In 2021, in light of the George Floyd (Black Lives Matter) tragedy, there has been a very concentrated effort here in Iowa City to bring to light, and hopefully correct, the many years of racial injustice in our history. In other posts, we’ve looked at positive moves by both the City of Iowa City (renaming a city park to honor James Alan McPherson), and Johnson County (changing our eponym (namesake) to honor Lulu Johnson), honoring well-deserving African-Americans who have been grossly overlooked by past generations, primarily because of their skin color.
Now, the University of Iowa Athletic Department has joined the effort. On July 28, 2021, this press release hit the news-wire:
As I see it, this is a much-needed, long-overlooked honor, and I, for one, am a proud Hawkeye in response to this decision. Which now brings us to our post:
Duke Slater – Iowa’s All-American Trailblazer.
Above are two photos of Duke Slater, taken around 1918 by Iowa City’s famed photographer, Fred Kent. Allow me here, to give you Duke Slater’s amazing story, from his biographer, Neal Rozendaal…
Frederick Wayman Slater was born (Normal, Illinois) on December 9, 1898, the oldest of six children born to George and Letha Slater. His father was a prominent, nationally-recognized African-American (AME) minister (in Chicago), and when (Fred) was 13 years old, George became the pastor of (the AME) church in Clinton, Iowa.
As a boy, Fred Slater somehow picked up the name of the family dog, Duke, as a personal nickname. Duke Slater learned the game of football playing neighborhood pickup games in the rough streets of the South Side of Chicago. While other boys enjoyed carrying the football, Slater loved to tackle, and since every football game needs linemen, Slater was assured of finding a spot in a street game wherever he went.
Helmet or Shoes? You pick!
The Slater family was extremely poor, a fact conspicuously illustrated when he joined the Clinton High School team as a sophomore in 1913. At that time, students had to pay for their own helmets and shoes, but Duke’s family could not afford both. George told Duke to pick one or the other, and Duke decided he needed shoes more. He played his entire high school football career and most of his college career without a helmet. Meanwhile, Duke’s feet were so big, his shoes had to be special-ordered from Chicago.
Duke Slater developed into a powerful lineman at the tackle position. He played well for Clinton High, leading them to two mythical state championships in 1913 and 1914. The most memorable game of his high school career was the Iowa State Championship game in 1914, his junior season. The title game pitted Clinton High against West Des Moines High School, led by Aubrey Devine, Slater’s future teammate at Iowa. That game ended in a 13-13 tie.
Interestingly enough, a younger cousin of Duke Slater, Lulu Johnson, moved to Clinton for her senior year of high school. Lulu was the captain of the River Kings girls’ six-on-six basketball team and attended SUI after graduating from Clinton High School in 1925. Click here to read about her amazing Iowa story.
Duke comes to Iowa City – 1918.
In 1918, Duke Slater took to the football field at the University of Iowa, where he would achieve his greatest fame. Under the instruction of Coach Howard Jones, Slater developed into one of the greatest linemen ever to play college football.
As a sophomore in 1919, Slater was a unanimous first team All-Big Ten selection and a second team All-American. This made him the first black All-American at Iowa and just the sixth African-American to earn such honors in the history of college football. Spectators marveled at Slater’s rugged line play. Walter Eckersall, the foremost authority on college football at the time outside of the east coast, wrote, “Slater is so powerful that one man cannot handle him and opposing elevens have found it necessary to send two men against him every time a play was sent off his side of the line.”
Fritz Crisler, a University of Chicago end who went on to become a legendary coach and athletic director at Michigan, said, “Duke Slater was the best tackle I ever played against. I tried to block him throughout my college career but never once did I impede his progress to the ball carrier.” Duke Slater was again a first team All-Big Ten selection as a junior in 1920, but it was his senior season that served as the pinnacle of his college career.
The 1921 Hawkeyes.
