HOUSTON – Do you know when the NFL had its Jackie Robinson moment?
On Sunday before the Super Bowl, actress Viola Davis shared the untold story of Kenny Washington, the Black football player that re-integrated the NFL in 1946.
In a stirring short documentary, Davis chronicle the NFL’s history of allowing Black players on its teams. When the league was founded in 1920, there was no color barrier. Out of over 300 players and 14 teams, the league had two Black players, including Hall of Famer Fritz Pollard.
Despite the success of players like Pollard, inclusion was slow. By the 1930s, there had only been 13 players in the league, according to Davis.
However, in 1933, team owners met secretly to discuss the future role of Black players in the league.
“They decided that the Colored boys were bad for business,” Davis said in the video. “Call it what you want, but this gentleman’s agreement made it clear as day: Blacks were not allowed to play in their league anymore. Period.”
One by one, Black players were eased from the roster.
Until 1945, when the Cleveland Rams, who were the reigning NFL champions, decided to move the team to Los Angeles and play at the LA Memorial Coliseum, which was in the heart of a Black community, according to the documentary.
Black journalists and the community argued that if the team was going to play at the stadium, which was funded by local taxpayers, Black players should be allowed to play.
The Los Angeles Rams agreed and signed Washington, a UCLA standout and local hero, breaking the 13-year unofficial color barrier in March 1946.
“Long after that day in 1946, Kenny Washington remains in the shadows, not in the hall of fame, like his friend and college teammate Jackie Robinson,” said Davis, drawing the comparison of Robinson, who went on to famously break the color barrier in Major League Baseball only a few months later.
Despite this complicated tale, one thing is true. The integration of Washinton into the NFL in 1946 paved the way for Black players and coaches, such as Doug Williams, Tony Dungy, Walter Payton and Jim Brown.
“That was the moment the Black football player was invisible no more,” Davis said.
Click below to see the full short documentary starring Davis: