1953.

“My heart was never really in the game because of the attitudes and obstacles we faced,” said Triplett in 2005. “Overall, the fans in Detroit treated me well. I never got to be a ‘fan favorite,’ and I heard all of the racial remarks. But most of the fans were white and that was the tenor of the times. I think the big difference between the NFL today and when I played was the camaraderie . . . we didn’t have enough of the team spirit, the togetherness.”[22]

Would the Detroit Lions have found a roster spot for Wally Triplett in 1952 if he had a different skin color? Would they have found a roster spot for Triplett if Bob Mann hadn’t left the Lions’ organization on such bad terms two years before?

Without being able to ask then-head coach Buddy Parker, G.M. Nick Kerbawy and Lions’ President Edwin Anderson, all long deceased, that question personally, it’s impossible to say for certain. But nevertheless, the record shows that for the first six years of Buddy Parker’s head coaching tenure in Detroit (1951-56), only two black men would play in the regular season for the Detroit Lions. The first was defensive end, Harold “Bulldog” Turner, who would suit up for three games in 1954. The second was another defensive end, Walter Jenkins, a Detroit native and Wayne State grad, who suited up for two regular season games in 1955. [23]

The fact that the Detroit Lions fielded an all-white lineup in 71 of the 76 games of Buddy Parker’s tenure as head coach serves as the only blemish on the greatest period in franchise history.

By the beginning of the 1952 season, the Steelers, Eagles, Cardinals and Bears – all teams that had been a part of the original “gentleman’s agreement” had integrated. Only the Lions and Washington Redskins remained segregated. The Lions would remain so until 1957. The Redskins would remain Whiteskined until 1962.

On the other hand, the record shows that Buddy Parker made efforts to obtain black players during this period. He tried to trade for Cleveland Browns’ backup fullback, Emerson Cole, before the 1951 season. The trade fell through when Paul Brown wanted Doak Walker in return.

“You know, Buddy, your team is a little thin at tackle too,” said Brown. “Suppose we make a deal and give you Cole and one of our first string tackles. You can give us a halfback – say Doak Walker?”

“We’re not interested in trading a layer cake for two doughnuts,” laughed Parker.[24]

In 1952, the Lions entered training camp with four “Negro” players, including the aforementioned Harold Turner, (drafted 333rd overall) and Ray Don Dillon, a back from Prairie View A&M (drafted 357th overall). Dillon was released by the Lions at the end of training camp and would become an All-Pro in the Canadian Football League later that year.[25]

Turner would spend two years in the military before joining the Lions. He would be traded to the Cleveland Browns during the pre-season in 1954, released by Cleveland and then re-signed by Detroit in December 1954. Turner would suit up in the Lions’ final three games of the season, including the 1954 championship game versus Cleveland.[26]

In the 1954 draft, Detroit selected UCLA All-American defensive back Milt Davis in the 8th Round (97th overall). [27]Davis spent two years in the Army before joining Detroit for their 1956 training camp and was cut after two exhibition games. [28] Years later, Davis said he was told by the Lions at the time of his release, “We don’t have a black teammate for you to go on road trips, therefore you can’t stay on our team.” Davis would hook on with the Baltimore Colts as a 28-year old free agent in 1957. He would have 10 interceptions and make the Associated Press All-Pro team as a rookie. He would help the Colts win back-to-back NFL titles in 1958 and ‘59 alongside a Detroit native, former U.S. Marine and L.A. Ram named, Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb. [29]

In 1955, the Lions would draft tackle Elijah Childers in the 6th Round (72nd overall) and Walter Jenkins in the 9th Round (108th overall). Childers, from Prairie View A&M, was cut in camp and would make his way to Canada. [30] Jenkins meanwhile, played in the Lions first two games before being slipped onto the waiver wire and then shuffled back onto the taxi squad. It was a move that again aroused the ire of bulldog journalist, Bill Matney, in his weekly “Jumping the Gun” column:

