in 1895, Frank Kinney Holbrook, the son of a runaway slave, overcame numerous obstacles, fighting racial inequality as he embarked on a brave journey, becoming the first African American college football player in the state of Iowa. He attended the University of Iowa and led the Hawkeyes to their first-ever conference championship (1896).
But, before we write more about “Kinney,” allow us to tell you a bit about his brave father – James Kinney Holbrook (1851-1910)…
In 1863, a 12-year-old African American boy named James Kinney Holbrook escaped from his Virginia owner, running to the safety of a nearby Union Army camp. There, as the story goes, James became a valet for a Captain Dillon who served until the end of the Civil War in 1865. After the war, Dillon invited James to accompany him back to his home in Iowa.
Born a slave on March 30, 1851, Holbrook had been bought and sold on several occasions. “Four times he was placed on the block and sold like an animal,” the Tipton Advertiser once reported. “At the last sale, (the 11-year-old James) clearly remembered, (that he) was bought for $1,100.”
After several years of working for Dillon, James (better known as “Kinney”) Holbrook settled in Tipton, Iowa, where he made his home and found work as a blacksmith. On July 2, 1874, Kinney married Pinkey Wate, a former slave from Kentucky. Three years later, on June 29, 1877, their only child, Frank Kinney Holbrook, was born. The elder Kinney lived in Tipton until his death from a stroke in 1910. His obituary in The Tipton Advertiser read:
Everyone knew Kinney. He had been a resident of Tipton for nearly forty years, and we doubt if this kindly good-natured colored man had an enemy in all this world. He will be missed in many homes which had learned to depend upon him through years when housecleaning time came around or for other humble though necessary offices. If Tipton had a thoroughly honest man, it was Kinney. He was faithful and trustworthy to a marked degree…Considering the chances and opportunities which came to him, his life was a success…Born in slavery, with a black skin, lacking the education of schools, Kinney was seriously handicapped in the race of life. But he and the faithful and industrious wife worked hard, paid their way, and accumulated a little property, including the modest home where he died. And after a life of forty years in this community he passed away, owning the respect of all and the enmity of none.
Frank “Kinney” Holbrook, the son of a blacksmith, grew up in Tipton, Iowa – just outside of Iowa City. He was described as an “irrepressible” child with a quick wit. As the story goes, when Kinney was 11 years old, someone asked him why his nose was so flat. Holbrook took the racial slur in stride, replying, “To keep it out of other folks’ business!”
Kinney attended Tipton High School and was a two-sport athlete, participating in football and track. In his senior year (1895), he led the Tigers to a second-place finish at the Iowa High School State Track Meet (see above), winning the individual state championship in the 50-yard dash and the shot-put events.
Yet, despite Holbrook being a pioneer in sports, he also was an exemplary student. Humble and diligent, he was particularly adept in mathematics, becoming the first black graduate of Tipton High School (1895). During his commencement address, Kinney spoke of the ongoing struggles of African Americans through the atrocities of slavery and beyond.
After high school, Kinney enrolled for some science courses at SUI after several Hawkeye supporters in Tipton provided a fund for his tuition and living expenses. That fall (1895), Kinney joined the football team, becoming the first African American athlete in the history of both The University of Iowa and the State of Iowa. Frank would further this feat by becoming a two sport athlete, joining the track and field squad as a shot putter the following spring.
1895 was a chaotic year for Hawkeye football – the entire football program teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, and the cancellation of the 1895 season was only staved off by a round of emergency fundraising. Because the program was low on funds, money was saved by not hiring a full-time coach, which led to a very disorganized atmosphere around the team.
