Historians of civil rights and sports are well aware of the reluctance of the NFL’s Washington Redskins to integrate their roster in the late 1950’s. After the Detroit Lions became the eleventh (of twelve) NFL teams to add an African-American player to their ranks in 1955, Washington held out for another seven years as the League’s only lily-white team.
The Redskins’ owner, West Virginia native George Preston Marshall, declined to sign black players because he was concerned that his success in establishing the Redskins as the team of the American South would be undercut if the team was racially integrated. (In the 1950’s, NFL teams individually negotiated their network television deals, and the value of the Redskins’ TV rights was enhanced, Marshall believed, by its popularity in the South, which had no major league football teams at that time.) Others believed that Marshall’s own “Southern” views on race were a factor in his decision.
Marshall persisted in this view, even though the once-powerful Redskins had become one of the patsies of the NFL by the late 1950’s. Between 1959 and 1961, the team finished last or next to last in the NFL Eastern Division each season with a combined record of 5 wins, 30 losses, and 3 ties.
Even a series of terrible seasons could not persuade Marshall to expand the racial base of his team. It took pressure provided by the Kennedy Administration in early 1961 to finally force Marshall’s hand. The Administration viewed it as a matter of public embarrassment that the NFL team in the nation’s capital was still engaged in Jim Crow hiring practices. While there was nothing illegal about Marshall’s policy — there were no employment discrimination laws in the District of Columbia in 1961 — the Administration did have a certain type of leverage. The Redskins were scheduled to begin play in the new federally owned and funded District of Columbia Stadium (later known as Robert F. Kennedy Stadium) during the 1961 season.
The stadium was under the control of the Department of the Interior, and Interior Secretary Morris Udall threatened to withhold the right to use the new stadium unless the Redskins agreed to sign African-American players. After initially trying to call the Interior Department’s bluff by pointing out that it had hired virtually no black forest rangers, Marshall conceded, but only after Udall agreed that the integration requirement could be pushed back until the 1962 season. Marshall’s cause had not exactly been helped by the support he received from the American Nazi Party, whose members picketed outside of the new stadium carrying signs saying, a bit ironically, “Keep Our Redskins White.”
The 1961 Redskins were even worse than normal, finishing with a record of 1-12-1 with their sole win coming in the season’s final game against the expansion Dallas Cowboys. As a result of their league-worst record, they were entitled to the first pick in the 1962 college draft, which, consistent with the deal, they used to select black Heisman Trophy winner, Ernie Davis, a running back from Syracuse.
Davis had also been drafted by the Buffalo Bills of the rival American Football League, and Marshall was apparently concerned that he might not be able to sign Davis. The two previous Heisman Trophy winners, Billy Cannon (’59) and Joe Bellino (’60), ended up with AFL teams, so the Redskins shortly after the draft traded the rights to Davis to the Cleveland Browns for star African-American halfback Bobby Mitchell. Davis tragically died of leukemia before ever playing with the Browns, but Mitchell starred throughout the 1960’s for the Redskins.
Ask any Redskins fan to name the first black Redskin and he or she will almost surely answer “Bobby Mitchell.” While that is the conventional answer, it is only part of the correct answer. Moreover, the correct answer turns out to require a more specific definition of what one means by “first black Redskin.”
As it turns out, on the day that the Redskins tabbed Ernie Davis (December 4, 1961), they also selected African-American fullback Ron Hatcher of Michigan State in the eighth round of the draft. Prior to the announcement of the trade of Davis, Hatcher signed with the Redskins, thus becoming the first African-American player ever signed by the team. (Marshall, predictably, declined to be photographed with Hatcher at the time of his signing.)
Therefore, shouldn’t “Ron Hatcher” be the answer to the question “Who was the first black Redskin?” Well, not exactly. As it turns out, Hatcher played with the team during the exhibition season, but was one of the last two players cut before the opening of the 1962 season, so, while he rejoined the team later in the year, he was not on the Redskins roster on opening day. Presumably, the “first black Redskin” is the first African-American to play for the Redskins in a regular season game.
After signing Hatcher and trading for Bobby Mitchell, the Redskins had acquired two additional black players during the 1961-62 off-season: halfback Leroy Jackson and guard John Nisby. Jackson was the Browns’ first-round draft pick in 1962, and his draft rights were packaged with Mitchell and sent to Washington in exchange for the rights to Davis. He was then signed by Washington. Nisby was acquired in March from the Pittsburgh Steelers in an odd trade that sent 27-year-old Pro Bowl guard Ray Lemek from Washington to Pittsburgh for 26-year-old Pro Bowl guard John Nisby. (Lemek and Nisby had been teammates on the Eastern Conference team in the 1961 Pro Bowl.) Here Washington traded a white player for a black one.
All three of these men, Mitchell, Jackson, and Nisby, appeared in the first regular-season game of 1962, which was played in Dallas on September 16, and all three played important roles in the team’s first game as an integrated eleven. Jackson ran back two kick-offs for a total of 48 yards, and Nisby played his expected role as the anchor of the offensive line as he began another Pro Bowl season at guard. Mitchell, however, was truly spectacular as the Redskins came from behind to tie the much improved Cowboys, 35-35.
Mitchell caught touchdown passes of six and 81 yards from quarterback Norm Snead and scored a third touchdown on a 92-yeard kick-off return in the third quarter. For the game he caught 6 passes for 135 yards and led the team in total offense.
Consequently, the answer to the question of the identity of the first black Redskin is three-pronged: Bobby Mitchell, Leroy Jackson, and John Nisby. But given his performance in the game, it is understandable that Mitchell is the one player that fans remember as the Jackie Robinson of the Washington Redskins.