Charges of discrimination involving the Detroit Lions have been revived in certain opinion areas of the community. . . . Jenkins’ 11th hour release came only one week after the promising rookie had made a key play against the Green BayPackers that resulted in a touchdown for the Lions. . . . Club officials knew Jenkins was slated to go, but waited until the last hour to announce his release on waivers so other teams would not pick him up. Green Bay reportedly was ready to give him a job. . . . Jenkins has sat on the bench in street clothes for the past two Sundays as his former teammates lost to Los Angeles and San Francisco. . . . While we do not at this time charge the Lions with rank discrimination, we feel there is substantial basis to charge the club with minimum effort in the acquisition of Negro players of high calibre. . . . One cannot argue with the record. It stands for itself.[31]

In Buddy Parker’s defense, it is of note that in early 1954, following Pat Harder’s retirement, Jet Magazine reported that Parker was seeking a trade to acquire Los Angeles Rams’ “fullback Paul “Tank” Younger’s contract.” [32] Younger was the first black player to play in the Pro Bowl and one of the great fullbacks of the era. Parker’s efforts failed in 1954. But four years later, in 1958, Parker – who was then head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers – acquired Younger in a trade with the Rams. [33] Younger played his final NFL season for Pittsburgh in 1958 before retiring.

In his first year in Pittsburgh, Parker purchased the contract of guard, John Nisby. [34] Nisby would play with the Steelers through 1962 and earn two Pro Bowl nods (1959, ‘61).

In 1960, Parker traded Pittsburgh’s 1960 and ‘61 first-round picks to Detroit to get John Henry Johnson into a Steeler uniform. Of course, Parker earlier traded for Johnson in one of his last major personnel moves as Lions’ coach in early 1957.[35]

In July 1961, Parker traded three players, including Steelers’ star receiver Jimmy Orr, to the Colts to acquire talented but troubled defensive tackle Big Daddy Lipscomb.

Two months later, Parker traded a draft choice to the Colts to acquire another talented black athlete, defensive back Johnny Sample. Sample, who was among the new breed of minority athlete unwilling to accept second-class status, would have a troubled relationship with the old-school, Texas-bred, Parker.

After a nine-interception, All-Pro season in 1961 with the Steelers, Sample and Parker battled over a new contract. Sample, who had made $14,000 in ‘61, sought an $8,000 raise. The Steelers countered with a $1,500 boost.[36]

According to Sample’s 1970 autobiography, Confessions of a Dirty Ballplayer, Parker related his thoughts on the contractual worth of black players during a particularly heated exchange.

“I know you had a great year, Sample. But black athletes don’t deserve that kind of money and I won’t pay it,” Parker said. The two exchanged heated words before Sample stormed out of Parker’s office.[37]

Sample eventually settled for a $6,000 raise for 1962. By 1963, Parker had traded Sample to Washington, making him a member of George Preston Marshall’s first integrated roster.

Buddy Parker’s longtime “hex team” member, Wallace “Boots” Lewis, had followed Parker to Pittsburgh. Art Rooney Jr., former Steelers’ executive and son of team founder, Art Rooney Sr., viewed the Parker/Lewis “partnership” in less than flattering terms.

“Buddy Parker was the only coach in the NFL who had his own personal valet . . . Their partnership was an odd one if you took into account Parker’s typically Southern racial views,” Rooney wrote in his 2008 autobiography, Ruanaidh, “In a way it harkened back to the ante-bellum plantation days, with Boots as Old Black Joe and Parker in the role of benevolent white massa.”[38]

Parker’s only child, Robert, who knew Boots Lewis, first as a young boy in Detroit and then through his teenage years in Pittsburgh, remembers the man fondly and has a much different view of the relationship between Lewis and his father.

“Boots was like, my caretaker, when we would go away on trips and away games and stuff. And I would just run him ragged,” laughed Parker. “He was like, I think, in his mid to upper fifties. He had a hard time controlling me.

“He and my Dad were just great buddies,” Parker added. “He would help out at training camp and practice. He would come out to the house in the summertime and have dinner and stuff. He would help out around the house. He was just always around.”[39]

However, Johnny Sample, like Rooney Jr., believed that Buddy Parker treated Lewis as little more than a slave.

