The porter and the pass catcher: Uncovering the Black football trailblazers Canada forgot

*Disclaimer: This story includes some racial descriptors rightfully deemed inappropriate by modern standards. They are included to give the reader a full understanding of the historical coverage of these players.

Over the course of the last month, writers around the CFL have used their platform to tell the stories of a multitude of trailblazers in honour of Black History Month.

One story told frequently this time of year is that of legendary Montreal Alouette Herb Trawick and for good reason. The Hall of Famer and seven time all-star shattered expectations in La Belle Province and is credited with being the first Black player in CFL history.

Except he wasn’t.

Trawick and Jackie Robinson may have shattered barriers together in Montreal in 1946, but calling him the CFL’s first Black player is a misnomer on a number of levels.

For one thing, Trawick never actually played in the Canadian Football League. That name didn’t arrive until 1958, the year after Trawick retired.

When Trawick arrived in 1946, the Alouettes were a part of the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union, or ‘Big Four,’ which played under the national jurisdiction of the Canadian Rugby Union. Trawick would the first Black player in CRU history.

Except he wasn’t.

Trawick’s status is actually that of the first Black player in Canadian professional football, but he wasn’t the first Black athlete to play or even excel in the convoluted national web that would one day become the CFL. For that, you have to go back even further.

It’s important to understand that history is not the linear march of progress that we typically assume. There are pauses and serious patches of regression along the way, and in few areas is this more true than in race relations.

Ahead of the Super Bowl this year, Viola Davis eloquently described how this occurred in the NFL. In a pre-game short that I highly recommend you look up for yourself, she explained how Black players like Fritz Pollard excelled in the NFL in the early 1920s before the league imposed an official colour barrier.

While evidence of any official directives against Black players are absent in research on football in Canada, a similar gap of participation occurred.

Though still unknown to most casual CFL fans, one player in particular is often cited as Canadian football’s first recorded Black athlete. His name was Robert Ellis Jackson and he captivated Regina late in the 1930 season.

Details surrounding Jackson are scarce, but his addition to the Roughriders made the papers on September 27th, 1930 with the headline “Dusky Athlete Joins Riders.” The coverage surrounding him would continue to focus on his race for the duration of his time in Regina.

The 24-year old, 155-pounder was said to have some football playing experience from the United States and went by the nickname “Stonewall,” an allusion to the famous confederate general, but where he came from was never revealed.

Jackson made his debut for the Riders in their regular season finale against Moose Jaw, ripping off a 45-yard run to the delight of fans. When the playoffs opened a week later against St. John’s, the “ebonyhued boy,” as he was frequently referred to, was top of mind for early Rider Nation.

“In the second half an incessant cry of ‘We want Jackson’ from the stand forced Coach [Al] Ritchie to inject the big boy into the fray,” the Leader-Post reported following a 23-0 drubbing of the Manitoba team.

“Every move he made was cheered and when he brought [future Hall of Famer] Eddie James down on an end run, howls of joy emanated from the grandstand.”

Jackson scored one touchdown in four games for Regina as the Roughriders qualified for the Grey Cup for the third straight year. The team was heading to Toronto to take on Balmy Beach and Jackson became the first Black player to play in the big game.

His journey to the game was a little different than the rest of the team however. A Pullman porter by trade, Jackson drew a shift carrying his teammates bags on the way out east. As the Leader-Post described it, he was “looking after the comforts of the Regina team en-route.”

“The gridders have spent most of their time on the trip so far in offering tidbits of advice to Stonewall and the coloured boy has been the centre of amusement,” the newspaper wrote upon arrival. “His pals are pulling for him to star in the big game on Saturday and they say he will.”

Jackson was photographed by The Globe exiting the train in Toronto in his porter’s uniform, standing next to head coach Al Ritchie dressed to the nines and hardly seeming like a member of the team. It’s an unsettling reminder of the stark racial realities that existed even as fans chanted Jackson’s name.

The Roughriders lost that Grey Cup 11-6. In the official team photo taken the Friday before the game, Jackson stands as the lone Black face in the back row, the only player in a shirt and tie rather than a uniform. No one knows why.

