One of Los Angeles’ most historic contributions to breaking U.S. sports’ color barrier is known to few Angelenos, and can’t be found in most history books. But Greg Nelson, former chief of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, is hoping to change all that.
Nelson, a student of city politics and history, was the longtime chief of staff to former City Councilman Joel Wachs. Now he is about to request that the Los Angeles City Council formally recognize players Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, and outspoken journalist Halley Harding, for their roles in integrating the Los Angeles Rams football team in 1946 — a year before Jackie Robinson broke the U.S. color barrier in Major League Baseball.
Nelson had never heard of Washington or the others when a friend one day asked him who had been the “Jackie Robinson” of football. What he found proved intriguing — and surprisingly incomplete.
The Rams moved to Los Angeles from Cleveland in January 1946. The team’s first task was leasing a stadium. In the days before merchandising deals and television contracts, professional franchises lived and died over ticket sales, which made the 98,000-seat-plus Los Angeles Coliseum the only viable option.
That year, Rams general manager Charles “Chili” Walsh flew in from Cleveland for a Los Angeles Coliseum Commission meeting on January 15, armed with a proposed game schedule and potential contract terms. But Walsh hadn’t counted on dealing with reporter Harding, who covered sports for the Los Angeles Tribune, a now-defunct black weekly.
At the meeting, Harding told team executives and the commission that it was only fair that the Rams should hire Negro players if they were going to benefit financially from using the publicly owned stadium. He summarized the history of early black pioneers who had played in the NFL before the league instituted an unwritten color ban in 1933. He spoke of the sacrifices of black soldiers in World War II, and urged the team to hire Kenny Washington, former star at L.A.’s Lincoln High, and UCLA’s first All-American.
Manager Walsh promised to try out any qualified Negro player, and commission president Leonard Roach pledged that no one would be barred on the basis of skin color. Roach asked Walsh and Harding to carry on the discussion outside the Coliseum Commission meeting.
Few accounts of these events describe what later transpired. On March 21, 1946, the Rams signed Kenny Washington and, soon after, his former Bruins teammate Woody Strode, also black.
Much of the credit for Washington’s signing has gone to commission president Roach. In later interviews, Rams general manager Walsh implied Roach made integration a precondition of the stadium lease, despite the lease’s having been granted months before Washington was hired. Several books, notably Outside the Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League, by Charles K. Ross, and America’s Game, by Michael MacCambridge, repeat that claim.
David Israel, current president of the L.A. Coliseum Commission, touted Roach’s purported demand for integration several years ago at a local Rams alumni event. “I got [that information] from the MacCambridge book,” he says, adding, “I was usually the only one in the room who even knew these guys’ names.”
But, in fact, Harding’s actions were more critical in convincing the Rams to hire Washington than has generally been acknowledged. A week after that first commission meeting, Walsh met with Harding at the Last Word, a jazz club on South Central Avenue.
Walsh and Rams PR director Maxwell Stiles ducked into the Last Word expecting to see Harding but instead found a long table packed with editors from all three major black weeklies: the Los Angeles Sentinel, the California Eagle and the Los Angeles Tribune. The meeting was covered by the Eagle and the Pittsburgh Courier, a nationally distributed black weekly. The Sentinel (the only one of the three local papers still publishing) ran a photo of the gathering.
According to the Courier’s account, Rams honchos Walsh and Stiles took their seats among the black newsmen as waiters poured cocktails. Reporter Harding pushed for a date for Washington’s tryout. Walsh backpedaled on his promise, stating that since Washington played for a local semi-pro squad, the Rams had to honor his contract with that team.Harding said he thought he could convince Washington’s general manager to let him out of that contract. If so, would Washington then get a Rams tryout? Backed into a corner, Walsh agreed. And so, the black weeklies reported that Washington’s team would not stand in the way of his shot at the NFL.
Harding and other black sportswriters “applied a lot of political pressure,” says author Ross. “[The Rams] had just moved here and wanted to play the games and make money. They didn’t need black writers writing about this.”
And write about it Harding did, almost weekly. Several months later, something happened that further suggests Roach’s impact on the Rams’ decision to sign Washington has been overstated. Reporter Harding had returned to the Coliseum Commission meetings, this time arguing that another local team, the L.A. Dons, should have their lease canceled. The Dons, a new franchise in an expansion league, had promised to try out Negro players but took no further steps to do so.
According to the minutes of one meeting, the commission did not believe it was “in our province to tell the Dons or anyone whom they could or could not hire.” After Harding left, the commission agreed, “While [the Dons] were not being ordered to be present at such a meeting, that an effort should be made to get these representatives together for a discussion.” Roach was absent but signed the minutes later without comment. The Dons would not hire black players until the following season.
Neither Washington nor Strode lasted more than three years with the Rams. However, their influence on sports integration beyond L.A. was significant. In the summer of 1946, a coach in Cleveland, Paul Brown, was considering signing Marion Motley and Bill Willis to his new AAFC squad, the Cleveland Browns, but worried about the potential racial backlash.
Coach Brown read about the Rams’ signing of Washington and Strode that spring, and later that summer invited Motley and Willis to training camp. Both men starred for the Cleveland Browns for years.
In New York, Branch Rickey, then–general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, noted the relative political calm that greeted these four men on the field. Some writers and historians speculate that response influenced Rickey’s decision to promote Jackie Robinson to the major leagues in April 1947.
In the end, Greg Nelson believes, the story comes back to the gutsy journalist Harding. “The role of Halley Harding totally floored me,” Nelson says. “What he did is a reminder that every great achievement began with the actions of a single person.”
Dr. Christopher Jimenez y West, history curator at L.A.’s California African American Museum, says Harding’s role has broader importance. “Why is the centrality of the African-American experience in the growth of this metropolis underrepresented and underanalyzed?” West asks. “Because it is not understood to be central.”
Nelson believes the time is right for City Hall to acknowledge these men — Kenny Washington, Woody Strode and Halley Harding — a sentiment shared by Julian Rogers, chairman of L.A.’s Southeast Area Neighborhood Council. “When we lose the history, we lose the ability to progress with knowledge of how well things worked or didn’t work in the past,” says Rogers, who is mobilizing council colleagues behind Nelson’s proposal. “This story should inspire anyone who cares … to uncover the jewels of our history.”