Sports and Race in Washington, DC
In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke Major League baseball’s color barrier. He went on to become a symbol of positive change in the United States, an early indicator of the impending civil rights movement. During the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s African-Americans were gradually hired into each of the major professional sports leagues. In fact, the sports arena was one of the first places where blacks were accepted on a national scale. However, not all professional sports teams welcomed black athletes with open arms. Unfortunately, segregation in professional sports occurred right here in the District long after Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Dodgers.
The National Football League’s Washington Redskins, who played their home games in the District of Columbia, were still segregated in 1961. Not only were the Redskins still segregated, they were the only team in the NFL who had not yet signed a black player. The owner of the Redskins, George Preston Marshall, was a pompous racist, unwilling to curb his prejudices. Marshall’s only concerns were making money and staying loyal to stodgy and bigoted politicians in power at the time. Marshall paralleled the governmental institutions of the early 1960s. He conducted business and made money at the expense of African-Americans and ignored their needs, just as the government often ignored the needs of African-Americans of Washington.
In fact, the Redskins’ target audience until the mid-sixties was primarily not Washington, DC, but the south. America’s south, like the District of Columbia, had a large African-American population that had been abused for hundreds of years with the institutions of slavery, and segregation. African-American were continuously ignored and exploited. Only the needs and wants of whites were paid any attention to by politicians. Washington Post columnist Ken Denlinger examines the situation in an article written in 1992:
Until the Atlanta Falcons entered the NFL in 1966, when the Miami Dolphins also joined the American Football League, there were no pro football teams in the entire southeast and beyond […] In 1956, the Redskins had a network of 60 radio and 29 television stations. One of the radio stations was in Albany, N.Y. Nearly all the other sight-and-sound outlets were in Virginia, West Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida (Denlinger M4).
This information may not seem to have any racist intent, but it just shows that the Redksins were marketed to a white audience that was miles from the large black population in the Redskins home city of Washington. Thomas G. Smith, a professor writing in an article for the Journal for Sports History notes that Marshall could hire blacks to perform custodial duties and allow black fans support the team by purchasing tickets, but he did not want to offend the southern audience by allowing a black player to take the field (Smith 8).
Members of the black...