“… we are a race of beings, who have long labored under the abuse and censure of the world; …we have long been looked upon with an eye of contempt; and … we have long been considered rather as brutish than human, and scarcely capable of mental endowments.”
African American astronomer Benjamin Banneker in a letter to Thomas Jefferson asking Jefferson to extend human liberties and rights to African Americans (1791).
“That was my time. I was ready for it. Every night, I stayed in and studied. I wasn’t going to let them say black quarterbacks were dumb.”
James Harris, one of the first black quarterbacks in the NFL, during an interview for the book, “Third and a Mile” (2007).
Two hundred and sixteen years separate those comments. As we reflect on Black History Month, we can say that in some instances, we’ve come a short way, slowly. How sad for us all — black, white, red, brown — that Banneker’s plea to Jefferson to “eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevails with respect to [African Americans],” might still be made today.
But I don’t want to use this opportunity to dwell on what was and should never have been. Rather, let’s celebrate what is and hopefully will be.
What is? Well, in 2007, Tony Dungy became the first black coach to win a Super Bowl. This year, Mike Carey served as the first black referee in a Super Bowl. In 1988, Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory. All wonderful accomplishments and milestones, deserving of recognition. Know what will be even better? When those accomplishments are so commonplace, we won’t even notice.
Organizations focused on the mission of furthering opportunities for minorities in the NFL provide promise for what will be.
The Fritz Pollard Alliance formed in 2003 as an affinity group of NFL minority coaches, scouts and front office personnel, works with the NFL to develop hiring guidelines and talent development programs. Hall of Famer and former Giants linebacker, Harry Carson, is the current executive director.
Also, the league’s first five black quarterbacks — Harris, Williams, Marlin Briscoe, Vince Evans, and Hall of Famer Warren Moon– recently formed a nonprofit organization: The Field Generals. The group is dedicated to teaching and preserving the history of the African American quarterback.
Today, it is commonplace to see black quarterbacks on the field directing their teams, although there are still few black head coaches and general managers. It has been a long time coming, and there is still much to work toward. But progress has been made.
And Benjamin Banneker? Not a football player of course, but if this is the first you’ve heard of him, take this opportunity to learn more. Read his eloquent letter to Jefferson. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to view much of his works and inventions. On the day of his funeral in 1806, his home and all of its contents mysteriously burned to the ground.