Details of the history of black players in American professional football depend on the professional football league considered: the National Football League (NFL), which evolved from the first professional league, the American Professional Football Association, or the American Football League, (AFL), a rival league from 1960 through 1969, which eventually merged with the NFL.
Even from its inception in 1920, the American Professional Football Association had comparatively few African-American players; a total of nine black people suited up for NFL teams between 1920 and 1926. Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall were the first black players in what is now the NFL in 1920. Pollard became the first black coach in 1921. However, after 1926, all of these black players disappeared from the subsequent National Football League; several teams were kicked out of the league that year, and with a large number of available, talented white players, black players were generally the first to be removed, never to return again. For the next few years, a black player would sporadically pop up on a team: Harold Bradley played one season with the Chicago Cardinals in 1928, and David Myers played for two New York City-based teams in 1930 and 1931. In 1933, the last year of integration, the NFL had two black players, Joe Lillard and Ray Kemp. Both were gone by the end of the season: Lillard, due largely to his tendency to get into fights, wasn't invited back to the Chicago Cardinals, while Kemp quit on his own accord to pursue a coaching career (one that turned out to be long and successful). Many observers will attribute the subsequent lockout of black players to the entry of George Preston Marshall into the league in 1932. Marshall openly refused to have black athletes on his Boston Braves/Washington Redskins team, and reportedly pressured the rest of the league to follow suit. Marshall, however, was likely not the only reason: the Great Depression had stoked an increase in racism and self-inflicted segregation across the country, and internal politics likely had as much of an effect as external pressure. Whatever the reason, the NFL did not have another black player until after World War II.
Most black players either ended up in the minor leagues (six joined the American Association and several others found their way into the Pacific Coast Professional Football League) or found themselves onto all-black barnstorming teams such as the Harlem Brown Bombers. Unlike in baseball, where the Negro Leagues flourished, no true football Negro league was known to exist until 1946, and by this time, the major leagues had begun reintegrating.
When the NFL's Cleveland Rams wanted to move to Los Angeles in 1946, it was stipulated in their contract with the Los Angeles Coliseum that they had to integrate their team, so they signed two UCLA teammates, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington, both of whom were playing for the PCPFL's Hollywood Bears. Still, racial integration was slow to arrive: a black player was not drafted into the NFL until 1949, and only then in the 19th round of the draft. The AAFC was a little faster; six of the league's eight teams had signed black players, most by the league's second season in 1947. In comparison, only three of the ten NFL teams (the Rams, Detroit Lions and New York Giants) signed a black player before 1950. The Green Bay Packers followed in 1950, but the bulk of NFL teams did not sign a black player until 1952, by which point every team but the Washington Redskins had signed a black player.
Marshall was quoted as saying "We'll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites." In spite of this open bias, Marshall was elected to the NFL's Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. As part of his "qualifications"' for enshrinement, the hall says: "Marshall was totally involved in all aspects of his team's operation and endured his share of criticism for not integrating his team until being forced to do so in 1962." The Redskins had no black players until they succumbed to the threat of civil-rights legal action by the Kennedy administration. The Redskins eventually came through though signing Bobby Mitchell and two other African American players by 1962. In 1946, the Cleveland Browns of a rival pro football league, the All-America Football Conference, signed two black players: Marion Motley and Bill Willis.
Even when the NFL did sign black players, poor treatment was evident. Reportedly, black players routinely received lower contracts than whites in the NFL, while in the American Football League there was no such distinction based on race. Position segregation was also prevalent at this time. According to several books such as the autobiography of Vince Lombardi, black players were stacked at "speed" positions such as Defensive Back but excluded from "intelligent" positions such as Quarterback and Center. (Such segregationist policies continue to this day; for much of the 2000s, there were no white starting running backs in the NFL.) However despite the NFL's segregationist policies, after the league merged with the more tolerant AFL in 1970, more than 30% of the merged league's players were African American. Today, recent surveys have shown that the NFL is approximately 57-61% non-white (this includes African Americans, Polynesians, non-white Hispanics, Asians, and people that are mixed race.) Conversely, the American Football League actively recruited players from small colleges that had been largely ignored by the NFL, giving those schools' black players the opportunity to play professional football. As a result, for the years 1960 through 1962, AFL teams averaged 17% more blacks than NFL teams did. By 1969, a comparison of the two league's championship team photos showed the AFL's Chiefs with 23 black players out of 51 players pictured, while the NFL Vikings had 11 blacks, of 42 players in the photo. The American Football League had the first black placekicker in U.S. professional football, Gene Mingo of the Denver Broncos (Mingo's primary claim to fame, however, was as a running back, and was only secondarily a placekicker); and the first black regular starting quarterbacks of the modern era, Marlin Briscoe of the Broncos and James Harris of the Buffalo Bills. Willie Thrower was a back up quarterback who saw some action in the 1950s for the Chicago Bears.