Woody Strode is likely most-known for his acting career that included a role as a gladiator in Spartacus, as well as other films with John Wayne and John Ford, but Strode’s most-unheralded role was his real-life display of bravery as one of the first African Americans to reintegrate professional football.
Born Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode in Los Angeles on July 28, 1914, Strode was of African American and Native American Heritage. Named for the 28th President of the United States, who was in office at the time of Strode’s birth, Strode attended UCLA, where he played collegiately with teammates that included Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson. Strode later served in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
When the Rams moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles, community pressure was placed on the team to become integrated in order to use the Los Angeles Coliseum, a public venue. The Rams signed Washington on March 21, 1946, and Washington lobbied for his college teammate to join him as the NFL’s first African American players in more than a decade.
It wasn’t an easy ride, especially for Strode, who faced additional discrimination because he married a full-blooded Hawaiian lady, which was illegal in 1940.
The courage Strode, Washington and Cleveland Browns Bill Willis and Marion Motley showed in 1946 occurred a year before Major League Baseball’s color barrier was broken by Robison, another landmark event that received more coverage than “The Forgotten Four.”
Historians, however, are committed to honoring the legacy.
“These men integrating football a year before Jackie Robinson is crucially important,” said Lonnie G. Bunch, Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “These four men created a foundation on which generations built upon. Their actions on and off the field opened a door that allowed other people to follow, but I think in ’46 the reality is, as important as it was, it didn’t have the national impact of Jackie Robinson in baseball.”