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Sat, 01.19.1946

Black History and the Canadian Football League, a story

*We celebrate Black history and the Canadian Football League (CFL) on this date in 1946.

In many cases, Blacks in America pursued professional football opportunities in the CFL, which were unavailable in the United States. Especially in the mid-20th century, many Black players came to Canada to avoid the racially charged atmosphere of Jim Crow America.

For many years, Blacks were better represented in the CFL than in the National Football League (NFL) and achieved several "firsts" in the CFL years before the same in the United States. More recently, the CFL has provided opportunities for Black and other Americans unable to break into the NFL. There were a small number of black players in the league now known as the National Football League from its inception in 1920. Following the 1933 season, no black players in the NFL or any other major-league-level professional football association, including the precursors to the Canadian Football League, until 1946.

During this period, black players played in minor leagues and independent barnstorming teams. At the time, college football was much more popular than any professional league. This was also the era when Canadian football began to "professionalize." The Canadian game evolved out of rugby with the adoption of the forward pass in the 1920s; Canadian football grew in popularity in the subsequent years until professional players began to dominate and displace amateur teams. Professionalization meant that teams were able to attract talent from a significantly wider pool. This benefited teams in smaller, primarily western Canadian cities with a smaller pool from which to draw and were thus at a disadvantage compared to the larger eastern metropolises.

In 1935, Canadian teams began recruiting American players, a trend that continues today. Currently, the CFL was a legitimate competitor to the NFL, paying comparable wages and attracting a similar level of talent. However, there were no Blacks on any Canadian football team until 1946. In 1946, professional football took its first steps toward integration. The NFL signed two black players, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington, who played for the Los Angeles Rams. However, the NFL's integration process was gradual: while individual teams signed individual black players, there was no active drafting of Blacks until 1949, and some teams resisted integration for several more years (most famously, owner George Preston Marshall refused to sign blacks to his Washington Redskins team as late as 1962, at which point the U.S. government intervened.

The CFL's color barrier was broken in 1946 when Montreal Alouettes general manager Lew Hayman signed Herb Trawick. Trawick may not have been the first black player in the CFL. There is photographic evidence that Robert "Stonewall" Jackson was the first Black player, with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, in 1930. He was a porter with the railways and is in a team picture from that year. Otherwise, Gabe Patterson was the first Black player to play for the Green Riders. In 1948, Ken Whitlock became the Toronto Argonauts' first Black player. From that point on, a steady flow of Blacks began to migrate to the CFL, which, at the time, was a legitimate competitive league to the NFL. In 1964, Tom Casey became the first black player inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, three years before New York Giant Emlen Tunnell became the first black player in the NFL's Pro Football Hall of Fame.


As Toronto Argonauts' president in 1980, Heyman hired Willie Wood as the first black head coach. Nine more years later, Art Shell became the first black coach in the National Football League with Oakland Raiders. Fritz Pollard was the first Black head coach in the NFL before segregation. Michael Clemons served as the first black head coach in the Grey Cup, coaching the Argonauts to the Cup victory in 2004, two years before Tony Dungy coached the Indianapolis Colts to victory in the Super Bowl XLI.

General managers:

General manager of the Saskatchewan Roughriders from December 24, 1999, until August 21, 2006, Roy Shivers was the first black general manager in professional football. General manager of the Edmonton Eskimos from December 10, 2012, until April 7, 2017, Ed Hervey was the first black general manager to win the Grey Cup in the Canadian Football League. League commissioner: On March 17, 2015, the CFL named American-born Jeffrey Orridge as its commissioner. He is the first Black commissioner in the CFL's history and, at his appointment, the first (and only) non-white head of a major North American sports league. Due to philosophical differences between Orridge and the Board of Governors of the CFL, Orridge announced he would step down as commissioner effective June 30, 2017. Black quarterbacks were commonplace in the CFL in the 1970s, two decades before becoming prominent in the NFL.

Undrafted in the NFL, Warren Moon won five Grey Cups in six seasons before becoming, helping to erase the prejudice that black quarterbacks could not succeed in professional football. Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins became the first black quarterback in the history of the Super Bowl in 1988. IN GREY CUP GAMES, the CFL had already seen Moon, Damon Allen, Roy Dewalt, Danny Barrett, J.C. Watts, Condredge Holloway, and Chuck Ealey. Drake University player Johnny Bright the victim of a racist assault in what is now known as the Johnny Bright Incident turned down an offer to play for Philadelphia Eagles. They chose him fifth overall in the 1952 National Football League draft. Bright elected to sign with the Calgary Stampeders instead, later commenting, "I would have been their (the Eagles') first Negro player. There was a tremendous influx of Southern players into the NFL at that time, and I didn't know what kind of treatment I could expect".

In 1959, following his third straight season as the CFL's rushing leader, Bright won the CFL's Most Outstanding Player Award, the first black CFL player to be honored. The CFL gained advantages through the recruitment of Black players. African American players in the CFL outperformed their white counterparts in several areas. CFL teams that employed the highest percentage of Blacks were those teams that had the most on-field success. Yes, there was racism in the CFL. According to legendary player Cookie Gilchrist, the only player to have refused induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, there was citing racism and exploitation by team management. Whether Gilchrist's perspective was accurate is unclear; Gilchrist had developed paranoia due to chronic head concussion trauma in his later years.

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