Reintegration of pro football is focus of new Freedom Center exhibit
The Pro Football Hall of Fame and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center have joined forces to create an exhibit, Breaking Through: The Reintegration of Pro Football. The exhibit, which opens at the Freedom Center on Friday, September 15th, celebrates the story of the 60th anniversary of the reintegration of professional football.
Although many important contributors to the permanent integration of pro football are included, the exhibit focuses on three: Paul Brown, the original coach of the Cleveland Browns and later the owner of the Cincinnati Bengals, and former Browns players Marion Motley and Bill Willis.
In its earliest days, American pro football was technically an integrated sport. Four African Americans played pro football prior to the founding of the National Football League in 1920. During the NFL's first 14 seasons, 13 African Americans played, but most managed only brief careers. However, from 1934 through 1945, there were no African Americans playing pro football. Then in 1946, a full year before baseball great Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, Paul Brown signed two African American players he knew from earlier coaching days, a bruising lineman named Bill Willis, and a powerful fullback Marion Motley. Brown and his two players went on to Hall of Fame careers, but more importantly; Motley and Willis' appearance in Browns uniforms and their eventual successes were the first steps in the permanent integration of professional football.
Breaking Through: The Reintegration of Pro Football tells the story of these three men and how their passion for the game overcame the barriers of discrimination and changed the course of pro football forever. Artifacts on loan from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and a brief video produced by NFL Films, will be featured in the exhibit.
Paul Brown's son and current Bengals owner Mike Brown, along with Pro Football Hall of Fame and NFL dignitaries, will open the exhibit on Friday, September 15th at 10:30 a.m. on the Freedom Center's third floor.
As a further celebration of the 60th anniversary of this milestone event, Willis, the surviving member of the Cleveland Browns Hall of Fame duo, will be honored in pre-game ceremonies at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, September 17 prior to the Browns-Bengals game.
"In keeping with the Freedom Center's mission, Breaking Through tells the important story of how three men - with courage, cooperation and perseverance -dramatically changed a sport and helped set in motion decisions that eventually changed the nation," said Spencer Crew, President of the Freedom Center.
Breaking Through: The Reintegration of Pro Football is scheduled to run through December.
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African-Americans in pro football timelime
Cincinnati Bengals history
Cleveland Browns history
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