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Rogers Park's First Black Family Changed History

By Linze Rice | February 8, 2016 6:37am | Updated on February 14, 2016 6:15pm
 The Pollard family settled in Rogers Park in 1886 and became pioneers in entertainment, education, sports, culture and more.
The Pollard Family
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ROGERS PARK — In 1886, the Pollard family moved to the small village of Rogers Park in order to escape racial tension in Missouri.

In doing so, they "enjoyed the distinction of being the only [r]ace group in the entire Rogers Park community,” according to a 1937 Chicago Defender article.

As the only family of color among a sea of white neighbors, they faced significant hurdles. But the Pollards — a family of eight, with African-American, Native-American and French ancestry — distinguished themselves as leaders in sports and business who changed the course of history.

Who are the Pollards?

The father, John, was born in Virginia in 1846 into a family of free black farmers while the slave trade thrived in the South. Eight years later, fearing that he and his sister would be kidnapped and sold, his mother sent them to Kansas in search of better educational opportunities, according to a profile of the family written by Afia Ohemena of the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society.

In 1862, John was among the first group of black men to join the Union Army and fight in the Civil War.

He later moved to Missouri where he met his wife, Catherine Amanda Pollard, whom the historical society describes as "an extraordinary strong-willed woman ... ahead of her time."

The couple had three children before fleeing the state for the Village of Rogers Park in 1886 (before it was incorporated into Chicago), where they later grew their family to eight.

They lived at 1928 W. Lunt Ave., according to Frank Foster, author of "Breaking the Color Barrier: The Story of the First African American NFL Head Coach, Frederick Douglass 'Fritz' Pollard."

Life in Rogers Park

The Pollards, an education-oriented family, found some reprieve from racial tensions when they left Missouri, but still encountered problems in their new neighborhood.

According to the historical society, Amanda Pollard was known to never answer the door without a gun in her apron.

"Not only did this speak to her bravery and protective behavior, but also, sadly, to the racial discrimination and prejudice of the time," a profile of the family reads.

Frederick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard, one of the Pollard eight who would later become a well-known pro football player and head coach, often argued with West Ridge neighbor and former Chicago Bears coach/owner George Halas, Ohemena wrote.

A Tribune article from 2005 details some of Pollard's complaints against Halas, including Pollard's belief that Halas was resistant to including black football players early on. He also cited the small amount of credit Halas gave to Pollard for his essential role in organizing American football.

The Pollard children embarked upon impressive athletic careers, including Olympic and Hall of Fame-level achievements, yet they each faced discrimination and barriers at many steps along the way, the historical society said.

Frederick "Fritz" Douglass Pollard in the 1916 Rose Bowl. [YouTube/Tom Benjey]

A family of firsts

Despite the family's challenges, the Pollards' achievements and presence in Rogers Park and in Chicago ultimately had a major impact on American sports and culture — though, to many, the Pollard family name has gone unsung.

"Fritz" Pollard was one of the first black players in the National Football League. He was the first African-American in a backfield position to be named an All-American college football player, and later became the first black man to play in the Rose Bowl.

In 2005, "Fritz" Pollard became the first black head coach to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

His son, "Fritz" Pollard Jr., went on to become a track and field star at Senn High School before competing in and earning a bronze medal in the 1936 Olympics.

John Pollard was among the first African-American Union soldiers and later operated a successful barber shop on the Far North Side.

Artissmisia Pollard, the eldest of the children, became Illinois' first black registered nurse, and Naomi, the third child, was one of the first black women to graduate from Northwestern University, according to the historical society.

Amanda Pollard is noted by the historical society for "her unconventional role as a woman during the 19th century," which included being the primary financial point person. She also ran a successful seamstress business that included clients like Marshall Field stores, according to Foster.

Portrait of the Akron Professionals, the first NFL champions, 1920. The team was led by All-America halfback "Fritz" Pollard (first row, far r.), who in 1921 became the first African-American coach in NFL history. [Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images]

Luther Pollard tried to become a professional baseball player after a successful high school athletic career, but was not allowed to play as a person of color. He later started the Ebony Film Corporation, estimated to be worth $500,000 at the time — or about $25 million today, according to reports. He eventually won an Emmy award for his work in film.

Leslie Pollard, who went on to have a successful football career before returning to Chicago, also played an essential role in his brother Fritz's football career and was an early opponent of racism in football.

"He was well known in Chicago, probably better known among both races than any other athlete that ever wore a gridiron uniform on the fields of Chicago representing a high school," an obituary for Pollard reads. "His name will long live for his deeds were many."

Ruth Pollard was a star sprinter at Lake View High School before dying at an early age, and her brother Hughes, who had chosen a career in music over sports, died during World War I in a mustard gas attack.

Lasting legacy

For all their achievements, the Pollards never reached the level of fame that other influential families in the era enjoyed.

Yet their ability to become pioneers in multiple arenas, challenging racial norms, helped pave the way for other athletes of color worldwide.

"They have fought through obstacles to achieve accomplishments that are amazing even by today’s standards," the historical society wrote. "Rogers Park’s Pollard family exemplified excellence in every sense of the word ... Unfortunately today, these great people are hardly recognized and have all but been forgotten in time."

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