Spotted in the Archives: Charles W. Follis

Charles W. Follis (1879-1910) was the first Black professional football player in the U.S. We spotted him in the archives and learned about his tragically short life.

Charles W. Follis
Charles W. Follis

Born in Cloverdale, Virginia, Follis was raised by his parents, James and Catherine Follis. In 1880, at age 1, he lived with his parents and 3 older brothers.

Follis family in the 1880 U.S. Census
Follis family in the 1880 U.S. Census

The Follis family later moved to Wooster, Ohio, where Charles attended Wooster High School. As a student, he helped establish the school’s varsity football team. In the team’s first year, he was the captain and they had no losses.

Charles Follis and the Wooster High School Football Team
Charles Follis and the Wooster High School Football Team

On June 4, 1898, the Cleveland Leader reported on Wooster’s annual field day, which welcomed both University and high school students to compete. The paper explained, “[t]he athletic team from the city high school contested with the collegians, and to the shame of the institution which once stood high in field contests, won the greater of the events.” Follis appears to have won most of the events, even breaking the school’s vault record at the time.

Cleveland Leader, June 4, 1898
Cleveland Leader, June 4, 1898

In 1900, at age 21, Follis continued to live with his family in Wooster, OH. Surrounded by white neighbors, they lived at 250 Spink St.

Follis family in the 1900 U.S. Census
Follis family in the 1900 U.S. Census

Although Follis enrolled in the College of Wooster in 1901, he did not play for the school’s football team. Instead, he played for the town’s amateur football team – the Wooster Athletic Association, where he earned the nickname of the “Black Cyclone from Wooster.”

He went on to play in Shelby, Ohio. Signing a contract with the Shelby Blues in 1904, he was the first Black man to break the barrier of professional football. He faced racism and discrimination for 2 years on and off the field, until he suffered a career-ending injury in 1906.

Follis with the Shelby Blues in 1902 (pre-contract)
Follis with the Shelby Blues in 1902 (pre-contract)

Following his injury, Follis transitioned to playing baseball in the still-segregated baseball leagues. While he was a catcher for the Cuban Giants, he caught pneumonia. He died in Cleveland on April 5, 1910, at the age of 31.

 

For more about Charles W. Follis:

http://bleacherreport.com/articles/228584-breaking-pro-footballs-color-line-the-story-of-charles-w-follis

http://www.blackpast.org/aah/follis-charles-w-1879-1910

U.S. Census records courtesy of Ancestry.com

Newspaper articles courtesy of Genealogybank.com

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