Charles W. Follis:
The First African American Professional Football Player

By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler

Everyone knows the name, Jackie Robinson. On April 15, 1947, he ran onto the baseball field and into the history books as the first African American professional baseball player in the modern era.  However, hardly anyone knows the name of the man who first broke the color barrier in professional football 43 years earlier, Charles Follis.

While Follis never knew the magnitude of the impact he would have, his legacy is still standing strong and inspiring people today.  One hundred and nine years later, on September 13, 2019, the Ohio History Connection unveiled an Ohio Historical Marker recognizing Charles W. Follis as the first African American professional football player. The marker is located just outside of the Follis Field football stadium at Wooster High School located at 515 Oldman Road in Wooster, Ohio.

The ceremony was attended by many, including representatives from the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Ohio History Connection.

Follis’ great-grandniece Muriel Edwards and her two sons, Todd and Bradley Edwards, had the honor of unveiling the historical plaque with the help of players from the Wooster High School football team.

“I was overwhelmed and humbled to be a part of that,” Edwards said. “I felt so honored. It’s hard to explain but I was very proud of the Follis name. I was overjoyed. I also felt sadness for the things my great-grand-uncle endured to get this acknowledgment, but I’m sure at the time, he wasn’t feeling that way. He just was a team player. He was gifted. And I felt very blessed to be able to stand there with my sons.”

The two milestones between Jackie Robinson and Follis were bridged by another well-known name – Branch Rickey. This Stockdale, Ohio native was the teammate of Charles Follis when Follis inconspicuously became pro football’s first African American player. Decades later, Rickey, as general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Robinson to a contract, making major headlines across the nation and beyond.

Exhibited at the Wayne County Historical Society

When Follis turned pro, it was with complete obscurity. There was no fanfare. In fact, players getting paid at the time were thought of as dishonorable and the conduct of the team was seen as unsportsmanlike. Follis loved to play football so he just fell in line, put his head down, and continued to carry himself with poise and class, even in the face of bigotry that could turn violent both on and off the field of play.

“He is a wonder,” Branch Rickey once said of Follis. And it is a wonder that this story isn’t widely known or told.

Follis’ parents, J. Henry and Cathryn, were slaves from Virginia who moved to Wooster, Ohio after being freed. When Charles Follis was a student at Wooster High School, he helped to organize and establish the school’s first varsity football team in 1899. He was a popular young man, beloved by his teammates. In fact, he was named team captain. As the star halfback, he led the way to an undefeated season.

Photo from an old postcard provided by the
Wayne County Convention & Visitors Bureau

Coinciding with Follis’ adolescence was the adolescence of professional football.

American football in the late 1880s was a combination of the existing sports like rugby. This hybrid of sorts was credited to Walter Chauncey Camp, known now as the “Father of American Football.” Camp invented the line of scrimmage, the system of downs, and other rules and contributions that are the backbone of the game to this day. He played and coached for Yale teams that were recognized as national champions in the late 1800s. In Camp’s career, he was a football player, coach, and sports writer.

In 1892, William “Pudge” Heffelfinger became the first known professional football player. He was paid $500 by the Allegheny Athletic Association to play in a game versus the Pittsburgh Athletic Club.  Three years later, the first fully professional football game was played between the Latrobe Athletic Association and Jeannette Athletic Club in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. And two years after that, which was two years before Follis took the field for Wooster High School, the Latrobe Athletic Club paid the entire team for an entire season, making them the first professional football team.

The first professional football league was launched in 1902. Although it was called the National Football League, it was not the same National Football League (NFL) that was born on August 20, 1920, in Canton, Ohio under the initial name of the American Professional Football Association (APFA). Two years later, it changed its name to the National Football League, which has reigned the sport ever since.

Legendary athlete Jim Thorpe was the league’s first president. Jim Thorpe rose to fame during the 1912 Olympics as the first Native American to win a gold medal. He was stripped of his Olympic medals when he was accused of playing semi-professional baseball, which violated the Olympics’ amateur rules at that time. This decision was overturned in 1983, long after his death. Thorpe led the Canton Bulldogs football team to three professional championships as part of the Ohio League, which was the center of the pro football universe and direct descendent of the modern NFL. Five of the original fourteen NFL teams hailed from Ohio. It is because of the modern sport’s connection to Canton, Ohio that the Pro Football Hall of Fame is located there.

But the years of discrimination experienced by Thorpe and his predecessors such as Follis were ugly times.

“I remember my mother talking about him and the verbal abuse he endured, including the N word,” said Edwards, who was born and raised in Wooster, Ohio. “When his teammates exited the bus at games in ‘Caucasian country,’ he’d have to stay on it. But his teammates loved him so he took it in stride. There were times he had to stay on the bus, but his teammates brought him food. When my mother would tell me about his struggles, I was just a kid. It floored me. I couldn’t believe people did that. But as I got older, I too found out it was true.”

