On the Fourth of July of 1852, a black man named Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery and spoke thusly in Rochester, N.Y. in part: "What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? To him and me your celebration is a sham, your boasted liberty and unholy license and your shouts of liberty and equality, how mock are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy," etc.
I read Douglass' give-'em-hell speech in the recent Fourth of July issue of a Milwaukee newspaper about the time I'd been thinking of doing a story on the Packers' early association with black players.
And it took another 100 years before another black leader, Martin Luther King Jr., really shook up the white troops. Douglass and King would be proud to see how the black athlete has progressed in sports.
Baseball has always had a color line and made a big fuss when it was broken by Jackie Robinson of the old Brooklyn Dodgers.
Pro football never had a color line and there were a few black players in the early 1930s, including the University of Iowa's Fred (Duke) Slater, a huge tackle with the Chicago Cardinals. Duke went on to become a judge in Chicago. It wasn't until the late 1940s when more black players started to appear on NFL rosters. The Los Angeles Rams had two black notables – Woody Strode and Kenny Washington, both stars at UCLA.
The New York Giants, born in 1925, didn't have a black player until 1948 – Emlen Tunnell, a defensive back out of Iowa. After an 11-year career in New York Tunnell came to Green Bay with Vince Lombardi in 1959 and played three more seasons. Emlen was the first black player to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame at Canton.
The Packers' first black player was Bob Mann, a former Michigan pass receiver who was a key player on the Wolverines' 1948 team that crushed Southern Cal 49-0 in the Rose Bowl. Mann went to the Detroit Lions in 1949 but after a salary hassle joined the Packers in 1950.
Mann played five seasons with the Packers and he was an eye-opener for this local sportswriter back then since I had never known an African-American until Mann came along. It was an "education" I would never forget.
Mann recognized this "yokel" right away and cautioned me against using the word "color" in referring to Negro players in my newspaper. "We want to be called Negroes," Bob reminded me.
Mann was always so neat about himself. I remember the floors in the old Packer dressing room was cement and always wet. It was tough putting on your street pants without getting them wet, but Bob would bring the cuffs up to knee length and stretch them over his outstretched feet to get them on without getting wet.
In 1952, Gene Ronzani's Packers played the Dallas Texans in Dallas in a night game. The team always practiced the night before the game and I remember walking off the field with Mann. He couldn't ride on the bus to the hotel. He had to take a cab instead.
I uttered a few expletives and said something like "that wouldn't happen in Green Bay." Mann didn't seem too perturbed and reminded me that "that's politics." Mann was the Pack's leading receiver in 1952 with 50 catches for 696 yards and eight touchdowns in a 12-game season.
Mann went on to become a lawyer in Detroit and came to Green Bay in 1997 to serve as honorary captain for the Packers' 21-16 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
We had quite a reunion on the sidelines before the game. Then 73, Bob gave me a big hug and he remembered the Dallas thing, plus he said "I can tell you another one."
Mann remembered the time when the Packers played the Colts in Baltimore. He laughed, "I was in the team hotel only for a meeting and afterward I walked out of the hotel with Dick Afflis to catch a cab to my hotel. The cab driver said 'I can't take him,' pointing to me. Dick grabbed that poor driver by the shirt and told him ‘you take him where he wants to go' and he did."
Incidentally, Afflis (1951-54) was a husky left guard and later became widely known as a wrestler named Dick The Bruiser.
Mann said his biggest thrill came long after his playing career ended. That was being inducted into the Packer Hall of Fame in 1988 and "that was a highlight for me."
At his induction, along with tackle Lionel Aldridge and contributor Jerry Atkinson, Mann said he didn't consider himself "a pioneer" when he first came to Green Bay.
He noted, "Times change, necessities change and people become accustomed to those things (blacks in a predominately white community). I just hoped my actions were such that didn't deter future black players from going to Green Bay. I didn't have any problems at all. People treated me real well."
I've been around the Packer football scene for 58 years and, believe me, there has never been an out-and-out squabble in Green Bay over a race issue.
Lombardi was absolutely color blind and for a couple of preseason games in the early 1960s in Columbus, Ga., he kept the team at nearby Fort Benning rather than create a "hotel" issue. Sure, during the 1970s and 1980s there were reports that a few blacks didn't want to play in non-white Green Bay, but the real excuse was that the Packers were a losing team. All that changed with the Ron Wolf-Mike Holmgren era.
Thanks to Bob Mann's advice and counsel, I've been able to put this race stuff out of my mind and out of anything I write. And right now I'd like to salute our new head coach, Ray Rhodes, when he answered a race question recently with this:
"I look at myself as a head coach, period." Way to go, Ray.
Editor's note: This column appeared in the Aug. 14, 1999 issue of Packer Report.