The 1921 Hawkeyes were arguably the greatest team in Iowa history. The Hawks had a perfect 7-0 record and never trailed at any point during the season. The team blew through the conference schedule to claim the school’s first outright Big Ten championship. But the team’s biggest win was a non-conference victory over Coach Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame squad. Rockne only lost 12 games as the head coach at Notre Dame; this was one of them.
Iowa 10 Notre Dame 7 – An Iconic Moment in Iowa Football – October 8, 1921.
The Fighting Irish came into the 1921 Iowa game riding a 20-game unbeaten streak. The Hawks jumped on the board early with ten quick points and held on for a 10-7 upset victory. One of the greatest photographs in the history of Iowa football (below) is from that game, depicting a helmet-less Slater clearing a hole for teammate Gordon Locke by blocking three Notre Dame defenders. That victory over Notre Dame helped the Hawks on their way to their own 20-game winning streak, which is still the longest in school history.
The Hawkeyes were the undisputed champions of the Midwest and had a legitimate claim as the best team in the country in 1921. That gave Slater’s place on the team cultural significance; it was the first time in the history of college football that an African-American played a prominent role on a legitimate national championship contender. And Slater’s role was indeed prominent. He was named first team All-Big Ten for the third straight year, still one of only nine Hawkeyes ever to have been named to three All-Big Ten teams.
|October 1||Knox (IL)*||Iowa Field-Iowa City, IA||W 52–14|
|October 8||Notre Dame*||Iowa Field-Iowa City, IA||W 10–7|
|October 15||Illinois||Iowa Field-Iowa City, IA||W 14–2|
|October 29||at Purdue||Stuart Field-West Lafayette, IN||W 13–6|
|November 5||at Minnesota||Northrop Field-Minneapolis, MN||W 41–7|
|November 12||Indiana||Iowa Field-Iowa City, IA||W 41–0|
|November 19||at Northwestern||Northwestern Field-Evanston, IL||W 14–0|
In 1946, (Duke) was one of eleven men selected on an all-time college football All-American team by a nationwide panel of voters. Five years later (1951), Duke Slater was inducted as a member of the inaugural class of the College Football Hall of Fame. He was the only African-American elected in that first class and one of only two Hawkeye players (joining Nile Kinnick).
An NFL Trailblazer.
Duke Slater joined the NFL’s Rock Island Independents in 1922, becoming the first African-American lineman in NFL history. He made his NFL debut on October 1, 1922, leading the Independents to a victory over quarterback Curly Lambeau and the Green Bay Packers, 19-14.
The Chicago Cardinals.
When the Independents went under, Slater was immediately signed by the Chicago Cardinals of the NFL. The Cardinals occupied the South Side of Chicago opposite the Bears, who dominated the North Side. The two franchises had a heated rivalry that culminated every year in a Thanksgiving Day game for Windy City bragging rights. For most of the late-1920s, Duke Slater was the only African-American in the entire NFL (and) was a consistent all-pro from 1923-1930. He was the first NFL lineman – of any race – to make all-pro teams in seven different seasons.
Duke Slater’s career made a positive impact on the NFL. He single-handedly kept the door open for African-Americans in pro football and delayed a “color ban” from taking effect in the NFL for seven years. The league wanted to impose a ban in 1927, but Slater’s consistently outstanding play wouldn’t let them. It wasn’t until two years after Slater retired from the NFL that the league finally pushed through a ban on African-Americans that lasted for twelve years until 1946.
A Pioneer for African-Americans.
In his NFL off-seasons, he went back to the University of Iowa and earned his law degree in 1928. He remained in Chicago after his retirement from football and began a long career as an attorney on the South Side. Slater served as an inspiration for other young African-Americans. As a famous former football player and a wealthy assistant district attorney for the city, he earned the respect and admiration of black and white audiences alike.
