- Black on the Prairies
- April 25, 2021
RACE TO TOUCHDOWN
Saskatchewan Roughriders legend George Reed reflects on racism, sport, and leaving a legacy for a new generationApril 25, 2021
RACE TO TOUCHDOWN
Saskatchewan Roughriders legend George Reed reflects on racism, sport, and leaving a legacy for a new generation
The Regina landlord answered George Reed’s call and agreed to show him the apartment. But when Reed arrived, he was told the suite had just been rented.
Reed tried several other places. Same result.
He then had a friend call the same landlords the next day. Every apartment was once again available.
“You start learning what’s going on. It was pretty demeaning,” Reed said.
Reed would become a Saskatchewan Roughriders legend, scoring more touchdowns and rushing for more yards in the 1960s and ‘70s than any professional football player in Canada or the U.S. had before. But he spent his first two seasons living in Regina hotels because no one would rent to a Black man.
“I think it might be hard for a lot of people to understand,” Reed said. “I hope people will open their eyes and see what went on, what’s going on. It might not be quite as bad as south of the border, but for Aboriginal, Black, other — we need to make the situation a better one.
“Maybe one day we’ll all be able to sit down and have supper together.”
Reed is now 81 years old. His playing days have long since ended, but he and his wife, Angie, have chosen to stay in Regina.
Reed agreed to a series of interviews for this story.
During one of them, done on the spotless driveway of his suburban Regina bungalow as late winter sunshine melted the snow on the lawn, CBC asked if Reed had a football to hold for a picture.
Reed, sporting a well-worn Roughriders letterman jacket, said he wasn’t sure. He headed inside to search and emerged after several minutes.
“Here’s one. This OK?” he asked, tossing a partially deflated ball.
It wasn’t just any football. It was a Grey Cup game ball, found in a container crammed with family photos, awards and sports cards.
Reed says there’s more to his story than touchdowns, cheering crowds and Rider Pride.
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln called Vicksburg, Miss., “the key to the South” during the American Civil War. The Union Army captured it on July 4, 1863, after a 47-day siege.
Although slavery was officially abolished after the war, Jim Crow laws ensured the oppression of the area’s majority Black population continued. In 1874, Vicksburg did elect a Black sheriff, Peter Crosby, but he was soon kidnapped and run out of town by a white mob, which then murdered as many as 50 Black men in their homes or farm fields.
Maggie and George Reed Sr. lived in the “coloured” section of Vicksburg in the 1930s. Segregation, enforced by the justice system and the Ku Klux Klan, maintained the racist social and economic hierarchy.
George Reed Jr. was born into this environment on Oct. 2, 1939, the third of 12 kids.
When he was young, the Reed family packed up and left for Seattle, where his father worked in a steel factory during the Second World War.
Reed said life in Seattle was good. He lived in a diverse neighbourhood and doesn’t recall any overt racism. He was a star player on both his high school baseball and basketball teams, but switched to football because it offered better chances at a university scholarship.
Reed accepted an offer from Washington State University in 1959. That’s where he met Angie Levias at a family social gathering. She was on a road trip from Texas with her parents. Everyone attended church together the next morning, and Reed cooked them all brunch.
Reed and Levias were engaged to other people at the time, but their connection was undeniable. They broke off the other engagements, got to know each other better in weekly phone conversations and were married a year later.
During a college game, Reed shattered several bones in his leg. He endured the long, painful rehabilitation, returned to the team, then rushed for more than 500 yards in his senior year and was named to the national all-star team.
Several teams in the National Football League showed interest in Reed. But like other Black players, Reed had heard Canada was more inclusive. He signed a contract with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League, and arrived in Regina in 1963.
Reed made an immediate impression on the field for the Roughriders, scoring the winning touchdown in his first game. He also rushed for the winning score in his first playoff game.
But off the field, Reed was questioning his decision to move to the Canadian Prairies.
“I discovered it wasn’t as tolerant as people made it out to be,” Reed said in his 2011 autobiography, George Reed: His Life and Times, co-written with John Chaput. “Being a Black man in Western Canada in the 1960s could be, to put it mildly, inconvenient.”
