by Afia Ohemena
Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard (1894-1986) was the first African American head coach to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Canton, OH). This honor came in 2005,19 years after his death. He was a pioneer in the National Football League, and broke racial barriers wherever he went. This world-class athlete was born in Rogers Park on January 27, 1894.
To better understand how Fritz became who he was, it’s important to examine the most influential people in his life, his family.
John William Pollard
Fritz’s father, John William Pollard (1846-1932) was born in Virginia and when he was eight due to a series of incidences in which pro-slavery zealots kidnapped and sold blacks into slavery John’s mother sent him and his sister to be raised and educated in Kansas. John grew up in a time of great instability in this country.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, opened new lands, repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and allowed settlers in those territories to determine if they would allow slavery within their boundaries. This contributed greatly to the advent of the Civil War in which John participated. In 1862, he was among the first group of blacks to join the Union Army, serving in the 2nd Colored Kansas Regiment.
After service John returned to Kansas. It was during this time that he was encouraged by Hiram Rhodes Revels (1822-1901) and Blanche Kelso Bruce (1841-1898), who would later become the first black U.S. Senators (both from Mississippi), to further his post-secondary education. He was determined to attend Oberlin College (Oberlin, Ohio) and become a lawyer. However, his quest to obtain a law degree ended when he contracted smallpox. After he recovered, he learned the barber trade from a white man and moved to the town of Mexico, Missouri to ply his trade. It was there that he met his future wife, Catherine Amanda Hughes (1856-1937).
Catherine Amanda Hughes Pollard
Born in Middleton, Missouri, Amanda, as she was called, was an amazing woman of African American, Sioux, and French descent. She also finished her schooling, and after marrying John had her first three children: Artissmisia, Luther J., and Willie Naomi. John and Amanda understood the importance of education and did what they could to provide the best for their children.
Settling in Rogers Park
So it was that in 1886, due to rising racial tension in Missouri, John and Amanda decided to move for more educational opportunities to the all-white Village of Rogers Park, Illinois, which was annexed to the City of Chicago in 1896.
After settling in at 1928 W. Lunt Avenue, Amanda and John had five additional children. The Chicago Defender of Sunday, October 9, 1937, says on page 2:”Highly respected, the family enjoyed the distinction of being the only Race group in the entire Rogers Park community.” John set up his barber shop at 7017 East Ravenswood Avenue. Which was then in Evanston Township.
Amanda Pollard was an extraordinary strong-willed woman, who was ahead of her time. She was not like most women who only stayed at home, took care of children, and performed domestic chores. She defied the concept of conventional roles society had assigned to her seeking, fulfillment outside of the home, and eventually become a successful seamstress. Not only did she command at work, she managed her priorities at home as well. She kept the family together through her tough love and high expectations.
According to family members, Amanda never answered the door without carrying a handgun in her apron pocket. Not only did this speak to her bravery and protective behavior, but also, sadly, to the racial discrimination and prejudice of the time. Looking through family documents it is evident that Amanda played a significant role in the family’s finances. Many tax documents and checks bear her name, which demonstrates her unconventional role as a woman during the 19th Century.
Being fortunate enough to have the support of parents like Amanda and John, it’s easy to see how their children set high goals in academics, music, and athletics. The eldest was their daughter, Artissmisia who attended Brown University and earned a degree in nursing., Just like her parents, she had her own business and was the first black Registered Nurse in Illinois. Being the oldest and having success, Artemesia put pressure on her siblings to also do well.
Luther, the second born of John and Amanda, was an all-star athlete. In high school he played on the football team and was one of the best pitchers on the baseball team. Luther tried to become a professional baseball player in the major leagues, but was not signed. At that time, no African Americans were allowed on any professional major league baseball team. When he failed to convince the scouts that he was actually a Native American, his baseball dreams were over. This was another racial incident that blacks of this time had to face. Despite the disappointment, Luther still played on an organized Rogers Park team.
Professionally, Luther became a life and accident insurance agent then worked as a manager of an advertising department. These careers did not completely satisfy him, and so in the spirit of his entrepreneur parents, he launched a lucrative moving picture production company called Ebony Film Corporation. According to stock certificates, his company was worth about $500,000 which translates to about $25 million today.
Willie Naomi, the third child of the eight, was one of the first black women to graduate from Northwestern University. According to family members, she was denied election to Phi Beta Kappa because of her color. Reflecting the high-value of education of her family, she became a school teacher, and then a professor at Wilberforce University (Wilberforce, Ohio).
Leslie was another star athlete. When he was younger, he played baseball for Grace Sunday School at Washington Park in Chicago’s Presbyterian Church League. Luther went to the North Division High School (aka Lane Tech). He later attended Dartmouth College (Hanover, NH) where he had a superb football career. He helped break racial barriers in college football. He also played a major role in his little brother Fritz’s successful profession football career. Leslie, along with older brother Luther, taught Fritz how to play football. When Fritz wanted to join the Indians, the football team at Albert Grannis Lane Technical High School, the coach initially worried that his small size would be a hindrance. Leslie, who turned out to be a top player on the team, insisted that his brother Fritz be selected otherwise he would quit the football team. He also gave Fritz tips on using his small stature to his advantage.
