1946 - Kenny Washington knocked down those racial barriers.
In 1946, the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles, still a nascent sports town then. The team wanted to play in the publicly owned Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, but black taxpayers had paid for the stadium’s construction like everyone else. And there were no black players in the NFL. Local black sportswriters saw an opportunity.
Halley Harding of The Los Angeles Tribune led a group urging the Coliseum Commission to deny use of the stadium to any organization discriminating against blacks. During a meeting with the commission, Harding trumpeted former UCLA star Kenny Washington as a hometown hero, while reminding everyone of the sacrifices of black soldiers in World War II. He convinced the commission’s president to sign a resolution guaranteeing integration. Soon after, Harding persuaded Rams general manager to sign Washington — a year before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. “Black newspapers claimed a major barrier had fallen in pro sports. White dailies emphasized that Washington’s signing in no way set a precedent for the hiring of other African Americans,” Gretchen Atwood writes in her chronicle of the NFL’s integration, Lost Champions.
“He’s a great football player and Los Angeles will make a lot of money with him in the lineup,” Robinson told the Pittsburgh Courier about Washington’s signing with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. “People will come from far and near to see him play.” Robinson would know — the two had been football teammates at UCLA.
Baseball was the indisputable national pastime until the late 20th century, which partly explains Washington’s obscurity relative to Robinson. Nevertheless, Washington faced racial hatred every bit as intense as Robinson to play in the NFL, a league now made up of 70 percent black players.
Washington was born in Los Angeles in 1918 and raised in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood. His first love was baseball, and his father had played in the Negro Leagues. As a boy, Washington shagged flies at a playground with a semi-pro white team. (In fact, months before Robinson first played a spring training game for the Dodgers, black sportswriter Wendell Smith wrote Branch Rickey. Smith urged the white Dodgers owner hell-bent on breaking baseball’s color barrier to sign Washington, calling him “an even better baseball player than Robinson,” Chris Lamb writes in his book on Robinson, Blackout.) But Washington excelled at football as well, leading Lincoln High School to a city championship.
UCLA recruited him in 1936. It wanted to compete with bigger schools, particularly crosstown powerhouse USC. Woody Strode was one of the few other black players at UCLA, and he and Washington became friends. During practices, Strode often fought with a teammate who told the coach, “I can’t play next to a n — because my folks would disown me,” writes Atwood. Washington also took abuse from opposing coaches and players. Former teammate Ned Matthews remembers Missouri players rubbing sideline chalk in Washington’s face, writes B.J. Violett in an article on the UCLA Newsroom website.
Washington and Strode were seniors when Robinson transferred from Pasadena Junior College. They met a different Robinson in 1939 than the one who’d turn the other cheek as a Brooklyn Dodger.
Robinson wavered from closely guarded to confrontational. Robinson was the son of Georgia sharecroppers. After Robinson’s father left his mother, she moved to California for a better life, but his family encountered daily racism in Pasadena. The months before Robinson’s arrival at UCLA were particularly turbulent and tragic. Robinson’s older brother Gary died in a motorcycle accident with Jackie witnessing his final hours in agony. Later, when Robinson stepped into the middle of an altercation between a black friend and a white man yelling racial slurs, a white police officer stuck the barrel of his gun against Robinson’s stomach. Robinson spent the night in jail for resisting arrest. And months earlier, Schutz writes, his brother Edgar had been severely beaten by officers wrongly accusing him of not buying a permit to bring chairs to the Tournament of Roses parade.
Robinson escaped trouble in the UCLA backfield. He formed a nearly unstoppable combination with Washington and Strode. The “Gold Dust Trio” led the Bruins to their first undefeated season and Washington won the 1939 Douglas Fairbanks Trophy for college’s most outstanding player.
Chicago Bears owner George Halas considered drafting Washington in 1939, trying to convince NFL owners to lift the ban on black players. He failed. Although more than a dozen black players had suited up for NFL teams in the 1920s and early 1930s, none had played after 1933. The Depression had a chokehold on the country and owners believed black players were taking jobs from whites. They stuck to an unwritten agreement that would exclude black players for 13 years.
So, instead of playing in the NFL, Washington worked as Los Angeles Police Department officer (his uncle was the first black patrol lieutenant for the LAPD) and played with Strode on the semi-pro Hollywood Bears.
Until the Rams came calling.
The team announced Washington’s signing at the Alexandria Hotel in downtown Los Angeles on March 21, 1946. Some thought it was a move simply to sell tickets, that Washington was a single exception. Then Washington insisted the Rams sign Strode too. Over the summer, the Cleveland Browns of the All-America Football Conference also signed black players Bill Willis and Marion Motley. The four together integrated football on the field that fall.
Kenny Washington at practice for the L.A. Rams in 1948. (Vic Stein/Los Angeles Public Library)
The combination of Washington and Strode that had dominated in college failed to dominate the NFL, however. By this time Washington was 28 years old, and knee injuries had slowed him down. The Rams’ coach also struggled to use them effectively.
Nevertheless, Washington won teammates over with his charisma — for instance, when the team adopted an arcane new system of calling plays at the line of scrimmage (teams traditionally called plays in the huddle). “Washington approached the line and barked out, ‘Ready seventy-five, fourteen, period, twenty-six, down, comma, semicolon, right!’ — to the laughter of his teammates, many of whom were also playing in the T formation for the first time,” Atwood writes.
It wasn’t all laughs, of course.
During one game his first season, Washington was down on his back and well out of the play, but an opponent tried to kick him in the head. Washington dodged it. A teammate who saw this asked Washington about it after the game. “‘It’s hell being a Negro,’” he told the teammate, according to Atwood.
Washington and Strode fought indignities off the field, too. After their first game at Chicago’s Soldier Field, they were barred from the Stevens Hotel. Atwood writes that Washington and Strode were upset, later ending up at the Persian Hotel, the fanciest black hotel in Chicago, sipping Tom Collinses and watching Count Basie at the nightclub. Later that night, the Rams quarterback came by to say they’d convinced the white hotel to let Washington and Strode stay, but the two declined on principle.
After Washington retired in 1948, the Los Angeles Rams and the NFL began signing significantly more black players. Washington’s number was the first ever retired by UCLA, and he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1956. However, Washington still has no bust enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame, although a class of fifth graders in New York started a petition for him in 2016.
Even so, Washington left the game with good feelings. “Football has been good to me,” he said when announcing his retirement. “I’ve made a good living at it. I’ve bought a home for my wife and sons. I have made wonderful friends in the game.”