“Bootsy would wake Buddy up in the morning,” Sample wrote, “shine his shoes, get him coffee, and so on, for which he was paid next to nothing and treated like a dog.”[40]

“I certainly don’t agree with that,” Robert Parker said of Sample’s assessment. “I mean Boots was almost a part of our family.

“You know, my Dad was a southern guy and, ya’ know, there may have been a little bit of bigotry or racism or something in there,” Parker added, “but never anything that had anything to do with Boots.”[41]

Rooney Jr. claimed in his book that on a Saturday night before a 1962 Steelers’ road game in Dallas, Buster Ramsey – who Parker had hired in Pittsburgh months earlier after Ramsey was fired as head coach of the Buffalo Bills – had egged Parker on when Big Daddy Lipscomb, John Henry Johnson, Sample and the other black Steelers had not returned for a rare Parker-issued curfew. For the record, Rooney’s account comes second hand from longtime Steelers’ trainer, Raymond “Doc” Sweeny:

In Dallas the night before the game, the blacks had gone off to a blacks-only night club and were late getting back to the motel. Ramsey, in charge of bed check, was “egging Parker on,” as Sweeney related it to me, letting him know every few minutes that the black guys were not in their rooms.

“Buddy was drinking,” Doc said, “and Buster was getting him upset. They came into my room and pounded on the door. When I opened it, Buddy says right away that he wants his hands taped. ‘Like a boxer.’ I ask him what for. ‘I’m going to punch out Johnson and Lipscomb,’ he tells me

“Buddy and Buster were blaming John Henry Johnson and Big Daddy Lipscomb for keeping the rest of the black guys at the night club.”

According to Rooney Jr., Sweeney taped Parker’s hands as instructed, but intentionally taped them so tight that the blood would eventually stop circulating, hoping that the coach would reconsider.

He’s running up and down the hallway, punching his fist into his open hand and yelling, ‘I’ll beat the hell out of that black son of a bitch Lipscomb, and then I’ll beat the hell out of John Henry.’[42]

Incredibly, Sample also related same incident in his book:

Buddy never had bedcheck, neither in training nor during the season. We arrived in Dallas about four or five in the afternoon, checked into the hotel and had dinner. . . . Buddy told us to come in at eleven, but because we never had bedcheck, no one bothered. I got in about twelve, jumped immediately into bed and was just about asleep when the door burst open.

There stood Buddy in his shirt sleeves, his hands taped like a fighter’s. I knew he had been drinking because the smell of whisky was all over him. Buster Ramsey, his assistant coach and chief henchman, was right behind him.

“I came in here to see were you’ve been,” Parker said in a growl, meaning me and Brady Keys, my roommate.

We told him, and he answered:

“I also came in here just in case you wanted to fight, because I know I’m going to have some trouble from both of you. Now what do you want to do?”

It was obvious that the best thing to do was to try and pacify him and let it go. So I told him:

“I want to go to sleep and that’s just about what I was doing until you came busting in here like that.”

He [Parker] turned around and walked out without saying another word, and nothing more came of it.[43]

One could only imagine what Lipscomb and Johnson may have done if they had arrived to see what Sweeny and Sample claimed to witness. However, the two players remained at large until, according to Rooney Jr., Sweeney’s tape job had the desired effect. Soon Parker, according to the trainer, was asking him to “cut the damn’ tape off.”

It is clear in their respective books that neither Sample or Rooney Jr. thought much of Parker or Ramsey.

Conversely, Buster Ramsey’s son, Gary, says that his father, who died in 2007, was no fan of Johnny Sample.

“Dad would tell you to this day that he did run off Johnny Sample. Johnny Sample had a chip on his shoulder.”

But Gary, who spent plenty of time around Lions, Bills and Steelers growing up the son of an NFL coach, vehemently denies that his father was racist.

“My Dad had some of his black players from Buffalo come visit him on the farm in Tennessee after he retired. And they’d come a thousand miles to do that,” Ramsey said. “Big Daddy Lipscomb had his best year in the NFL under my dad in Pittsburgh. So did Brady Keys. So did Big John Baker. They had their best years in the NFL playing for Dad.