Exhibited at the Wayne County Historical Society

Follis enrolled at the College of Wooster after graduating high school. While a student there in 1901, he played football for the Wooster Athletic Association, which was an amateur football team. That’s when he was dubbed the “Black Cyclone from Wooster.”

Education was an emphasis of the Follis family. Edward’s mother graduated from Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio in the 1940s and became an English teacher. Her grandfather, Joseph, was Charles Follis’ younger brother. He also attended and worked at the College of Wooster, in the chemistry department. In fact, Edward’s aunt Florence graduated from the College of Wooster and her aunt Dot graduated from Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio. Wilberforce was the first college to be owned and operated by African Americans. And their brother Ben, who drowned in WWII, was also a college graduate.

Always a hard worker, Follis gained employment at a hardware store in rural Shelby, Ohio in 1902. The owner, Frank Schieffer, was the manager of the Shelby Athletic Association. So, for the following two seasons, Follis geared up for the Shelby Steamfitters football team. Turning heads for his play on the field, Follis – nicknamed The Black Cyclone – was offered a contract to play for the Shelby Athletic Club (later becoming the Shelby Blues) in 1904. And it was with this – at the time, non-consequential – contract that Charles W. Follis would make history, albeit long after the fact, and unbeknownst to him, as the first African American professional football player.

The Shelby Blues played in the Ohio League from 1900 to 1919. When the league became the APFA (later the NFL), the Shelby Blues did not join. However, they still played games against APFA teams.

Branch Rickey was one of Follis’ Shelby teammates. Rickey was a paid player on the team while he attended Ohio Wesleyan University, which has always been known for admitting students no matter their religion or race. He befriended Follis during those years that they played together. Follis’ grace under fire and standing stoicism in the face of hate, undoubtedly made an impression on Rickey.

However, it was a baseball teammate during that time that Rickey cited in an interview many years later as having helped persuade him that the color barrier in the major leagues could be broken by the right person: a person who could stand strong in the face of overt bigotry, and frightening death threats. That teammate was an African American catcher by the name of Charles Thomas. Thomas endured heckling and racial slurs, even death threats, like Follis. And like Follis, he remained a gentleman. It was mental toughness like his that made Rickey believe that Jackie Robinson had what it would take to endure years of looking into the eyes of the worst of mankind and not flinch. In doing so, he not only succeeded in playing the game he loved, but also in challenging the law of “separate but equal” by integrating major league baseball.

Although Jackie Robinson did this on the world stage, his predecessor, Charles Follis, did much of the same in the early days of pro football, but with no known fanfare.

“I remember one story about a guy in Toledo who stopped the game and said, ‘he is a man – do not call him [the N-word],” said Edwards about her great grand-uncle, Charles Follis. “Fans shouted, ‘Go home [N-word]’ and ‘why are you here, [N-word].’ The stories passed down were just awful to hear, but important to know.”

Football was a much more brutal sport in the early 20th Century, so the verbal abuse often turned physical on the gridiron. Because Follis was such a talented, game-changing running back, the opposing players would intentionally seek to injure him by taking cheap shots during, and even after, plays. And when violent cheap-shots were targeted at certain players like Follis, referees often looked the other way.

Exhibited at the Wayne County Historical Society

Even without bringing in the element of race, football during that era could be a bloodbath. Harvard and Yale stopped playing against each other for three years after four players suffered crippling injuries in an infamous 1894 game known as “The Hampden Park Bloodbath.” The annual Army vs. Navy game was halted the same year for about the same timeframe for similar brutality. In 1897, a University of Georgia player died on the field. His wasn’t the only death. There were 19 football deaths in 1905, a year after Follis turned pro. And one year after that, during a Thanksgiving Day game, Follis’ football career ended with an injury. Five years later, he died of pneumonia in Cleveland, Ohio. He was only 31-years-old. And he had no idea of the legacy he left on the game.

He is buried in a family gravesite in Wooster Cemetery with his parents (J. Henry and Catherine Follis) and his brother (Curtis Follis). The headstone is located in section 16, lot 645.

In his honor, the Wooster High School football field is named Follis Field. Inside is another plaque honoring Charles Follis. One of the engravings on it says, “The life he led and the examples he set will long serve as a beacon for those who follow.”

Over 100 years after his death, Edwards looked up at the entryway to the stadium, locked arms with her sons, and whispered, “Oh my Lord, what we had to endure.”

By Frank Rocco Satullo, the OhioTraveler


Photo provided by the Wayne County Convention & Visitors Bureau

Photo provided by the Wayne County Convention & Visitors Bureau

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