Ruth, who unfortunately died at young age, was another Pollard family athlete who sprinted her way to glory at Lake View High School.
Hughes was an outstanding football player, but decided a career as a musician better suited him. This flamboyant gentleman joined the highly popular Chicago jazz group called the Melody Four as a drummer. He performed all over Europe and Australia with the group. Then Hugh joined the French army during WWI. Unfortunately, he died of complications due to a mustard gas attack.
Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard
Fritz was the best-known of all the Pollard children. He was named for the famous abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, and was affectionately called Fred until neighborhood residents nicknamed him “Fritz,” a name that stuck with him throughout the rest of his life. In 1912, after a legendary career at Lane Tech High School, where he was also a baseball player and three-time county track champion, he graduated.
After Lane, Fritz played football briefly for Northwestern, Harvard, and Dartmouth. In 1915, he received a Rockefeller scholarship to attend Brown University (Providence, R.I.) At Brown, Fritz was one of two blacks enrolled in the sc
hool. The other was Mayo “Ink” Williams who played end on Brown’s football team, the Bears, while Fritz played half back (1915-1916). This was during a time when only 50 blacks attended predominately white American universities. Due to the intense racial prejudice of that time competitors and spectators assaulted him physically and mentally both on and off the field. Fortunately, Fritz was able to rise above these obstacles.
Fritz’s high-level of skill made him one of the top players in the country. He was the second African American to be named to a college All-American team, with the distinction of being the first in the backfield position. In 1916, he was the first black to play in the Rose Bowl, the premier college football game. Although Fritz was unable to continue at Brown due to “academic neglect,” among his many lifetime accomplishments, he was the recipient of an honorary doctorate from Brown University in 1981.
In 1954, Fritz was the first African American to be elected into the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame (South Bend, IN).
Fritz had the potential to become a great major league baseball player, but encountered the same racial problems his older brother Luther had faced. He was the first black quarterback in the American Football Association, later to be known as the NFL. He feuded with the well-known Bears owner and coach George Halas, who lived in West Ridge, claiming that Halas was a racist.
After his football career ended he helped found the all-black football team called the Chicago Black Hawks (1929-1932) which played against white teams around Chicago, but enjoyed their greatest success by scheduling exhibition games against West Coast teams during the winter months.
Fritz was involved in several business enterprises. He began an investment firm that served the African American community in 1922, and after its bankruptcy in 1931 he ran a coal company in New York. He then entered journalism where, in 1935, he founded the New York Independent News, which was the first black tabloid. It survived until 1942.
Following his brother Hugh’s lead, Fritz tried his luck in the entertainment business. He became a casting agent during the production of the1933 film The Emperor Jones. Later on he began producing short music videos featuring black entertainers called “Soundies” for the Soundies Distribution Corporation of America. The company was sold after World War II.
Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard, Jr.
Talent, as we’ve seen, ran in the Pollard family, so it is no surprise that it was passed on to Fritz Pollard’s son Fritz Jr. (1915-2003). As an outstanding student and athlete in football and track at Nicholas Senn High School, he was able to work his way into the 1936 Berlin Olympics He shared the track with fellow well-known running mates and friends Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalf. Along with his teammates, Fritz, Jr. was able to discredit odious claims that blacks were inferior in sports. Even though Fritz, Jr. brought home a bronze medal in the 110 meter low hurtles, he was still ridiculed. A 1936 article in the New York Evening Journal pokes fun at black Olympic athletes with the headline “All Gods Chillun’ Got Wings.”
Fritz, Jr. attended the University of North Dakota where he was a running back on the Fighting Sioux, their football team, and in 1938, like his father, was named to an All-American football team.
Seeing how they have fought through obstacles to achieve accomplishments that are amazing even by today’s standards, Rogers Park’s Pollard family exemplified excellence in every sense of the word. The family produced some of the best athletes, business people, and healthcare providers. Unfortunately today, these great people are hardly recognized and, have all but been forgotten in time.
“Fritz Pollard,:” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fritz_Pollard “10-year Currency Converter.” Bank of Canada. 10 July 2008 http://http://bankofcanada.ca/en/rates/exchform.html.
Archer, Jacque D., and Santoro, Jamie W., Images of America, Rogers Park, Arcadia Publishing, Chicago, IL, 2007.
Carroll, John. Fritz Pollard: Pioneer in Racial Advancement. Urbana: University of Illinois P, 1992.
Pollard, Frtiz. Fritz Pollard. http://biography.jrank.org/pages/2817/pollard-fritz.html.
David K. Wiggins and Patrick B. Miller The Unlevel Playing Field: A Documentary History of the African American Experience in Sport (Sport and Society) .University of Illinois Press, Champaign, IL 2003,
“Fritz Pollard,” Answers.com_topic_fritz-pollard_3hqvitoj.html
Fritz Pollard, http://www.profootballhof.com/hof/member.jsp?player_id=242