He said most teammates were supportive, but that didn’t mean everyone was equal. Some CFL players refused to shower at the same time as their Black teammates. Reed said that after one Roughrider practice, another Black player came out of the shower completely covered in white talcum powder.
“OK, can I play with you guys now? Am I white enough for you?” the player said.
Reed said Black players on other CFL teams would get prank calls from teammates pretending to be members of the KKK. One Calgary coach forbade Black players from bringing white dates to the team banquet, even though one Black player’s wife was white.
Reed also discovered subtler forms of racism. He laboured under an unspoken quota system capping the number of Black players to four or five per team, regardless of their talent. They were pitted against each other, knowing that a new arrival would mean a Black veteran would have to be let go.
Their status was tenuous, so they played through debilitating injuries. Reed, for example, played for two months on a broken tibia. “You never knew if you’d be able to stay and play. I needed to find a way to help and support my family,” he said.
Janelle Joseph, a University of Toronto professor and author of Race and Sport in Canada, said all Canadians can learn from Reed’s experience.
“Some white Canadians will be surprised to hear about this kind of racism, but most Blacks in Canada would be aware of discrimination in housing, employment and subtle racism in stores,” Joseph said in an email.
In 1965, Reed was named the CFL’s most outstanding player. He said people started treating him differently. He was given a membership at the Wascana Country Club, which at the time banned Black and Jewish golfers. Angie moved up from Seattle with their first child, Keith, after Reed finally found a place to live.
“If you were a somebody, they welcomed you,” he said. “I didn’t have a colour to them anymore. I guess I wasn’t Black in the traditional sense.”
In 1966, Reed helped bring Saskatchewan the first Grey Cup in its 56-year history. He was named the game’s most valuable player. He continued his torrid pace into the 1967 season, scoring 15 touchdowns and rushing for a then-record 1,471 yards.
The Reeds, who now had three children, would soon be reminded that some fans’ adulation was conditional.
In 1967, Reed was interviewed by a Toronto Telegram reporter about the riots in Detroit and other U.S. cities throughout that summer. Up to that point, Black CFL players had rarely commented on racism publicly. Reed said he decided to give his honest opinion.
“There is flagrant discrimination against Negroes in Regina,” Reed said. “My wife has become so defensive that when she leaves the house she’s like a coiled cobra ready to strike at anybody.”
He told the reporter that living in Regina was like being in the heart of Alabama.
“Sure, people give you the glad hand and pretend your colour doesn’t make any difference because you’re a football hero. The hell it doesn’t,” he said. “Everybody closes their eyes in Canada and then they don’t understand how we can talk about racial discrimination in this country. It’s time those people took a close look at the Negro in Canada.”
Reed said star quarterback Ron Lancaster and other close friends were supportive, but others labelled Reed ungrateful, conceited and worse. His off-season employer, Molson, took away his company vehicle and demoted him for six months.
“That was a difficult time,” he said.
While Reed endured the scorn and racist contempt of many critics, he remained involved with dozens of local charities. He was one of the founders of the Special Olympics in Saskatchewan. In 1968, he called on a friend, legendary American sprinter Jesse Owens, to speak at a Special Olympics dinner at Regina’s Hotel Saskatchewan.
Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the shadow of Hitler’s white supremacist propaganda, was a hit with the crowd. Reed said they raised enough money to send a group of children from rural Saskatchewan to summer camp.
Reed’s foundation has helped thousands of children with physical and intellectual disabilities. Some of those fundraising events were held at the Wascana Country Club, the same club that had previously banned racial minorities.
Reed was also selected head of the CFL players’ union. He secured significant pay increases and medical coverage for players, particularly for those who weren’t all-stars like him. By the time he stepped out of the role more than a decade later, the Black player quota system had disappeared.
When Reed retired in 1976, he’d obliterated the all-time league records in touchdowns, rushing yards and every other running back category.
Since Reed left the game, attitudes to Black talent have in some ways evolved, and in other ways, remained much the same.
In 1999, the Saskatchewan Roughriders became the first North American pro football team to have a coach and a general manager who were Black.
