With the 2021 NFL season underway, the Detroit Lions’ roster is once again “minority-majority” — most of the players are Black. In fact, in the league as a whole, roughly two-thirds of players identify as being at least partially African American.
That is a far cry from 1934, when the Lions, a franchise freshly transplanted from the coal-mining town of Portsmouth, Ohio, entered a league that was 100% white. The NFL would remain segregated through the 1945 season. During the Jim Crow era, much of American life was split along racial lines, often forcing Black athletes in search of competition to organize their own teams and leagues.
The first known Black squad in Detroit was fielded by the Wolverine Athletic Association in 1919, organized by two notable Detroiters: John Dancy, longtime director of the Detroit Urban League, and Fred Hart Williams, namesake of the first African American genealogical society in Michigan. As men dedicated to battling inequality, Dancy and Williams saw the Wolverines as an opportunity to teach young men — many of them recent transplants from the South — the values of hard work and community, while also demonstrating that Black players could compete on an equal footing with white players.
The amateur sandlotters made the long trek after work to a farm at Livernois and 8 Mile to practice. They were coached by Joe Duplessis, who would go on to a long career as director of the Brewster Recreation Center. Although most of the scores have been lost to time, the Wolverines were competitive, playing local high schools, factory teams and semipro squads. They beat Wilberforce, the historically Black college in Ohio, at least twice.
“Actually, we didn’t have more than two or three plays and just hoped we could keep the ball all the time because we had no such thing as defense,” Dancy admitted in his autobiography. The strategy usually worked, except when facing a powerhouse like St. Florian’s. The husky high schoolers from Hamtramck “wouldn’t let us hang onto the ball; instead they kept it and gave us a sound thrashing,” Dancy said.
At the same time the Wolverines were active in the ‘20s, a string of NFL franchises failed in Detroit. None had a Black face in the huddle. While a few African Americans did play for other NFL teams during these early years, by 1933, owners had reached a “gentlemen’s agreement” on segregation. Times were tough economically, so roster spots were reserved for white players. Even when the NFL stabilized, owners maintained the all-whites policy through World War II.
In 1939, another independent all-Black team suited up in the city. The semipro Detroit Pioneers were organized by Dwight Nuttall, a Ford worker who had played college ball in Missouri. Big Alex Penn, manager of the Melody Club in Paradise Valley, bankrolled the startup.
The Pioneers, coached by Tuskegee alum William “Dad” Moberly, practiced at Goldberg Field at St. Antoine and Ferry streets. The roster featured former players from the country’s Black colleges, including quarterback Redford Rodgers and center Melvin Bailey, both All-Americans at Kentucky. Such players as the colorfully named Howdy Brazil, Church Summers and Train Jackson helped round out the lineup.
The Pioneers played an uneven schedule. Opponents ranged from Black professionals like the Chicago Brown Bombers — who beat them in a Thanksgiving Day slugfest at Hamtramck’s Keyworth Stadium in 1939 — to white amateur and semipro clubs. After the Pioneers crushed the Marine City Athletic Club, 26-0, in 1940, the Black-owned Chicago Defender crowed, “The Detroiters completely smothered the efforts of the white boys.”
On Thanksgiving 1940, the Pioneers beat the Toledo All-Stars, 6-0, before a smattering of wet, shivering fans at Detroit’s Mack Park. “The white boys threatened in the last period, rushing the ball to the Pioneers’ 1-foot line, but three tries at the line failed to produce any yardage,” the Defender reported. Pioneers guard Mule Wingo intercepted a fourth-down pass to secure the victory. The Pioneers also beat the Chicago Panthers, 2-0, en route to claiming the unofficial national Negro football championship.
The Pioneers were active through December 1941, when the U.S. entered the war. Nuttall went into the Navy and the team, never profitable, dissolved after three seasons.
It wasn’t until 1946 that pro football began to slowly reintegrate. This came about with the formation of a rival league, the All-America Football Conference, which opened up new opportunities for Black players; and a legal threat that forced the Los Angeles Rams to desegregate in order to play in their publicly funded stadium.
In 1948, the Lions became the second NFL team to desegregate when new coach and general manager Bo McMillan, who had run an integrated college program at Indiana, signed ends Bob Mann and Mel Groomes. The following year, McMillan added halfback Wally Triplett, the first Black draft pick to play in the NFL. With three of the league’s seven Black players, the Lions seemed progressive. But a change of coaches brought a shift in policy.
McMillan was fired after three losing seasons and assistant Buddy Parker took over. Parker grew up in segregated Texas and played in the monochromatic NFL. During his six full seasons at the helm, 1951 through 1956, the Lions fielded just two Black players: defensive linemen Hal Turner and Walter Jenkins, who played a total of five games between them. Turner also appeared in the 1954 title game, making him the first African American to play for the Lions in the postseason.
The 1952-53 Lions are the last NFL team to win championships with an all-white roster. Years later, someone asked defensive coach Buster Ramsey why his boss didn’t field more Black players. “I ain’t gonna tell you,” Ramsey replied. “You can figure it out.”
Even as the NFL slowly reintegrated in the 1950s, Parker drafted few Black players. He also insisted he was unable to trade for an African American athlete good enough to play for him. Parker finally acquired fullback John Henry Johnson in 1957, only to abruptly quit over an unrelated matter before the season began. George Wilson stepped in to coach the team to its last title. Given the decades of losing seasons, Johnson remains the only Black player in a Lions’ uniform to win a championship.
Entering the 1960s, the NFL as a whole methodically brought in more African Americans, though the Washington football team remained a holdout until 1962. Integration accelerated with the formation of the American Football League, which was more racially tolerant and, unlike its rival, paid Black players on the same scale as white players. The concurrent desegregation of college programs led to a much larger pool of Black talent, with the Lions depending on Detroit high school coaching legend Will Robinson to help guide their draft selections. Within the span of another generation, the complexion of pro football would dramatically change to what it is today.
Throughout the years, aging onetime Wolverines and Pioneers undoubtedly viewed the transformation with pride and approval — mixed with the occasional regret over “what might have been” had they only been born a few decades later.
Richard Bak’s latest book is “When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties.”
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