For his part, Frank earned a football letter in 1895 by starting at the left end position, with a few bright moments, scoring the Hawkeyes’ first touchdown of the year in a 28-0 victory over Parsons College on what one newspaper called “a beautiful run.” That win was followed by four shutout losses, as the Hawkeyes limped to a 2-5 record, including a road loss at Missouri, where Kinney was caught up in the first publicized racial incident of his college career…
The trouble all began when the Hawkeye team boarded a train for Missouri, and the train employees – including the conductor – refused to acknowledge Holbrook’s very presence. When the train stopped at Cameron Junction, Missouri (above), the Iowa squad walked to a nearby hotel in search of some dinner. As the team filed into the hotel dining room, Kinney was stopped by the landlord and informed that “no (n-word) could eat in that dining room.” The Hawkeye squad quickly responded, telling the landlord, “If (Kinney) cannot eat with us, we will find a place where he can.” The landlord held firm, and the team left the hotel, holding the train until a place was found where their black teammate could eat with his friends. Welcome to Missouri!
The 1896 Iowa Hawkeye Football Team was the first squad in Iowa City to win a conference championship. The Hawkeyes played, at that time, in the Western Interstate University Football Association (WIUFA), and went undefeated against the likes of Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska and had only one loss (6-0), to the non-conference University of Chicago Maroons, who allowed only 12 points their entire season.
Alfred E. Bull (above left), fresh from his college playing days as a first-team All-American center at the University of Pennsylvania, was hired as the head coach of the Hawkeye football team in 1896. Under his leadership, Bull pulled Kinney from his left end position (primarily a blocking role since the forward pass had not yet been “invented”), placing him at left halfback. This move brought Kinney into nearly every play of the game, making him into one of the greatest football players in Hawkeye history. Kinney made his presence felt immediately in the season-opening 32-0 victory over Drake by rushing for four Hawkeye touchdowns. One sports historian described Holbrook as…
One of the best halfbacks in the west. He was generally given the ball when a good gain was needed on the last down. His line bucking was excellent. In falling on the ball after a fumble, he has his superior yet to meet. His ability lay in great part in his strength and sprinting qualities.
In Iowa’s second game of the season, they were matched up against the powerful Maroons from the University of Chicago coached by Amos Alonzo Stagg. Chicago had defeated their three previous collegiate opponents by a combined score of 123-0, and although Iowa would be their fourth straight victim by a 6-0 score, the Hawks gave Chicago their first true test of the season. The Chicago Times-Herald was complimentary of Iowa’s play, and especially that of Kinney Holbrook…
Iowa’s star work was done by Holbrook. It was brilliant. He made one run of forty yards through a forest of Chicago tackles, and a couple of sprints of thirty yards. Iowa always worked him when it was necessary to make a gain to keep the ball.
Iowa’s third game of the season was an important conference match-up with Kansas. The teams battled intensely in a scoreless game. With eight minutes remaining in the contest, Iowa had the ball at Kansas’ 45-yard line. The Hawks decided to use a little bit of trickery to get the ball to their best player, and it paid off. Iowa lined up quickly and snapped the ball without a signal. The quick snap caught the Kansas defense off guard, and Holbrook found a seam in the defense. He took the pitch of the ball and sprinted 45 yards for the game’s only touchdown. Iowa protected that lead for the rest of the game and claimed a 6-0 victory for their first conference win in six tries.
A writer for the Tipton-based FK Holbrook Society summarizes…
Holbrook led the team to levels of success it had never known, blazing a path through Western Conference foes, and an eventual conference title – the first ever for the school. A pivotal game that season with rival Missouri, however, may have proven Holbrook’s finest hour. For it was then, coming to a societal intersection where athletics met unabashed racism, that Holbrook’s remarkable display of inner strength and courage opened doors for all who came after.
The FK Holbrook Society writer continues…
The game was in Columbia that year, and tensions were boiling long before kickoff, as citing his race, Missouri alumni had called for a boycott if Holbrook was allowed to play. Coach Bull wasn’t having it, and insisted his star would take the field. Through the contest Holbrook endured countless cheap shots and was berated with racial epithets and death threats from opposing players and fans. The sidelines nearly devolved to a riot as spectators, some armed with clubs and chains, threatened to rush the field, enraged by Holbrook’s participation. Young Holbrook fought through it all with grit and determination, scoring a touchdown to help secure a 12-0 win. It was a victory that went far beyond the field that day.