That admiration culminated with his election in 1948 to the Cook County Municipal Court. Duke Slater was just the second African-American to be elected as a judge in the city of Chicago. Twelve years later, Slater was the first black judge elevated to Chicago’s Superior Court, at the time the highest court in the city; he moved over to the Circuit Court of Cook County when that court was organized in 1964.
Duke Slater – A Man of Character.
Sandra Hoskins-Wilkins, whose mother, Aurora Slater Hoskins, was one of Slater’s five younger siblings, recalled many trips from California to visit her Uncle Duke — especially one that revealed the respect he had gained in Chicago. Hoskins-Wilkins was pulled over by a Chicago police officer for rolling through a red light and taken to the station at 61st and Racine.
“I showed them my California driver’s license and the guy was like, ‘Why are you here?'” Hoskins-Wilkins said. “I said, ‘Visiting my uncle.’ He said, ‘Who’s that?’ I replied, ‘Duke Slater.’ They had a fit — and Uncle Duke got a good laugh out of that.’
The uncle she fondly remembers laughed a lot but spent little time discussing his glory days.
“He wasn’t braggadocious at all, just very caring and humble and aware of other people, someone really interested in you, who cared about the people of Chicago,” said Hoskins-Wilkins, who lives in Fayetteville, Ga. “A man of character.”
Frederick Wayman “Duke” Slater (1898-1966) and Etta Searcy Slater (1897-1962).
In 1919, it was believed that there were perhaps 50 African-American students enrolled at Iowa, accounting for about 1% of the overwhelmingly white campus’ population at the time. Though a Midwesterner—born in 1898 in Normal, Illinois, and a graduate of Clinton, Iowa, High School—Slater no doubt experienced the paradox of fame and scorn. Despite such barriers, Slater recognized opportunities at Iowa for prospective students and helped recruit other black athletes.
Duke Slater was an active booster and recruiter for the University of Iowa throughout his life. He recruited dozens of prominent African-American athletes to Iowa City, including Ozzie Simmons, Jim Walker, Emlen Tunnell, Cal Jones (pictured above in top right pic), Earl Banks, Harold Bradley Jr., Nolden Gentry, Carl Cain, wrestler Simon Roberts, and many others.
Duke continued in the footsteps of others who went before him, opening the door of opportunity for African American trailblazers in Iowa athletics. Click here to read more about Frank “Kinney” Holbrook (1895-1896).
Duke and Etta Searcy, a graduate from SUI, were married in Muscatine (Etta’s hometown) in 1926, and the couple lived in Chicago for the next thirty-six years. Etta passed away first (1962) and Duke died fours years later at age 67 (1966). They are both buried at Mount Glenwood Memory Gardens South in Glenwood, Illinois. Godspeed!
1972 – Remembering Duke Slater…sort of….
Now, back to Neal Rozendaal‘s biographical material…
In 1972, when the University of Iowa was considering renaming then-Iowa Stadium, the president of the university suggested that the stadium be renamed “Kinnick-Slater Stadium.” Some (vocal I-Club) supporters objected to that idea, and so a compromise was proposed: Iowa Stadium would become Kinnick Stadium, and the newest residence hall on campus, Rienow II, would be renamed Slater Hall in honor of Duke.
It was a wonderful tribute at the time. But today, the effects of the compromise are still being felt. Kinnick’s name being on the stadium has elevated his fame among the Iowa fan base to almost unimaginable proportions, while Slater has faded into relative anonymity. One of the greatest players in Iowa history – a man every bit on the level of Nile Kinnick as far as significance and impact on the Hawkeye football program during his lifetime – has fallen by the wayside, out of sight and out of mind.
The time has come to rectify those glaring oversights of the past…
Starting with the 2021 Iowa Football season, the Hawkeyes will be playing on Duke Slater Field in Nile Kinnick Stadium!
Better late than never! On Iowa! Go Hawks!
(M-0122) At the Iowa Homecoming Parade – 2021 – The University gave away Duke Slater Field mini-footballs – I was fortunate to grab one!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.