For much of the 20th century, most of American life was split along racial lines, forcing many black athletes in search of competition to organize their own teams and leagues. Of the handful of all-black semi-pro football teams known to exist in Detroit in the first half of the 20th century, one of the most notable was the Wolverine Athletic Association.
The Wolverines, pictured here, were organized in 1919 by two notable Detroiters: John C. Dancy and Fred Hart Williams. Dancy was the longtime director of the Detroit Urban League, established in 1918. Williams, a descendant of runaway slaves who had escaped to Detroit via the “underground railroad,” was a municipal tax clerk, journalist, and namesake of the first African-American genealogical society in Michigan. As “race men”- that is, as prominent black men intent on furthering the cause of their race – Dancy and Williams saw the Wolverines as an opportunity to teach young men the values of teamwork while also demonstrating to the world that blacks could compete on an equal footing with whites.
The Wolverines played local high school teams, factory teams, and semipro squads, as well as Wilberforce College, the historically all-black college in Ohio. Although the scores of most of these contests have been lost to time, anecdotal accounts indicate the Wolverines were high-caliber competitors; they are known to have beaten Wilberforce at least twice. The association, which also fielded teams in basketball and track and field, evidently disbanded in 1922 after four seasons of exceptional play.
Perhaps the most talented local black eleven were the Detroit Pioneers, an independent team coached by Tuskegee alum William “Dad” Moberly in the years leading up to World War II.
The Pioneers practiced at Goldberg Field at Ferry and St. Antoine streets and played home games at Mack Park, a 10,000-seat wooden facility near Southeastern High School that for many years housed the Detroit Stars of the Negro baseball leagues. Unlike the Stars, who were financially successful for more than a decade until the Great Depression caused attendance to dry up and the club to fold, the Pioneers never were profitable. They played before sparse crowds in 1939 and 1940, the only years for which partial game accounts can be found.
Nonetheless, the Pioneers’ roster featured some top-shelf talent from the country’s historically black colleges, including Tuskegee, Kentucky State, Wilberforce, Xavier, and Wiley. In 1940, the Pioneers fielded a pair of former All-Americans from Kentucky: quarterback Redford Rogers and center Melvin Bailey. These players would have had a reasonable expectation of playing in the NFL had the league not been practicing de facto segregation.
The Pioneers played an uneven schedule, their opponents ranging from black professional teams like the powerful Chicago Panthers (whom they beat, 2-0) to white amateur and semipro elevens. “The Detroiters completely smothered the efforts of the white boys,” the Chicago Defender crowed after the Pioneers crushed the Marine City Athletic Club, 26-0, one afternoon that season.
A few weeks later, on a cold, wet Thanksgiving afternoon, the Panthers beat the Toledo All-Stars, 6-0, before a smattering of shivering fans at Mack Park. “The white boys threatened in the last period, rushing the ball to the Pioneers’ one-foot line, but three tries at the line failed to produce any yardage,” reported the Defender. A fourth-down pass was intercepted by Booker Wingo, the former Tuskegee guard, to secure the victory.
None of this was enough to save the Pioneers. Black Detroiters had all they could do just trying to pay the rent and put food on the table. There was no discretionary income for football tickets. By the following year all mention of the team had disappeared from the newspapers.