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Name change controversey opens team's past racist wounds

Redskins logo
Redskins logo
Photo by TJ Root/Getty Images

Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder continues to be adamant about refusing to change the moniker of his National Football League franchise despite vocal opposition of it being a racial slur to Native Americans. Snyder continues to stand on what he says is the team’s “great history and tradition” that is associated with the name as one reason for his refusal. However, the first 30 years of the team’s “great tradition” were purposely without African American football players; a fact current African American Redskin fans need to remember when deciding if they agree with Snyder’s decision. Washington, D.C. commercial laundry magnate George Preston Marshall bought the Boston pro football franchise in 1932. Originally he named it the Boston Braves, but changed it to the Boston Redskins. Born in West Virginia, Marshall was a vocal remnant of the old South’s customs and attitudes concerning race. Fritz Pollard, Paul Robeson, and eleven other African Americans played at one time or another in the National Football League from when the league was officially formed in 1922 through 1933. However, with the NFL beginning to grow in popularity and Marshall’s vocally negative attitude about race influencing other owners, African Americans were banned from playing NFL football beginning in 1934. Moving his team to Washington DC, in 1937, making it the only franchise south of the Mason-Dixon line at that time, Marshall made it the NFL face of the Confederacy. “Dixie”, the anthem of the Confederacy was played before the Star Spangled Banner prior to the start of games. Marshall advised coaches to draft players mainly from colleges in southern states. He perpetuated the image of Washington, D.C. being an old southern town despite the growth of its African American population during and after World War II. After the NFL allowed African Americans to play beginning in 1946, Marshall kept the Redskins all white. As Jim Brown, Jim Perry, Lenny Moore, Dick “Night Train” Lane, and other African American players made a notable impact in the league, the Redskins were having only three winning seasons from 1950 – 1961. They were the last National Football League team to sign African American players. DC Stadium, where the Redskins had planned to play in 1962, was built on land owned by the US Department of the Interior. The team had to comply with federal anti-discrimination laws to rent the field for its games. Under pressure from the other NFL owners, Marshall drafted 1961 Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis, an African American. After Davis refused to play for the Redskins, they traded him to the Cleveland Browns for Bobby Mitchell who in 1962 became the first African American to play for the team. African American Redskin fans have the right to agree with Snyder’s decision. But they need to remember the tradition he bases it was racist towards African Americans players for many years. If racism framed the team’s make up during those early years, would it not also have framed the team’s name?