Jackson didn’t return to Regina after the 1930 season but he continued playing football. In 1931, he joined the Saskatoon Quakers and in 1932 he played for St. John’s in Winnipeg, but he only managed six appearances over those two seasons. It’s likely his railway responsibilities kept him moving and after 1932, he simply disappeared.

While Jackson is the first Black player in Grey Cup history, he still can’t claim to be the first Black player in the CRU.

For that we go back five more years to 1925, when a kid named Russ Gideon broke onto the scene with the Calgary Tigers, a precursor to the Stampeders.

Photo provided by Daryl Slade

Born in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, Gideon moved to Calgary at nine years old and quickly became a standout on the city’s athletic circuit. He was a champion runner, a fearsome boxer, strong hockey player and baseball star, but where he really excelled was football, first for Crescent Heights High School, then the Calgary Juniors.

Off the field, he was equally well-known. Gideon was the president and founder of the Victoria Park rotary athletics clubs, managed many of the teams he played on and was a driving force behind the creation of a new junior football team in the East End. On weekend’s, Russ Gideon’s Orchestra, his five piece band, dominated the dance circuit.

Though he saw two games in 1925, Gideon truly became a star for the Tigers in 1928. At 150 pounds he was described as “one of the smartest outside wings and hardest tacklers in the province.”

In contrast to Jackson, coverage of Gideon generally steered away from his race. While he is referred to as “coloured” on a couple of occasions, the Calgary Herald spent far more time waxing poetic about his fleet-footed, hard-hitting play style than his status as the game’s only Black player. Regardless, the “tower of strength at wing” was too widely known for the descriptors to be necessary.

On September 21st, 1929, Gideon would take part in one of the biggest moments in Canadian football history. The Tigers were in Edmonton for the season opener and fans eagerly awaited the implementation of a new rule: the forward pass. It took until the fourth quarter but they were rewarded, with Calgary’s Gerry Seiberling throwing the first one in the CRU.

Strangely, no one knows who caught the first of Seiberling’s four completions that day. The Herald credited Ralph Losie, the Edmonton Journal wrote that Alec Mackenzie did it first, but Gideon had that honour attributed to him in his obituary. Gideon’s claim has been backed by the Stampeders in some official publications and historian Daryl Slade told me he remains unsure of the actual recipient.

What we can say with certainty is that Gideon was among the first to take advantage of the “snappy system of play” that became the CFL’s lifeblood.

Over the course of his career, Gideon played 29 games and scored two touchdowns. Far more importantly, he gained the reputation as one of the country’s biggest rouge scorers, notorious for tackling opponents in their end zone. By 1931, Gideon was one of just 12 player from the West considered for the first ever CRU All-Canadian team. None were selected.

In 1932, Gideon left Calgary for Boston and a spot at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacology, returning only for a one game guest appearance in 1933. To mark his departure, a tea was hosted by the local Elks club with Gideon as guest of honour and the Dodgers baseball team threw a lavish farewell dinner.

Unlike Jackson, we do know what happened to Russ Gideon after football. He became one of the first Black pharmacology graduates in Massachusetts history and served in the 366th Infantry Medical Corps in Africa and Italy during World War Two, surviving to open a drugstore in Seattle.

Gideon would become a national officer in the NAACP and the National Negro Business League, a pioneer in senior housing and the Sovereign Grand Commander of all Prince Hall Freemasons north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Ebony Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential Black citizens in the United States every year from 1977 until his death in 1985.

The stories of Robert Ellis Jackson and Russ Gideon may do little to excite the masses and their long-term impacts are much harder to trace in the sport than a player like Herb Trawick, but they remain important.

Both players were outliers on the path to an integrated CFL. They excelled despite obstacles, but they also contrast how we construct race as a society.

Jackson, the outsider from south of the border, was a racialized peculiarity in Regina even as they cheered him. Gideon earned special inclusion that may not have been afforded others because he became an integral part of his small community, in many ways the “designated black friend” trope we know today.

To understand and reckon with Black history in this country and our league, we must tell both those stories. Most importantly, we must commit to discovering others.

Gideon may be the first Black player in Canadian football history or just the first we know about. There is no telling what incredible people remain hidden in the archives, unjustly left out of the narrative as these two once were.

We have an obligation to find those stories.

*Thanks to Chris Sinclair and Daryl Slade for their insight on this story.

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