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NFL’s First Black Lineman Is Being Inducted Into The Hall of Fame More Than Five Decades After His Death

NFL’s First Black Lineman Is Being Inducted Into The Hall of Fame More Than Five Decades After His Death

He’s always been a Hall of Famer; now it’s official!

The NFL’s first Black lineman, Duke Slater, is being inducted into the Hall of Fame more than five decades after his death, AZCentral reports.

Slater grew up in Clinton, Iowa, working cutting ice on the Mississippi River during the winter and taking an interest in football at an early age. He convinced his father to let him play by staging a hunger strike. His father eventually conceded, making Slater choose between buying shoes or a helmet due to the family’s finances. The 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, size 14 ½ wisely chose shoes, playing without a helmet until his senior year of college at the University of Iowa. He made a name for himself, becoming an All-American and helping the Hawkeyes finished 7-0 in 1921. He would eventually be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.

In 1922, Slater debuted in the NFL with the Rock Island Independents, where he stayed until 1925. His final five pro seasons were spent with the Chicago Cardinals. During his time, Slater was often the league’s sole Black player, fighting against racism and bigotry, on and off the field. The two-way lineman was a pioneer for other Black players, making room for stars like Ernie Nevers and Jim Thorpe. During his 10 seasons with the NFL, he only missed one game against the Kansas City Blues due to a league agreement preventing Blacks from playing football in Missouri. 

Slater eventually retired, and in 1934, the league instituted a ban barring Black players from the NFL, which lasted until 1946. He helped protest the ban, coaching barnstorming Black teams for several seasons. After he retired from the league, Slater worked as a prosecutor, previously obtaining his law degree while still in the NFL. Eventually, he was elected as a judge, becoming the first Black judge to serve on the Superior Court of Chicago. He died at the age of 67 in 1966. Now, 55 years after his death, his pioneering accomplishments are being remembered; Slater is named one of the inductees in the 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

“Finally - finally - he’s going into the Hall of Fame after all these years. You have to smile,” said John Wooten, former Pro Bowl guard, and activist.

Former NFL coach Tony Dungy echoed those sentiments and added some thoughts of his own.

“Why did it take so long when he had such great qualifications? It’s obviously -- I don’t want to say shameful, but here is a guy who was dominant. For people not to know, it’s almost like we’re hiding something rather than talking about one of the great players in the ‘20s...Somebody that dominant, you would think it would have paved the way for other African-Americans. But it didn’t. That tells you what it was like [back then]...He was a lot of ways,” said Dungy.

Slater didn’t have any children, but his niece, Sandy Wilkens, and other family members plan to attend his induction ceremony. Wilkens was born in 1939, one year before Slater quit coaching, and only knew her uncle as an attorney and judge. To see the impact he made on sports was astonishing.

“He was so humble. I had no idea what he had done in football. But I was so impressed with the way he handled segregation during his lifetime. It didn’t appear he got angry. Our parents didn’t talk much about it because those times were hurtful,” said Wilkens.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame induction festivities will take place August 7-8th.

Thank you for your contributions, Mr. Slater. Because of you, we can!

Photo Courtesy of Associated Press