Elfin: Race Was Something D.C. Struggled With Not Too Long Ago
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Washington, like the United States, has always had a complicated relationship with race. So it’s somehow appropriate that on the same day that fans were ecstatic that the Redskins chose black quarterback Robert Griffin III as second overall pick in the NFL draft with the hope that he becomes the face of the franchise for years to come, we were also dealing with the racist reaction from Boston to Joel Ward, the Capitals’ lone black player, scoring the overtime goal that ended the Bruins’ chances of successfully defending the Stanley Cup.
As Washington began growing after it was established as the capital of the world’s first democratic government in 1791, it was home to markets where blacks were bought and sold.
Slaves built the Capitol, the symbol of democracy that’s topped with a statue of “Freedom.” The first slaves freed by Abraham Lincoln were the District’s which is why the city commemorated the 150th anniversary of Emancipation Day on April 16. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 set off riots that opened racial sores that festered for years and can still be brought to the surface by discussions of gentrification and “Chocolate City,” often by former mayor Marion Barry and other self-promoters.
It’s also undeniable that a large part of the reason why the capital’s residents were denied self-government for so long by their Congressional overseers was because so many of them were black. Washingtonians weren’t allowed to vote until 1964 and even in 2012, home rule is far from complete since the city isn’t fully represented on Capitol Hill despite having more people than Wyoming. It’s sad that Mayor Vincent Gray is thankful when the members of Congress in charge of District affairs even talk about not interfering in local government.
And then there’s race and sports. After Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson finally retired in 1927 after 21 stellar seasons with the Senators, Washington’s greatest baseball players were Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard of the Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues. Of course, not that many white fans paid attention. But when baseball finally returned to the capital in 2005 after a shameful 33-year absence, Washingtonians were thrilled that Hall of Famer Frank Robinson was the manager and the face of the franchise even if he had been a star for the once-hated Orioles.
Our beloved Redskins, whose nickname I won’t even discuss today, were the last NFL franchise to employ a black player, a development that only happened in 1962 because the Kennedy Administration wouldn’t permit the team owned by racist George Preston Marshall — whose wife’s original lyrics to “Hail To The Redskins” included “Fight For Old Dixie” — to play in newly-built D.C. (now RFK) Stadium otherwise.
Twenty five years after future Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell became the Redskins’ first black player while initially enduring a torrent of abuse from white fans, Doug Williams was the toast of the town as the first black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl. Williams’ teammates, Art Monk and Darrell Green, became two of Washington’s all-time favorite athletes en route to being enshrined in Canton. The mourning when standout young safety Sean Taylor was shot to death in 2007 was genuine as is the current joy that RGIII might be the player to finally turn the Redskins back into champions.
The Bullets, who moved from Baltimore to Landover in 1973, have always been largely black with All-Star center turned coach turned general manager Wes Unseld ranking as the most popular player in franchise history. On the college level, Georgetown, Maryland, George Washington, American and George Mason have all had black coaches.
If race doesn’t matter in baseball, football or basketball any more, it apparently still does in the nearly all-white NHL.
Mike Marson and Bill Riley skated for the expansion Capitals in 1974-75, once-promising scorer Reggie Savage played for the team in the early 1990s and Donald Brashear was the enforcer for the first two Alex Ovechkin-led playoff teams in 2008 and 2009.
And now comes Ward, whose overtime tally triggered a flood of racist rants from Bruins fans on Twitter, many using the “N-word.” Ironically, Boston is where: a black man, Crispus Attucks, was the most famous victim of the massacre by British troops in 1770; where the American Revolution was planned five years later; and where the hockey team became the NHL’s first to suit up a black player, Willie O’Ree, in 1958.
Here in Washington, fans were just thrilled that the Caps had come through in the clutch in playoff time after years of coming up small. The only question about Ward was what took a guy who was signed here last June because of his nine goals and 17 points in 18 playoff games for Nashville, so long to put the puck in the net for Washington when it counted.
Ward’s race wasn’t even a topic, positive or negative. And that’s a sign of progress for our city.
David Elfin began covering sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March.