“My Dad used to say, ‘I treat the black guys just like the white guys. If they are going to be troublemakers, it doesn’t matter what color they are.”

Like Robert Parker, Gary Ramsey also disputes Rooney Jr. and Sample’s account of the relationship between Buddy Parker and Boots Lewis.

“Now remember, Boots was in Detroit the whole time too,” Ramsey said, “I never saw Boots get mistreated. I never saw Boots get yelled at. I never saw anybody be mean to Boots. We all loved Boots.” [44]

While Sample disliked Parker immensely on a personal level, he did respect him as a football mind.

Undoubtedly, Buddy Parker was a brilliant coach when it came to the science of the game. I think that, like Paul Brown, he understood the complete picture of football. Unfortunately, however, he didn’t know how to handle men. And that’s half the business of coaching.[45]

Whether or not Sample and Rooney Jr.’s Pittsburgh recollections are accurate, it is no secret that Buddy Parker’s Pittsburgh tenure involved fewer wins – and more alcohol – than the halcyon days in Detroit.

“It was tougher than the Detroit years,” admitted Robert Parker.[46]

As the NFL approaches its 100 birthday, there has never been a smoking gun to emerge to substantiate the alleged “gentleman’s agreement” that barred black players from NFL rosters from 1934 to 1945. According to NFL Filmshistorian, Chris Willis, both Art Rooney Sr. and George Halas tried to sign black players during that 12-year blackout. Rooney “wanted” to bring pre-ban Steeler star, Ray Kemp, back in 1934 “but didn’t.” Halas meanwhile, “tried to sign Ozzie Simmons (Iowa) in 1936” and UCLA star and future Los Angeles Ram, Kenny Washington, in 1939.[47]

Despite Willis’ claim, it’s hard to believe that if Art Rooney, let alone George Halas, had wanted to sign a black player badly enough they would have been stopped. Both men were highly respected amongst their peers during those early years and were well on their way to NFL immortality by the end of World War II. Nevertheless, it was the upstart and forward-thinking Rams’ owner Dan Reeves, along with substantial shoves from the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission and the rival and quickly integrating All-American Football Conference, that pushed the NFL toward re-integration in 1946.

Willis and many other historians point to the influence of Washington Redskins’ owner George Preston Marshall as the major force behind the NFL’s 1934-45 color line. A native of Grafton, West Virginia and the owner of a string of family laundries in Washington D.C., Marshall was the most accomplished business man among the league’s ownership fraternity. As a result, he often had a major influence on league policy.

He, along with Halas, promoted the liberalization of the forward passing game in 1930s by making it legal for a passer to throw the ball from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. Marshall also, prior to the 1933 season, devised the plan to split the league into two divisions, with a season-ending championship game. He was the first to implement big halftime shows and incorporate a team band. Marshall was also the first owner to embrace the power of television, as he created a television network of independent stations across the South to carry Redskins’ games during the 1950s.

George Preston Marshall was simply a man who could make things happen. He was also an unabashed racist.

When Marshall, who had purchased the newly-formed Boston Redskins in 1931, got permission to move the struggling team to America’s segregated capital city in 1937, he became the proud and defiant dictator of Dixie’s Team. Under Marshall, the Redskins remained Caucasian for their first twenty-nine years in business. He famously vowed never to integrate the Redskins as long as the Harlem Globetrotters also remained segregated.

By the early 1960s, public opinion, a massive negative media campaign, as well as pressure from Capitol Hill and the Kennedy Administration forced Marshall’s hand. The final straw came in early 1961, when the U.S. Department of Interior threatened to ban the Redskins from moving into the publicly financed D.C. Stadium, which was then under construction, and with which Marshall had signed a 30-year lease to begin play there that autumn.