Here’s how The Vidette-Reporter (the precursor of The Daily Iowan) told the Missouri story…
Two and a half weeks later, the 6-1 Hawkeyes faced Nebraska in their annual Thanksgiving Day game in Omaha. A win would give Nebraska, who was 1-1 in WIUFA play, a share of the league championship with Iowa. On the other hand, an Iowa victory would give the 2-0 Hawkeyes the WIUFA title outright…
The 1896 Hawkeyes ended the season with a 7-1-1 record, the first conference championship in school history, and a rightful claim as the best Hawkeye football team ever assembled to that point. Frank “Kinney” Holbrook, their leading scorer, was the key reason for the team’s success, and Coach Bull would later call Holbrook the best football player he ever coached. Kinney’s hometown newspaper, The Tipton Advisor declared…
Frank Holbrook has won a national reputation as one of the best left halfback football players in the west. On account of his speed and strength, he was always used to do the hard work. The many victories he won proves that he did his work well. (Yet) he is a modest fellow and carries honor easily.
Frank Kinney Holbrook earned two letters on the Hawkeye track team in 1896 and 1897. Although he was a state champion sprinter in high school, his track success at Iowa came in the field events. In his sophomore season in 1897, he set a record by hurling the shot-put 38 feet 10 inches. In just two short years, Kinney had become a legitimate athletic star at SUI, and one can only imagine what he could have accomplished in his final two years at Iowa.
For reasons now lost to history, Holbrook would not return to college the following year. He came home to Tipton, joining his father as the town’s blacksmith, and became the Tipton High School football coach, perhaps the first black coach in state history, and likely one of the first in the nation. After an October 1899 victory over Mt. Vernon High, 6-0, the Tipton Advertiser declared, “Much of the credit of the victory belongs to Frank Holbrook, under whose skillful coaching the home players have rapidly improved in their game during the past two weeks.”
In 1900, Kinney married Ida Mayweather of Wilton, but the marriage lasted only four years. In 1904, Kinney divorced Ida, moving away from Tipton, with varying reports indicating stops in Council Bluffs, Cedar Rapids, Muscatine and Omaha before settling in California in 1906. There, Holbrook found work as a blacksmith, working for “Lucky” Baldwin at the Santa Anita race track. Though there are few records remaining, it’s apparent from a few articles from the local newspaper that Kinney had a difficult time sustaining his life after leaving Tipton.
Holbrook’s last appearance as an athlete took place in 1908, when he fought in two professional boxing matches at McCarey’s Pavillion in Los Angeles against Jim Cameron on June 12 and July 14. Kinney lost both fights, marking the end of his athletic career.
When the Santa Anita track closed down, Kinney moved to Sierra Madre, a Los Angeles suburb, remarried, and returned to his Tipton heritage – operating his own blacksmith shop. He passed the county civil service examination in 1915 and was briefly employed by the county when he fell into poor health. According to the Tipton Advertiser, Holbrook died suddenly of a heart attack on October 29, 1916. His funeral was held at the Masonic lodge where Holbrook was a member. Kinney, Tipton’s Iron Man, was only 39 years old when he passed and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Sadly, Frank “Kinney” Holbrook probably never understood the tremendous impact of his life. But in his many pioneering achievements, new chapters were written in Iowa history, and in the on-going fight for American equality. His spirit, courage and determination live on in the opportunities and accomplishments of all who would follow in his footsteps.
Sadly, Frank Kinney Holbrook’s story of courage has been grossly overlooked for decades, and even when he was mentioned in Iowa football history, sports historians (1939 into the 1980’s) assigned an incorrect name (C.W. Holbrook) to Kinney’s personal achievements!
Thankfully, today, these wrongs are being corrected. In 2021, Iowa football star, Quinn Early, teamed with many others to pay a rich tribute to Frank Kinney Holbrook. Below is a video preview of their wonderful efforts…
Here’s a tip of the old hat to James Kinney Holbrook, his wife Pinkey, and their amazing son, Frank Kinney Holbrook. Your stories of boundless courage are truly inspiring and worthy of great honor and respect. Thank you, Tipton’s Iron Man, and Godspeed!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.