Were the Detroit Lions discriminatory when it came to fielding Black players?

Oct 28, 2020 at 1:00 am
click to enlarge Bob Mann became one of the first Black players to join the Detroit Lions in 1948. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Bob Mann became one of the first Black players to join the Detroit Lions in 1948.

During the 1950s, the Detroit Lions were a football dynasty — an era that local author Richard Bak revisits in his new book, When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Painted Turtle). Coached by Raymond “Buddy” Parker and featuring such Hall of Famers as quarterback Bobby Layne, halfback Doak Walker, and linebacker Joe Schmidt, the Lions won four division titles and three National Football League championships between 1952 and 1957. However, there was rarely a Black face in the huddle. In this excerpt, Bak explores the team’s slow-footed desegregation, a subject with particular resonance as today’s NFL struggles to accommodate activism within its now majority-Black player ranks.

"I didn't take nothing from anyone. In a football game ... I hit the Black guy as hard as I hit the white guy. I didn't think about color when I was playing. On occasion I'd get a little trouble. I was called 'nigger' a few times, and all that would do was make me play a little harder, hit them harder."—John Henry Johnson

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On Dec. 1, 1955, the Detroit Lions assembled at Briggs Stadium for what normally was "defense day," Thursdays being the only day during the regular season when Buddy Parker had the entire team practice in full pads. This time, however, Parker devoted the day to tweaking some offensive formations as the team prepared for its upcoming game with the Bears.

That same afternoon, several hundred miles to the south, a serene-looking seamstress named Rosa Parks went ahead with her own version of defense day, protecting her seat and her dignity in a calculated act of defiance that kicked off the modern civil rights movement. The activist was arrested after refusing to surrender her seat to a white man on a segregated city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The ensuing Montgomery bus boycott thrust a local Baptist minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., onto the national stage and highlighted the difficult task of remedying the state-sponsored discrimination that the Supreme Court had just declared unconstitutional. The previous year, in the landmark case of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Supreme Court justices had decided that the separation of races in the classroom was inherently unequal. A historic precedent had been set, and ultimately discriminatory practices in housing, bank lending, employment, and voting would be struck down as well. This monumental societal shift wouldn't come easy. It would take years of marches, sit-ins, beatings, hosings, bombings, murders, and federal intervention before the web of discriminatory state and local laws, ordinances, and practices — known collectively in the South as Jim Crow — was dismantled.

Detroit, to where Parks and her family moved in 1957, was considered by many southern Blacks to be more desirable than the dusty little towns they continued to leave in droves during the postwar years, even as increased automation and consolidation in the auto industry caused the number of unskilled factory jobs to dry up. Upon their arrival in Detroit, transplants discovered to their dismay that in many respects it was still like living in an alien environment. The only difference was that segregation in the North was de facto, the patterns of discrimination ingrained through custom, not law.

Although Detroit's Black population would pass 400,000 during the 1950s, until late in the decade there was no Black representation on city council, there were no Blacks playing for the Detroit Tigers, and policemen patrolled the streets in segregated squad cars. Detroit was the home of the modern labor movement and the membership of the United Auto Workers was one-quarter Black, yet there still wasn't a single minority on the UAW's executive board. When a local firebrand named Coleman Young Jr. visited the offices of The Detroit News, every reporter, editor, printer, and secretary he encountered was white.

"I did stumble upon a couple of Black men mopping the floor in the lobby," the future mayor recalled in his autobiography, "and when I asked how many Blacks worked in the building, they said, 'You're looking at 'em.'"

During the 1950s, the dilapidated, overcrowded east-side neighborhood where most Blacks lived was in the process of being demolished in the name of urban renewal. (Disaffected citizens called it "urban removal.") The residents being displaced by the Chrysler Freeway and Lafayette Park were not welcome in most areas of the city or the suburbs. Whereas Detroit was roughly one-quarter Black by the late 1950s, in its three largest suburbs — Dearborn, Livonia, and Warren — there was, collectively, just one African American resident for every 2,000 whites. In Grosse Pointe, realtors worked with property owners to employ a secret coding system that kept "undesirables" out. Dearborn, where Parker and several other members of the Lions organization lived, was so overtly racist under Mayor Orville Hubbard that a Montgomery newspaper covering the bus boycott featured it in a 1956 story about northern cities whose conditions most closely resembled those found in the Jim Crow South.

Intentionally or not, during the 1950s the Lions were a microcosm of the segregated Motor City. Between 1950 and 1957, there never was more than one Black on the roster at any given time. For most of that period, there were none. During a six-season stretch, from 1951 through 1956, the Lions fielded just two Black players — defensive linemen Harold Turner and Walter Jenkins — who appeared in a total of five regular-season games between them.