With that move, a reluctant Pete Rozelle decided to step in and urge Marshall to integrate. A deal between the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, and Marshall was struck. The deal allowed the Redskins to play in D.C. Stadium in 1961, provided they would integrate by 1962, which they did. [48]

“I definitely don’t like to hear about it. But I do think you’ve gotta talk about the times that his all happened,” George Preston Marshall’s granddaughter, Jordan Wright, told Chris Willis in 2010. “For him it was a business decision. He didn’t want to lose his fan base. Now he didn’t triumph the cause of the underprivileged or the lower classes or other races. He did not. So I hate to have to defend him in that. It makes me very uncomfortable and it’s a legacy that I’m stuck with. I don’t like it. I just wish people would at least put it in the context of the period of the day and how it was for everybody. . . . He certainly bore the weight of those bad decisions. For us it was appalling.”[49]

Another sign of the times was that white folks and black folks were not supposed to date. The story of Pittsburgh Steelers’ second-year halfback, Henry Ford, during training camp in 1957 illustrates that sign quite clearly:

. . . The thing that got in the way was, they didn’t like the fact that I had a white girlfriend. They would listen in on our phone conversations. They told [Steelers head coach] Walt Kiesling and the others that I was dating a white girl and as a result they got rid of me. It was strange how it happened because the week before they got rid of me, we were playing the Detroit Lions and I was playing offense and defense and I thought I really had a hell of a day. I came back the next week to practice on Tuesday and I wasn’t on the offensive team, I wasn’t on the defensive team, I wasn’t on the punt return team, and I wasn’t on the kickoff return team. On Wednesday same thing . . . I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Thursday came, same thing. Friday, same thing. On Saturday I was home looking forward to the game on Sunday, getting myself prepared, getting my clothes packed for the trip and everything, and I get a phone call from the business manager. Not the head coach or even any other coach but the business manager. I couldn’t imagine what he was calling me about other than something about the travel arrangements, and he says, “That’s it.” I said, “What do you mean, that’s it?” He said, “They told me to tell you that’s it and they’ll take care of you when we get back from the game,” and he hung up. And that’s how I was cut, right after I had played a hell of a game against theDetroit Lions.[50]

For the record, Buddy Parker, not Walt Kiesling, was head coach of the Steelers at the time of Ford’s release on September 14, 1957. Kiesling, who had coached the Steelers on three-different occasions from 1939 through 1956, had called Parker personally after he had quit in Detroit August 12. Kiesling urged both Parker to come to Pittsburgh and the Rooney’s to hire Parker to replace him. Rooney did so on August 27. [51] Kiesling, a longtime friend of both Parker and Rooney, remained on Pittsburgh’s staff. Henry Ford was cut just six days after the Steelers’ fourth exhibition game, a 20-14 victory over Parker’s former team, the Lions.[52]

Unlike John Henry Johnson, Tank Younger, Big Daddy Lipscomb and Johnny Sample, Henry Ford, who had played college ball for the Pitt Panthers, was a marginal NFL talent. He was a 9th Round choice of the Cleveland Browns in 1955 and played just two games for Cleveland before being released. Ford spent the rest of 1955 in Canada with the Toronto Argonauts before returning to the NFL in 1956 to play for his hometown Steelers.

Nevertheless, the abrupt and unusual dismissal of Ford by the Steelers, especially considering the factors in his personal life, should not be ignored. Ford never played in the NFL again and to him the reason is clear – he was in love with the wrong colored women. The woman was named Rochelle. She would one day become his wife.

“As to why I was cut, I know why,” Ford said. “It’s because of my love for Rochelle. Me loving her and her returning my love, that was apparently too much for Steelers management.”[53]

John Henry Johnson has a bust in Canton because Buddy Parker gave him enough carries in Pittsburgh to reach the 1,000 yard plateau in 1962 and ‘64. If not for his untimely and tragic death, Big Daddy Lipscomb would surely be in Canton too, in no small part to Parker and Buster Ramsey putting him on the field after the Colts had given up on him.

It is clear that Buddy Parker, throughout his career in Detroit and Pittsburgh, sought black athletes on the trade market and welcomed them into his training camps. It is also clear that, in most instances, a black player had to be of exceptional talent to make his regular-season roster. For all his faults, Buddy Parker was clearly no Walter Briggs or George Preston Marshall. Yet, the fact remains that the Detroit Lions were virtually all-white during Buddy Parker’s six seasons as head coach.

