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Big Ten Countdown: 8 - Nebraska's George Flippin And A History of Black Football Players in the Big Ten

We're coming near the end of Nebraska's time in the Big 12. Our countdown to the Big Ten has featured quite a variety of topics. It wouldn't be complete, however, with an examination of the history of black football players - at least those involving Big Ten teams that now includes Nebraska. This isn't as extensive as I'd like to make it, and only touches the surface of the subject. 

There has been very little written about black athletes in college athletics. The information is out there, but it's not readily available, and certainly nowhere near common knowledge. Most articles about racial integration tend to be written during Black History Month, and then feature stories about athletes participating in professional sports. The story of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball, for example, is a pretty easy target for such articles.

Husker fans should know the story of George Flippin, Nebraska's first black football player. Flippin played for Nebraska from 1891-1894 as a halfback, and was considered huge for a man in that time, at 6' and 200 pounds and was considered a star player.

In 1892, Missouri demanded that Nebraska leave him behind for the game. Nebraska refused, and Missouri forfeited rather than take the field and play against Flippin. The Missouri game wasn't the only time Flippin faced discrimination. Earlier in the season, Nebraska traveled to Denver where Flippin was denied admission to a hotel and an opera house. His teammates supported him by walking out of both establishments. At the end of the season, Nebraska played Iowa in Omaha. The Paxton Hotel refused to give Flippin a room, but again, he had the support of his teammates. The hotel gave in, but set up a separate area for him to eat so that other patrons would not be aware that Flippin was staying in the hotel.

Flippin was also the first black player to be voted as a team captain, but the appointment was overruled by then coach Frank Crawford, who stated "It takes a man with brains to be a captain; all there is to Flippin is brute force...I don't take exception to him because he's colored, but it takes a head to be a football Captain." Perhaps Crawford's action wasn't racially motivated, but it does imply the attitude of the times - that blacks were mentally inferior to whites.

Flippin would later build the first hospital in Stromsburg, Nebraska, along with his father Charles, a freed slave, who practiced medicine in the area. George continued to practice medicine, dying in 1929.

Frank Kinney Holbrook was Iowa's first black footballer, playing in 1895 and 1896. He lead the team in rushing in 1896 and was known as the team's best defensive player. That same season Iowa played Missouri, and, like they had done with Flippin, Missouri demanded that Holbrook not play. Apparently Missouri learned their lesson earlier against Nebraska, and played, losing 12-0, with one of the touchdowns being scored by Holbrook. Missouri didn't finish the game, however, walking off the field early in the second half.  (Holbrook's name is sometimes mentioned as "Carleton William Holbrook", apparently in error.)

Iowa tackle Duke Slater deserves a mention. He played from 1918-1921. In 1921, he became Iowa's first black All-American, making first team after being named to the second team for the previous two seasons. He made first-team All Big Ten three years in a row.

Minnesota's first black football player was Robert "Bobby" Marshal, who played from 1904-1906. In 1904, Marshal was the first string end, and in the 146-0 win over Grinnel, he scored four touchdowns and 13 field goals. Later in 1905, he was a member of the All-Western team, given out by the Minnesota Journal and Chicago Tribune. In 1905, he made the All-America second team, and did so again in 1906.

George Jewett has the honor of being the first black player in the Big Ten, and the first black player at Michigan and at Northwestern. Jewett played for Michigan in 1890, and was the leading rusher, tackler, scorer, and kicker. That season he played against Oberlin, which featured John Heisman, and later played against the University of Chicago, whose roster included Amos Alonzo Stagg. Jewett was studying medicine at Michigan, and had a run-in with the Dean of Medicine and transferred to Northwestern and played for the Wildcats in 1893.

Preston Eagleson played at Indiana from 1893 to 1895. Wisconsin's first black player was Leo Vinton Butts in 1918.

Fred Patterson is accepted as both the first black student at Ohio State in 1899, and the first to suit up for the Buckeyes. Little is known about Patterson's accomplishments on the field. Patterson's father, Charles, was born a slave, and ran away to become a blacksmith. He later built carriages, and his son took over his business after his death in 1910. The younger Patterson built automobiles until the 1930s when the Great Depression destroyed his business.