Bill Matney, Russ Cowans, and other members of the Black press considered the Lions a historically racist organization. Just how fair that characterization was remains open to debate. It was true that the championship squads of 1952 and 1953 didn't have a single Black face in the huddle, making the Lions the last team to win an NFL title with an all-white roster.

click to enlarge The 1953 Detroit Lions. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
The 1953 Detroit Lions.

But it also was true that, a few years earlier, the entire league had just seven Black players — and three of them wore Detroit uniforms. Were the Lions discriminatory, or merely discriminating, when it came to fielding Blacks? Buddy Parker insisted it was the latter. "I just hadn't been able to find one I thought good enough to play for me," he said in 1957.

Parker claimed he had tried to make a deal for Joe Perry, who in 1953–54 became the first NFL back ever to rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons, but San Francisco "wouldn't even talk to me about Perry."

However, the 49ers were willing to talk to Parker about Perry's teammate, the intimidating John Henry Johnson, who had spent his first three NFL seasons rattling molars on both sides of the scrimmage line. In the spring of 1957, the 49ers, looking to upgrade their defense, agreed to send Johnson to Detroit for Bill Stits and Bill Bowman. "Johnson is the kind of fullback I've been trying to get for quite a while," Parker said.

Johnson was the only Black player on the Lions' roster in 1957, but his presence still represented progress, of a sort. For a long spell, no Blacks were considered good enough to play in the NFL. A modest number of African Americans had suited up at various times during the league's wild, formative stage between 1920 and 1933. Historians have identified at least 13, though none played on the succession of short-lived franchises that operated in Detroit during this period. Then the door slammed shut.

The freeze-out coincided with the ascendancy of George Preston Marshall, who became the sole owner of the Boston Redskins in 1933 and subsequently moved them to Washington, D.C. An innovator who introduced fight songs, halftime shows, marching bands, split divisions, guaranteed gates, and a balanced schedule to the NFL, Marshall's showy broad-mindedness narrowed to an unseemly recalcitrance on matters of race. "We'll start signing Negroes," he famously said, "when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites."

For a dozen seasons, 1934 through 1945, not a single Black person played in the monochromatic NFL. Moreover, no Blacks were selected in the league's annual college draft, from its inception in 1936 through 1948, despite there being no shortage of quality players to choose from. Throughout the Great Depression and World War II, club owners, even those moderates who might have considered lifting the unofficial ban on Blacks, followed the persuasive Marshall's lead.

World War II saw a steady migration of southerners, Black and white, to the industrial North to work in the defense plants. In overcrowded Detroit, America's "arsenal of democracy," it was a combustible mix. There were incidents of white factory workers refusing to work alongside Blacks. Violence accompanied attempts to desegregate public housing. Black newcomers experienced the same institutionalized racism they had hoped to leave behind in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. They found some favorite activities, such as an excursion ride on the Bob-lo boats or dancing at the Graystone Ballroom, limited to a single day set aside each week for "colored customers."

In June 1943, the tensions erupted into a full-fledged race riot that remains among the deadliest in the nation's history. Days of rioting claimed the lives of 34 Detroiters. Twenty-five of the victims were Black, and most of them had been shot by the nearly all-white police department. Martial law was declared, and federal troops were brought in to restore order at bayonet point.

"Younger people don't know how ugly America was in those days," said Wally Triplett, who once had a scholarship rescinded when the university discovered he was Black. "It was just a horrible time." Triplett, a Penn State Nittany Lion turned Detroit Lion, remembered fans in some stadiums screaming "Kill that nigger!" during his college and pro careers.

click to enlarge Wally Triplett played for the Detroit Lions from 1949–50. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Wally Triplett played for the Detroit Lions from 1949–50.

The battles on the home front exposed the hypocrisy of the world's mightiest democracy fighting for freedom in Europe and Asia while tolerating a segregated society at home. In 1946, the same year Jackie Robinson signed a minor-league contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers (he would integrate major league baseball the following season), the NFL began its own process of reintegration.

It was slow and not entirely by choice. The defending champion Rams, who had just relocated from Cleveland to Los Angeles, were pressured by the commissioners of Memorial Coliseum to field Black players or lose the right to play home games at the publicly funded stadium. In response, the Rams signed halfback Kenny Washington and end Woody Strode, both of whom had played in the UCLA backfield with Robinson before the war. That same autumn, the All-America Football Conference started play, creating new opportunities. By 1949, the AAFC fielded 20 Black players, nearly three times the number who played in the NFL.