How much of an influence did Detroit Lions’ President Edwin Anderson, General Manager Nick Kerbawy and the Lions’ Board of Directors – who for a time included Walter Briggs’ son, Spike Briggs – have on the Lions’ nearly all-white lineup from 1951 through 1956 remains unclear, as most of the men who made up the board and leadership of the Lions during that period are long deceased.

How much of a factor did Henry Ford’s white girlfriend have on the Steelers’ decision to cut him just days into Parker’s tenure in Pittsburgh? Aside from Ford’s feelings, that question remains unanswered. Art Sr. and Kiesling are long deceased. Art Jr. has not had a leadership position with the franchise since 1987, when his brother Dan fired him. Dan Rooney’s record on providing minorities opportunities in the NFL is very strong. His current head coach is the two-time Super Bowl winner, Mike Tomlin. The leagues current minority hiring policy – enacted in 2003 – is called the Rooney Rule in honor of Dan Rooney’s efforts to integrate the NFL’s coaching and front office ranks.

What is certain is that in the United States during the 1950s, black Americans, and the whites who loved them, were often held to a different set of rules.

The July 3, 1954, edition of the Michigan Chronicle featured the front page story of 37-year old Anna Mae Doles, her teenage son Jack, and his stepfather Maurice Doles:

White Mother Fights State Ruling: Marries Negro, Is Refused Child

The story that followed read in part:

The refusal of the Michigan Children’s Institute (MCI) to return a 16-year old boy to his white mother because she is married to a Negro brought a sharp protest this week from the Detroit Branch NAACP and letters denouncing the action to the governor and other legislators.

MCI Superintendent, Robert Rosena, stated in a letter to sent to Mrs. Doles, that the decision to keep Jack away from his parents was only in the best interest of the child:

We cannot place Jack in a situation which would give him serious social problems to deal with, and we must pay attention to the fact that society in general does not accept mixed marriages.

Although Jack was in a foster home, he still visited his parents daily despite Rosena’s written warning.

If you continue to encourage Jack to visit you it might be necessary for us to get a court order restraining you from contacting him.

Maurice Doles, a Korean War veteran who married the widower Anna Mae in 1951, told the Chronicle of his relationship with his stepson Jack, whose birth-father had died in 1947:

Jack has a key to the apartment and considers this his home. Apparently he doesn’t like his foster home because when he leaves us, he says, ‘Well Pop, I guess I’ll get back to prison.’

Yes he calls me Pop and we get along fine.[54]

In Detroit, Michigan in 1954, a teenage boy and his widowed mother were denied their piece of the American Dream – a second chance at having a family – because they had the audacity to start one with the wrong colored man; a man who had served his country just a few years earlier on the blood-soaked Korean Peninsula.

It was unjust. It was un-American. It was un-Constitutional. Nevertheless, it happened.

It was a sign of the times.

The 1952 and 1953 Detroit Lions remain the last two teams in NFL history to win championships without a black man on their roster.

[1] Ross, Outside The Lines, p. 167-68.

[2] Jim Sargent, “Wallace ‘Wally’ Triplett: Struggling for Success in the Postwar NFL,” The Coffin Corner, (Pro Football Researchers Association: Vol. 27, No. 4, 2005).

[3] “Former Lions’ Star in the 1940s John Greene Dies at 90,” DetroitLions.com, November 5, 2010, Website:http://www.detroitlions.com/news/article-1/Former-Lions-Star-in-the-1940s-John-Greene-Dies-at-90/163b164c-897b-4729-ac15-e58015cd5ee8

[4] Sargent, Wally Triplett, 2005.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Triplett Sets New NFL Record,” Michigan Chronicle, November 1, 1950.

[7] “Hunches Boost Packers, Bear Rookie Runs Wild,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 13, 1965.

[8] “Jumpin The Gun,” Michigan Chronicle, November 1, 1950.

[9] “Latest Triplett Sprint: To Army,” Windsor Daily Star, November 1, 1950.