Gideon Smith broke the color barrier at Michigan Agricultural College (later Michigan State) in 1913. Smith played tackle from 1913-1915, and in his first season was instrumental in defeating Michigan and leading the team to an undefeated season.

After a brief professional career in which he played with Jim Thorpe for the Canton Bulldogs (becoming the first professional black football player), Smith served during World War I and later in 1921 became the head football coach for Hampton College (later Hampton University). He coached for 20 years, and later became the athletic director until his retirement in 1955.

Black players were frequent targets of abuse both on the field and by the crowd. Iowa's Ozzie Simmons was the subject of ill feelings between Iowa and Minnesota due to rough play, and when Holbrook played against Missouri, fans urged their team to "kill the negro". 

You might have a tendency to read this, race your fist (white, black, or otherwise) towards the South, and mutter "damned racists"; but that's a little too convenient to be true. While there were some black athletes playing in the Big Ten during the 1930s -  William Bell at Ohio State, Ellsworth Harpole and Dwight Reed at Minnesota, Jesse Babb and Fitzhugh Lyons at Indiana, and James McCrary and William Baker at Michigan State -  racism remained.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln banned black athletes from competition from 1917 to the late 1940s (Corey Ross Cliff Brunt. Omaha World - Herald. Omaha, Neb.: Feb 20, 2001. p. 27) and a run through the roster photos on reveals no black players from William Johnson in 1906-07 until 1952. Nebraska's first black football captain wouldn't come until 1962, when the honor went to Bill "Thunder" Thorton.

From 1935 to 1945, Michigan State's head coach Charlie Bachman only played one black player until the arrival of Horace Smith in 1946. Smith played in every game except two against Kentucky (@Kentucky) and Mississippi State (@Michigan State), both segregated Southern institutions. In 1934, Michigan agreed to not play Willis Ward against Georgia Tech, not in Georgia, but in Ann Arbor. (John Sayles Watterson) William Bell was benched twice, once in 1930 against the Naval Academy and in 1931 against Vanderbilt. Harpole was held out in a home game against Oklahoma A&M (later Oklahoma State) in 1931 and again the next season against Ole Miss. (Oklahoma A&M would be involved in a racial incident later in 1951, severely injuring Willie Bright of Drake. Google that.) In 1935, Reed was benched in a Minnesota home game against Tulane, and again the following year in a home game against Texas.

These incidents show that northern schools were willing to go along with the institutional racism that was prevalent throughout the country. It was a well-known rule that in order to schedule games against segregated schools, black players were to be benched or not allowed to attend the games at all.

Things changed, although slowly. Penn State fans should recall Wally Triplett. In 1946, Penn State cancelled a game rather than play against Miami. Miami had requested that Triplett stay home because there was a law in Florida that forbade white and black players playing on the same field. After Bachman's reign ended at Michigan State, Biggie Munn actively recruited black players from the south, as did Murray Warmath at Minnesota.

Racial integration wouldn't come until after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. A common assertion is that integration didn't come to Alabama until they encountered USC and Sam "Bam" Cunningham in 1970. Cunningham ran for 135 yards, scoring two touchdowns in a 42-21 beat down. The comment that Cunningham "did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years" is a simple explanation to a complex and sometimes violent evolution that occurred over a period of decades (the entirety of which, frankly, is beyond the scope of what I'm willing to get into right now).

If you did a list of your favorite Husker football players, it might include the names Ndamukong Suh, Tommie Frazier, and Turner Gill. Ahman Green might make the list, along with Neil Smith, or Mike Rozier and Johnny Rodgers - two of Nebraska's three Heisman Trophy winners. A list of favorite players including that included black players would be prevalent across the entirety of college football.

Can you imagine living in a world in which those players were benched because of the color of their skin, or worse yet, hearing an entire crowd screaming at their team to kill another player because of the same?