Kenny Washington broke the NFL’s color barrier. Why don’t we know his story?

Joshua Neuman’s article for Slate — “Why Isn’t Kenny Washington an American Icon?” — sheds light on the little-known legacy of former football player Kenny Washington, who broke the NFL’s color barrier a year before Jackie Robinson arrived in the MLB to do the same.

When it comes to sports history, Kenny Washington isn’t a household name like Jackie Robinson. At least one writer wants to see that change by telling Washington’s story of becoming the first African American football player to sign a contract in the pro league.

Joshua Neuman wrote the article “Why Isn’t Kenny Washington An American Icon?” for Slate. While Washington broke the color barrier in football a year before Robinson did the same for Major League Baseball, Neuman argues that it’s often referred to as a “Jackie Robinson” moment except for the other way around. 

“It’s unfair to the memory of Kenny Washington to frame his desegregation of the NFL as a ‘Jackie Robinson moment’ when, if anything, it’s the other way around.” —Joshua Neuman

Robinson and Washington played sports together in college and grew up 6 miles apart in Los Angeles, but ended up with divergent careers with different legacies in the world of sports.

“Washington isn’t even in the Hall of Fame,” says Neuman, who joined CultureShift on WDET to talk about his story for Slate.

Listen: Joshua Neuman on how Kenny Washington has been overshadowed by Jackie Robinson.


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  • Ryan Patrick Hooper
    Ryan Patrick Hooper is the award-winning host and producer of CultureShift on 101.9 WDET-FM Detroit’s NPR station. Hooper has covered stories for the New York Times, NPR, Detroit Free Press, Hour Detroit, SPIN and Paste magazine.