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Before Jackie Robinson, There Was Kenny Washington

Washington broke the NFL color barrier in Los Angeles.

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Though many people credit Jackie Robinson with breaking the color barrier in sports, there is someone else who deserves recognition: Kenny Washington. Back in 1946, football was a pretty insignificant sport in Los Angeles. But that year, the Cleveland Rams moved to LA, and the team wanted to play in the publicly-owned Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Since black taxpayers had paid for the stadium’s construction just like everyone else, local black sportswriters saw an opportunity to address the fact that there were no black players in the NFL. Halley Harding of The Los Angeles Tribune led a group that urged the Coliseum Commission to deny use of the stadium to any organization discriminating against blacks, writes Timeline.

Harding met with the commission, and during the meeting, spoke of former UCLA star Kenny Washington as a hometown hero, and also reminded everyone of the sacrifices made by black soldiers in World War II. The commission’s president signed a resolution guaranteeing integration, and soon after, Harding convinced Rams general manager to sign Washington. This was a year before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, according to Timeline. 

“Black newspapers claimed a major barrier had fallen in pro sports. White dailies emphasized that Washington’s signing in no way set a precedent for the hiring of other African Americans,” Gretchen Atwood wrote in her chronicle of the NFL’s integration, Lost Champions, reports Timeline. 

Robinson and Washington had been teammates at UCLA, and when Washington was signed, Robinson said, “He’s a great football player and Los Angeles will make a lot of money with him in the lineup. People will come from far and near to see him play.”

At UCLA, Washington rushed for 9,975 yards throughout his career, which was a school record for 56 years. Washington was one of four black players on the 1939 UCLA Bruins football team, and his former players have commented on how strong he was in the face of racial slurs and discrimination. His number 13 jersey was the first to be retired at UCLA. Before playing with the Rams, Washington underwent surgery on both knees, but he recovered before the start of the Rams’ training camp.

Washington went on to appear in a number of Hollywood films. Check out some of the images below of Washington over the years.

1939-Los Angeles, CA: Portrait (L to R) of UCLA football players Woodrow Strode, Jack Robinson and Kenny Washington.
University of California at Los Angeles Bruins football player Kenny Washington leaps high into the air with a football. (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
A gallant 82-yard march in the final five minutes of play earned the University of California at Los Angeles football team a 13 to 13 tie with Oregon State College in a wide-open battle staged before 40,000 fans. Statistics showed the two teams played on practically an even basis with a slight advantage to UCLA. Photo shows- UCLA right half Jackie Robinson (28) being stopped after receiving and 8-yard pass from teammate Kenny Washington. #56 is Oregon State’s right tackle Walter Jelsma.
In commemoration of the 85th anniversary of the first football game, these former football greats pose at a Touchdown Club luncheon November 5th. Left to right, front row: Morley Drury, of U.S.C.; Alonzo Stagg, Chicago U.; and Dr. Harold P. (Brick) Muller, University of California. Left to right (rear): Mel Hein, Washington State (now U.S.C. line coach); and Kenny Washington, U.C.L.A.
UCLA’s Kenny Washington poses for a picture. (AP Photo)
UCLA tailback and Los Angeles Rams running back Kenny Washington is shown in this 1948 Leaf Gum Company football trading card, shown Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Washington played alongside Jackie Robinson at UCLA and in 1946 became one of the first black players in the NFL after a 12-year ban. The Met is presenting a pop-up exhibition celebrating football’s history through the ages with vintage trading cards. The 150 cards, including a series from 1894, are part of approximately 600 football cards from the museum’s vast collection of sport trade cards donated to the Met by the late hobby pioneer Jefferson Burdick. The exhibit runs Jan. 24 through Feb. 10. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
UCLA halfback Kenny Washington is pictured, Dec. 6, 1939. (AP Photo)
Publicity still portrait of American football player and actor Kenny Washington (1918 – 1971), 1940. (John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)
UCLA football players (LTR): Woodrow Strode, Jack Robinson and Kenny Washington. (Getty Images)
Publicity still portrait of American football player Kenny Washington in the film ‘Crooked Money’ (Toddy Pictures), Los Angeles, California, 1940. (John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)
One sheet movie poster advertises the all-black-cast football drama ‘While Thousands Cheer’ (Million Dollar Productions), starring Kenny Washington, Mantan Moreland, Pete Webster, Jeni Le Gon, Reginald Fenderson, Laurence Criner, Monte Hawley, and Florence O’Brien, 1940. (John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)
Read full story at Timeline