Monday, January 31, 2011

Treasures from the Vertical Files: Fritz Pollard’s Brown Bombers

Just in time for Super Bowl XLV, today’s treasure is a collection of football programs for the Brown Bombers, an all-black professional football team based in Harlem in the 1930s. Although many people are familiar with the Negro Baseball League, less well-known is the brief period of segregation in professional football (1933-1946), which led to the creation of all-black teams such as the Brown Bombers and Chicago Comets.

Professional football began in the 1890s in local athletic clubs. While these local teams had a small base of fans, football remained relatively obscure compared to nationally prominent pro sports, such as baseball or boxing. In an effort to popularize football, teams encouraged all talented athletes, regardless of color, to join them. Star African American players, such as Charles Follis, Paul Robeson, and Fritz Pollard, pictured below, were sought after to win games and draw spectators. Nevertheless, black players faced verbal and physical abuse from white fans and opponents. Hotels and restaurants that excluded black players caused indignities and logistical problems when teams travelled.

By the late 1920s, as football became more accepted nationally and white players vied to join teams, team owners began releasing black players. The high unemployment rates of the Great Depression put additional pressure on teams to hire white players. In addition, owners wanted to avoid the controversy of integrated teams in order to retain their new-found audiences. As a result, in 1933, white team owners in the National Football League (NFL) formed an unwritten, “gentleman’s agreement” to bar black players from the league. Although a few regional leagues continued to hire a handful of black players, the NFL dominated the sport.

In response, Fritz Pollard, a former pro football player and coach, assembled and coached the all-black Brown Bombers in 1935. Based at Dyckman Oval in Harlem, the Bombers provided a showcase where talented black players could compete professionally. Pollard hoped to counter the obviously false claims by white team owners that they could not find capable black players. Pollard also attempted to schedule exhibition games against local white teams to show that black and white football players could compete without incident. Pollard recruited former top African American players from white and black colleges, as well as some non-college players. At one point, Howard “Dixie” Matthews, pictured below, a former end for the Providence Steam Roller, anchored the Bombers.

Despite the talented roster, the Brown Bombers struggled to overcome low attendance. In order to draw audiences, Pollard instituted stunts and unusual plays. The Bombers’ truckin’ and singing as they proceeded to the scrimmage line became a trademark of the team. The Bombers also developed unorthodox formations, such as the “aeroplane shift” to mystify their opponents and entertain crowds. Although the Bombers’ showmanship was popular with Harlem fans and increased game attendance, the team still did not make enough money to generate a profit.

In 1938, a competing team gained exclusive use of Dyckman Oval, leaving the Bombers without a suitable stadium in which to play their home games. Discouraged by the loss of their home and white team owners’ continued failure to sign his players, Pollard resigned as coach of the team. The Bombers continued as a road team until the early 1940s.

Efforts by civil rights organizations eventually led to the desegregation of professional sports, including the reintegration of the NFL in 1946. Unfortunately, by that time, most of the great black players of the 1930s were too old or too injured to play in NFL. However, by creating opportunities for African Americans to play pro football and by battling segregation, Fritz Pollard and the Brown Bombers formed an underappreciated front in the Civil Rights Movement.


John Carrol, Fritz Pollard: A Pioneer in Racial Advancement (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992)

Charles K. Ross, Outside the Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League (New York: New York University Press, 1999)

Posted by Krystal Appiah, Brown University, former AARL Archives Intern

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