Coach Danny Barrett and general manager Roy Shivers inherited a team that had lost 15 of 18 games the previous year. They took the Roughriders to the playoffs in five of the next seven years. Shivers often stated his desire to nurture the careers of Black players and coaches.
After losing in the playoffs in 2006, Barrett and Shivers were fired. Some of the fan criticism at the time had racist overtones. When Shivers said his firing was connected to his skin colour, the team’s white ex-president, Tom Shepherd, responded by publicly calling Shivers a racist.
Last summer, as the Black Lives Matter movement swelled after the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, some Roughriders players spoke publicly about racism in Canada.
They faced backlash from many fans, just as Reed had 50 years earlier.
“They love us in Saskatchewan when we have our green jerseys on, but as soon as we voice our opinion about injustices toward Black people, all of a sudden we turn from that Roughrider player that they love to just a Black guy who needs to just put that uniform back on and know his spot in this world,” defensive lineman Jordan Reaves told CBC shortly after Floyd’s death. “It is to me embarrassing that we’re still having this talk on racism.”
For their part, Roughriders executives issued a public statement on Aug. 28 supporting the players.
“The continued injustice and violence aimed at Black, Indigenous and People of Colour is unacceptable,” read the statement. “We are especially proud of our players across the CFL who are using their platforms to draw immediate attention to these issues and are demanding change. We will join with you in your call for action.”
Late last year, the Roughriders renewed the contract of receiver Shaq Evans, one of the team’s most vocal advocates for racial justice.
Reed said he hopes the Black and Indigenous Lives Matter movements will help accelerate change in the U.S. and Canada.
“It took a policeman, an asshole, to put his knee on a guy’s neck for people to notice. What if it wasn’t [caught on video]? Would anyone have said anything?” Reed asked. “Black lives mattered way before [George Floyd] got killed.”
While Reed thinks broader change is possible, “it’s not going to happen overnight. There’s a percentage of people that just won’t listen.”
Reed’s daughter, Georgette, feels the same way.
“There are so many people of colour, so many Black people who know what it’s like to live without hope,” Georgette said. “You keep moving forward and try to survive. It’s all about creating hope. I hope history will stop repeating itself.”
She remembers proudly watching her father in action and said growing up in Regina was great overall. But she also remembers the slurs, the whispers and people crossing the street to avoid them.
One of Georgette’s earliest memories is a trip to the grocery store with her mom. A white woman approached them and started rubbing her hand on the top of Georgette’s head.
“Look at the little girl with the fuzzy hair!” the woman exclaimed.
Angie Reed firmly told the woman to stop. The woman walked away laughing.
“That’s always stuck with me,” Georgette said.
Georgette herself had a long and successful athletic career, competing internationally in swimming, bobsledding and track and field. She represented Canada at the 1992 Olympics in shot put.
She said sports gave her the confidence and the power to make change. She hopes others, particularly those facing racism, will also find their voice.
“You can use who you are to help people, or not,” she said.
Janelle Joseph, the author of Race and Sport in Canada, said the Reed family “sets an example for all Canadians on how to give back to, and build, community. Although it may be painful to look back, I encourage us all to learn from the past so we can challenge the myth of Canada as having always been inclusive.”
An open discussion about racism “is how Canada could move towards being truly multicultural and inclusive,” Joseph said.
George Reed says things can’t change unless the truth is exposed. He said that while he’s had to overcome a lot, he is also grateful he could make a living playing a game he loved.
He’s recovering from multiple back surgeries, but still hopes to watch his team this summer at Mosaic Stadium, where an oversized statue of Reed stands alongside one of Lancaster at the main entrance.
He and Angie celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary in October. He said they cherish the lifelong friendships they’ve made in Saskatchewan. Reed also continues to take inspiration from all of the young Special Olympic athletes and coaches.
He said all his victories and records were never the ultimate goal. Football was a way to get an education, take care of his family, serve his community and change attitudes.
“I never really look at it as [a] legacy,” Reed said. “I just hope I was able to help the situation somewhat.”
“I never really look at it as [a] legacy, I just hope I was able to help the situation somewhat.”George Reed
Race to touchdown
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