Since the late nineteenth century, Iowa’s African Americans have participated in a variety of sports and contributed in profound ways to Iowa’s sporting culture. In the United States, African Americans experienced severe discrimination in sports as in other activities, but fought long and hard to overcome racism. In Iowa, as elsewhere, African Americans frequently used achievement in sports as a way to come together as a community. From the segregated playing fields of yesterday to the more open playing fields of today, Iowa contains countless African American sports stories that remind us of the broader struggle for civil rights in America. This exhibit displays just a few of these amazing stories.
The African American Museum of Iowa would like to thank the following for making this exhibit possible:
Tom and Nan Riley, Richard and Norma Small, The Community Fund of the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, The Merveaux Donor Special Interest Fund of the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, the Historical Resource Development Program of the State Historical Society of Iowa, Collins Community Credit Union, Dave Engle, Ortha Harstad, True North Companies, Worley Warehousing, Toyota Financial Services and Laura Tyus, Sara, Jesse and Steven Small in honor of their parents and grandparents Richard and Norma Small.
Baseball was the most popular sport in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. While it was very rare for African Americans to play on an integrated baseball teams, it did occasionally happen, generally before racial attitudes hardened about 1910.
Frank Armstrong was the first African American to graduate from Cornell College in Mount Vernon. He was captain of the baseball team his final year at Cornell. At commencement, he introduced the speaker, Booker T. Washington, and so impressed Washington that he hired Armstrong to be his assistant. Armstrong went on to become a physician in Chicago.
Any Iowa town with a large enough African American population fielded a team from the 1890’s to the 1940’s. Teams were generally segregated, as were leagues if the town was large enough to have them. However, African American teams often played white teams from surrounding communities. Rivalry turned to admiration as many of these players were good enough to have played professional baseball, if only it had been allowed. Keokuk Baseball team, circa 1890’s ~Courtesy Shane Etter
Frederick “Duke” Slater, a Clinton High School graduate, played football at the University of Iowa from 1918 to 1921. Although he helped to lead Iowa to an undefeated season in 1921, he never finished higher than second team All-American. Only later was the injustice corrected. Slater played professional football for a few years and earned a law degree from Iowa. He later served as a prominent judge in Illinois and remained a big supporter of Hawkeye athletics. Duke Slater, 1921 ~Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries
African American players were often forced to endure unusually rough play. One of the best known examples of this, Jack Trice, was the first African American to play football at Iowa State University (then Iowa State College). Trice joined the team in 1923. Iowa State’s first three opponents that year refused to play the game if Trice was on the field and so he sat out these games. Trice’s first game was against the University of Minnesota and he died as a result of injuries sustained in that game. The stadium at Iowa State was named in Trice’s honor in 1997, 74 years after his death.
Ozzie Simmons and his brother, Don, rode the rails up from Fort Worth, Texas in 1933 to play football at the University of Iowa. In his three years at Iowa, Simmons gained more than 1,500 yards, averaging 5 yards a carry. Simmons too often suffered verbal and physical abuse. In the 1934 Iowa-Minnesota game, fans were upset when Simmons was repeatedly roughed up by Minnesota players. In order to defuse tension before the 1935 game, Minnesota’s Governor Floyd Olson bet Iowa’s Governor Clyde Herring a pig on the game. Minnesota won 13-6, and Clyde Herring gave Floyd Olson a prize pig named “Floyd of Rosedale.” Ever since, Iowa and Minnesota have battled for control of the “Floyd of Rosedale” trophy even though most people are unaware of its origins. A common site on Big 10 campuses in the 1930’s, Ozzie Simmons running with the football, 1935 ~Courtesy of Special Collections at the University of Iowa Libraries
In 1951, Drake University was undefeated before facing Missouri Valley rival Oklahoma A & M (later Oklahoma State) in Stillwater. Drake entered the game with the nation’s leading ground gainer African American, Johnny Bright. Three times in the first quarter, the same A&M defensive tackle knocked the Drake star out with illegal hits and was not penalized by officials. Shortly thereafter, Bright was removed from the game and found to have a broken jaw. Drake sidelined three A&M running backs in retaliation. The incident received national attention and A&M was widely criticized. As a result of this incident, college football rules were changed and the helmet was redesigned to include a facemask. Oklahoma State officially apologized to Drake University for the incident in 2006. This photo, taken by the Des Moines Register’s photographers John Robinson and Don Ultang, was one of a series that caused a sensation in the fall of 1951, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Ultang and Robinson. This photo is the best known one of the series as it shows, Johnny Bright being given an illegal hit by an Oklahoma A & M defensive back on October 20, 1951. ~Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Iowa – Iowa City
High school teammates Dolph Pulliam and Willie McCarter of Gary, Indiana led Drake University to a third place finish in the 1969 NCAA basketball tournament. McCarter was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the 1969 NBA draft. Pulliam went on to a long career as a sportscaster at KCCI-TV in Des Moines and now works in the development department for Drake University. Pulliam in his high school uniform, 1964 ~Courtesy of Dolph Pulliam
In 1954, Simon Roberts of Davenport was the first African American to win an Iowa High School title. In 1957, wrestling for the University of Iowa in at 147 pounds, he was the first African American to win a Division I NCAA wrestling championship. Simon Roberts with the University of Iowa team, 1956 ~Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries
Title IX of the Civil Rights Act enacted in 1974 forced colleges to offer sports opportunities to women. While it was rare for Regents institutions in Iowa to offer sports opportunities to women prior to this, many of the small colleges in the Iowa Conference offered women sports opportunities early in the 20th Century. Ruth Collins played Field Hockey at Coe College all four years she attended that institution in the early 1920’s. Ruth Collins with Coe College senior team, 1924 ~Courtesy of Coe College Library
Kansas native Sol Butler was a talented athlete for the Iowa German College (later the University of Dubuque) from 1915 to 1919. While an excellent football and basketball player, he was outstanding in track and field. He also played baseball when his track schedule allowed him to do so. As a student, Butler was twice named to the All-America squad as a broad jumper. He was named to the 1920 Olympic team and considered the favorite for the gold medal in the broad jump, but was injured and did not compete. Sol Butler with trophies, circa 1919 ~Courtesy of the University of Dubuque