No AAFC team benefited more than Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns, whose roster of stars included fullback Marion Motley and linebacker Bill Willis. Acceptance came grudgingly, Motley said. "Of course, the opposing players called us 'nigger' and all kinds of names like that. This went on for about two or three years, until they found out that Willis and I was ballplayers. Then they stopped that shit. They found out that while they were calling us names, I was running by 'em and Willis was knocking the shit out of them. So they stopped calling us names and started trying to catch up with us."

The Lions fielded their first Black players in 1948, the year ownership changed hands and Bo McMillan was hired. McMillan's success at Indiana was due in part to his having run an integrated program. According to the Afro American newspaper, the 1947 Hoosiers "had more colored gridmen than any large squad in the country."

In April 1948, one of McMillan's "sepia stars" at Indiana, halfback Mel Groomes, became the first Black player to sign a contract with the Lions. Bob Mann, an end on the University of Michigan's 1947 undefeated national champions, quickly became the second. Both men, passed over in the NFL draft and signed as free agents, played the 1948 and '49 seasons with Detroit. Groomes was hampered by a broken wrist and appeared in a total of nine games before entering the air force. Mann, known for his good hands and precise routes, was a far more productive receiver, setting several team records.

In 1949, the NFL held a historic draft. For the first time, Blacks were selected, a consequence of their demonstrated excellence in the rival AAFC. The Lions picked halfback Wally Triplett, characterized by one reporter as "the Negro bundle of power from Penn State," in the 19th round. Triplett became the first Black draftee to play in the NFL. (He was not the first Black NFL draft choice, however. That honor went to Groomes's former Indiana teammate, back George Taliaferro, who was selected in an earlier round by the Chicago Bears but chose to play with the Los Angeles Dons of the AAFC.)

Over the years, Mann and Triplett offered differing accounts of their reception in the Detroit locker room. On balance, it appears that such clubhouse leaders as "Bullet Bill" Dudley and players from integrated college programs — Michigan's John Greene and Notre Dame's Gus Cifelli and John Panelli — were most open to their new Negro teammates. "I just thought he was here to make our ball club better," Dudley, a courtly Virginian, said of his introduction to Mann. "And I was all for it."

To outsiders, at least, the Lions appeared admirably progressive. There were only seven Blacks in the entire NFL in 1949, and three of them — Mann, Groomes, and Triplett — played for Detroit. There almost was a fourth. Richard Boykin, a rangy 220-pound fullback from Ohio coal country with no college experience, was signed to a contract in early 1949. Boykin came to camp, but was cut and returned to playing for the semipro Ironton Bengals.

“Bo could have ended all that. He was supposed to be Mr. Great Liberal. . . . He had a chance to be a hero, step up to the plate, but he didn’t do it.”

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However, during the 1949 preseason the Lions' "colored contingent" learned there was a limit to the club's liberalism. The team was scheduled to play an exhibition game against Philadelphia in New Orleans, a city where mixing races on the athletic field was forbidden. Before the team left Detroit, McMillan called his trio of Black players into his office. He explained that the sponsors of the game were leaving it up to him as to whether he wanted to risk the consequences of breaking the local color bar. McMillan ultimately decided that he would not risk tackling Jim Crow on his own home turf. The players could make the trip, but they would be held out of the game. Moreover, they would not be able to stay with the rest of the team at their hotel but would instead be lodged at a Black boardinghouse.

Recalling the incident in 2005, a year before his death, Mann angrily said: "Bo told us he didn't think he should be the one to break it. I thought to myself, 'Fine, that's his decision.' Bo could have ended all that. He was supposed to be Mr. Great Liberal. . . . He had a chance to be a hero, step up to the plate, but he didn't do it."

In McMillan's defense, he had a right to be worried. North or south, racial animosities occasionally spilled onto the gridiron. A few weeks after the Lions' exhibition in New Orleans, a pair of unbeaten downriver Detroit high school teams met in a showdown for the league championship. The host team, Melvindale, fielded an all-white squad. The visiting River Rouge team had seven Blacks in its starting lineup (including Howard McCants, who five years later would be one of the few Black collegians drafted by Buddy Parker). Epitaphs flew freely and, by game's end, so did fists. A riot involving several hundred fans ensued, resulting in the game being forfeited to River Rouge. Blacks complained to police of being attacked without provocation, with the injured including a middle-aged couple dragged from their car by knife-wielding whites. Four people were seriously hurt, with three of them suffering stab wounds.

