Duke Slater – Iowa’s All-American Trailblazer.

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:

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.

This RARE signed photo of Duke came up on Ebay in August 2021 – $1500 was the asking price!

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.

Duke Slater’s football shoes.

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.

1913 Clinton football team – Duke is fifth from the left.

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.

Iowa played all their games in Iowa Field – located alongside the Iowa River.

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.

Iowa Football Coach Howard Jones (1916-1923) – Iowa claimed consecutive Big Ten titles in 1921 and 1922, winning 20 straight games under the guidance of Hall of Fame coach Howard Jones.
(JP-017) Here’s a rare postal cover from the 1923 football season – Howard Jones’ final year of coaching at SUI.

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.”

(P-0120) Iowa Field – Home of the Hawkeyes. Click here to read more.

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.

1921 Iowa Football Team

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.

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.

There’s Duke, at the bottom of the pile, after clearing a hole for Gordon Locke. Photo by Fred W. Kent, Iowa City’s famed photographer.

Knute Rockne, the famed Notre Dame coach, said this after the game, “This fellow Slater just about beat my team single-handed in the only contest we lost. Realizing the great strength of Slater and the fact that he knew how to use that strength to intelligent advantage, I had four of my players massed around Slater throughout the game. Occasionally my boys would stop the big tackle, but those times were the exception. Usually, he made such holes in my strong line that fullback Locke would go through for long gains, often standing straight up as he advanced with the ball.”
In 2019, as the north end of Kinnick Stadium was being remodeled, this amazing sculpture by Brett Grill was created using Fred W. Kent’s 1921 photograph from the Iowa/Notre Dame game.

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.

1921 Picture Postcard – sold for $426 on Ebay in October 2021
1921 Picture Postcard – sold for $2,551 on Ebay in October 2021!
October 1Knox (IL)*Iowa Field-Iowa City, IAW 52–14
October 8Notre Dame*Iowa Field-Iowa City, IAW 10–7
October 15IllinoisIowa Field-Iowa City, IAW 14–2
October 29at PurdueStuart Field-West Lafayette, INW 13–6
November 5at MinnesotaNorthrop Field-Minneapolis, MNW 41–7
November 12IndianaIowa Field-Iowa City, IAW 41–0
November 19at NorthwesternNorthwestern Field-Evanston, ILW 14–0
Iowa Field 1895-1928

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).

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.

Duke Slater became the most decorated player in the history of the Rock Island Independents. He was named an all-pro after the 1923, 1924, and 1925 seasons, the only Independent to make three all-pro teams.

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.

Judge Roger Kiley, who played at Notre Dame; Judge Fred W. Slater, who played at Iowa; Judge Norman C. Barry, another Notre Dame man; and Judge Robert Dunne, who played at Michigan, pose in a photo on Dec. 7, 1959.

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.

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.”

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!

In September 1972, Iowa Stadium was “officially” renamed Nile Kinnick Stadium.

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…

(M-0123) In 2020, these two cards were issued to celebrate two of Iowa’s greatest players.

Starting with the 2021 Iowa Football season, the Hawkeyes will be playing on Duke Slater Field in Nile Kinnick Stadium!

(M-0122) At the Iowa Homecoming Parade – 2021 – The University gave away Duke Slater Field mini-footballs – I was fortunate to grab one!

Click here to access our list of stories of those who have made a difference in this call for Unity Through Diversity…

Click here to access our Rich Stories of Diversity Timeline…

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Iowa names Duke Slater Field at Kinnick Stadium, HawkeyeSports.com, July 28, 2021

Iowa names Duke Slater Field at Kinnick Stadium – video, HawkeyeSports.com, July 28, 2021

Breaking Ground for the Ground Breaker, Hawkeye Football, Twitter, July 30, 2021

LumberKings to host Duke Slater bobblehead night, Beau Troutman, Clinton Herald, July 16. 2021

1921 Iowa Hawkeyes Football Team, Wikipedia

Duke Slater, pioneer Chicago Cardinal and city judge, deserves Hall of Fame spot, David Haugh, Chicago Tribune, August 5, 2017

Duke Slater – Pro Football Hall of Fame Centennial Class Member (2020), Sports History Network, July 15, 2020

Duke Slater artwork by Bob Carroll, Duke Slater, Rock Island Independents, 2007

Old Gold: Duke Slater the Hawkeye Trailblazer, David McCartney, Iowa Magazine, September 2, 2019

Frederick Wayman “Duke” Slater, Find-A-Grave

Etta J Searcy Slater, Find-A-Grave

Etta Searcy Slater obituary, Chicago Tribune, March 25, 1962

Order Neal’s book here!

Much thanks goes to Neal Rozendaal, biographer of Duke Slater. Click here to check out Neal’s website and book.

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