[10] Michael McCambridge, America’s game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation, (New York, Random House, 2004), p. 9-10

[11] Ibid, p. 16.

[12] Ibid, p. 17-19.

[13] Ibid, p. 55-58.

[14] Ibid, p. 64.

[15] “Lions Triplett Returns,” Michigan Chronicle, October 25, 1952.

[16] Jumpin’ the Gun, Michigan Chronicle, October 25, 1952.

[17] “Packers Hold Stiff Workout,” Associated Press, October 26, 1952.

[18] “Veteran Triplett Returns to Lions,” Holland Evening Sentinel, November 6, 1952.

[19] Jumpin’ the Gun, Michigan Chronicle, November 29, 1952.

[20] Green, Great Teams Great Years, p. 22-23.

[21] “Football Cards Sign 2 Backs”, New York Times, October 21, 1953.

[22] Sargent, Wally Triplett, 2005.

[23] Carroll, et. al., Total Football, p. 1359, 940.

[24] Green, Great Teams Great Years, p. 13.

[25] Carroll, et. al., Total Football, p. 1456.; “Ron Dillon Impresses in Camp,” Michigan Chronicle, July 1952.; “Jumpin, the Gun,” Michigan Chronicle, December 6, 1952.

[26] “Two Detroit Rookies Acquired By Browns,” Milwaukee Journal, September 1, 1954.; “Bulldog Turner now with Detroit Lions,” Washington Afro-American, December 7, 1954.

[27] Total Football, p. 1458.

[28] “Baltimore Colts add 2 more tan players; nine report to camp,” Washington Afro-American, June 4, 1957.

[29] “Davis, who helped Colts to pair of titles, dies at 79,” Associated Press, October 1, 2008.

[30] Carroll, et. al., Total Football, p. 1458.; “Detroit Lions Get End, Ask Waivers on Three,” Milwaukee Journal, October 4, 1955.

[31] “Jumping the Gun,” Michigan Chronicle, October 22, 1955.

[32] “Detroit Lions Seek Tank Younger,” Jet Magazine, February 4, 1954.

[33] “Tank Younger Traded To Pittsburgh Steelers,” Jet Magazine, July 31, 1958.

[34] “Steelers Trade Gaona To Eagles for Draft Pick,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 19, 1957.

[35] “Another Lion Now a Steeler,” Florence (AL) Times Daily, April 11, 1960.

[36] “Sample Says Rozelle Sides With Owners, Should Be Indicted,” Associated Press, December 15, 1970.

[37] Johnny Sample, Fred J. Hamilton, Sonny Schwartz, Confessions of a Dirty Ballplayer, (New York, Dial Press, 1970), P. 101-102.

[38] Art Rooney Jr., Roy McHugh, Ruanaidh: The Story of Art Rooney and His Clan, (Art Rooney Jr., 2008), p. 188.

[39] Charles Robert Parker interview, 2004.

[40] Sample et. al., Confessions, p. 104.

[41] Charles Robert Parker interview, 2004.

[42] Rooney Jr., McHugh, Ruanaidh, p. 182-83.

[43] Sample et. al., Confessions, p. 104-105.

[44] Gary Ramsey interview, March 2012.

[45] Sample et. al., Confessions, p. 99.

[46] Charles Robert Parker interview, 2004.

[47] Chris Willis, Joe F. Carr: The Man Who Built The National Football League, (Lanham, MD, Scarecrow Press, 2010), p. 329.

[48] Ross, Outside The Lines, p. 149-50, 153-54.

[49] Willis, Joe F. Carr, p. 329-30.

[50] Andy Piasck, Gridiron Gauntlet: The Story of the Men Who Integrated Pro Football in Their Own Words, (Taylor Trade Publishing, Boulder, CO, 2009), p. 221-222.

[51] “Parker Named Steeler Coach,” Associated Press, August 28, 1957.

[52] “Trading Steelers Grab Morrall,” Associated Press, September 17, 1957.

[53] Piasck, Gridiron Gauntlet, p. 222.

[54] “White Mother Fights State Ruling: Marries Negro, Is Refused Child,” Michigan Chronicle, July 3, 1954.

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