Police seemed reluctant to investigate too deeply. They pointed to the teams' long rivalry and maintained the melee was fought along school lines. Local civil rights leaders were unconvinced. Coming just six years after the '43 riot, the violence was the latest reminder that the city was still a vat of racial tensions, bubbling away on slow boil.

"This was not a happy town by any means," Triplett said. "We'd just finished a race riot. Because of restrictive covenants, Blacks had to live in certain areas of town. The police department was racist. You couldn't be in certain areas at certain times." However, in many other ways, Detroit "was a beautiful town," Triplett continued. "My dad loved it when he visited from Philadelphia." Triplett fondly recalled Paradise Valley, where he spent probably too much time and money. "Man, the Black-and-Tans, everybody got along. The speakeasies would come alive at two in the morning. You could walk the street then. You'd put your hat in the back seat of a convertible, and at 6 a.m. it'd still be there."

Mann, who liked Detroit so well that he settled there after his playing days were over, experienced the same schizophrenic relationship. "It was an unusual city," he said. "It was bad in one way and great in another. The places that were available were just wonderful."

One such place was the Gotham Hotel, run by local gambling kingpin John White. The twin-towered complex of shops and rooms on Orchestra Place was one of the centers of Detroit's Black social life. It hosted Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, the Harlem Globetrotters, and other notables who couldn't stay at white hotels. Mann, a fashionably attired man with processed hair and an Errol Flynn pencil mustache, was tipped off by hotel staff whenever an attractive actress or singer checked in. "Segregation was bad," he said wryly, "but it had some good points."

In 1949, Mann enjoyed the best season yet by a Black player in the NFL. He had 66 catches, second only to Tom Fears of Los Angeles, and led all receivers with 1,014 yards, one more than Fears. A pay raise was a reasonable expectation for the man who had just set franchise records for receptions and receiving yardage. Instead, Edwin Anderson, citing the financial losses the Lions had incurred during the recently concluded war with the AAFC, wanted Mann to take a $1,500 pay cut for the 1950 season. This would have slashed his salary from $7,500 to $6,000. Mann refused to sign a contract.

Complicating negotiations was Mann's off-season sales job with Goebel Brewery, of which Anderson was president. In the summer of 1950, two long-time Goebel employees, both white, were given a distributorship whose delivery area was in a predominantly Black section of Detroit. A group called Business Sales Inc. protested that the distributorship should have gone to a Negro and organized a boycott of the beer maker. The boycott collapsed when Black bar owners and businessmen, made aware that Goebel employed far more minorities than any other brewery in town, decided not to support the activists.

Anderson believed Mann was somehow involved with Business Sales. On the day players reported to training camp in Ypsilanti, Mann lost his brewery job. Four days later, he was sent to the New York Yanks (formerly the Bulldogs). This completed the transaction that had brought Bobby Layne to Detroit.

Mann later recalled the whole unhappy episode as "just a whole lot of mess." But it was to get worse. He played only three minutes for the Yanks during the entire exhibition season. When he did get on the field, the quarterback was instructed not to throw to him. Mann was told he was "too small" and then waived out of the league — bewildering treatment for one of the NFL's top receivers.

"I must have been blackballed — it just doesn't make sense that I'm suddenly not good enough to make a single team in the league," the out-of-work end said two months into the regular season. When Mann successfully applied for unemployment compensation, Goebel Brewery appealed the decision. "While Bob is just now arriving at the conclusion that he was 'railroaded' out of the league, fans saw through the maneuver when it was made," Russ Cowans wrote at the time. "The word was probably passed along that Mann is a 'bad character' and should be shoved out of the league."

Finally, the lowly Green Bay Packers signed Mann with just one game left on the 1950 schedule. Green Bay was the league's version of Siberia — a frozen outpost filled with white folks who figured to be less than welcoming to the team's first Black player. "Green Bay was a little town, but rough," Triplett said. "They let you know how they felt." According to Mann, there were only two other Black people in all of Green Bay when he arrived — a hotel porter and a railroad cook — so he got the head coach's permission to regularly drive his Chrysler New Yorker to Chicago and Milwaukee to socialize.

Mann's closest friend on the Packers was tackle Dick Afflis, an exceptionally violent person who demonstrated little patience for those who couldn't see beyond his teammate's skin color. "I was hailing a cab in Baltimore once, but the driver wouldn't let me in," Mann recalled. "Dick opened the passenger door and pulled the guy onto the sidewalk and quickly convinced him to take me."

Mann played for the Packers until he suffered a career-ending knee injury in 1954, the same year Afflis quit the NFL to embark on a full-time wrestling career in the Detroit-Windsor area under the ring name of "Dick the Bruiser."