Duke Slater overcame poverty and racial barriers to become a dominant NFL player and distinguished Chicago judge, living the life of a true pioneer that still makes his family proud a half-century after his death.
So whenever Dina White speaks about perseverance to youths at the A.M.E. Bethel Methodist Church in Clinton, Iowa — where Slater’s father was a prominent minister — she still references her famous, trailblazing second cousin.
“It’s important I tell these kids involved in sports about him so they know, for black history to have positive examples like that to point out,” White said of Slater, the former Chicago Cardinals star who was the NFL’s first African-American lineman in 1927. “To me, Duke Slater was a legend.”
The legend of Duke Slater continues to grow, revived by a historian and an author intent on pushing Slater’s candidacy for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And Michael Kearney, a former Clinton councilman, and Neal Rozendaal, who literally wrote the book on Slater in 2012, have a point.
Slater, a six-time All-Pro selection, earned a reputation as pro football’s best two-way lineman first playing five seasons for the old American Football League Rock Island Independents and then, most notably, for the NFL Cardinals for five years. In 10 seasons, Slater never missed a game because of injury or illness. Of Slater, George Halas once told reporters: “In the old Cardinals-Bears games, I learned it was absolutely useless to run against Slater’s side of the Cardinal line.”
He was the only lineman to play all 60 minutes when Ernie Nevers scored a record 40 points on six rushing touchdowns, running through holes Slater cleared. For all but two games in the 1927-29 seasons, Slater was the NFL’s only African-American player before the league’s unofficial ban in 1933, requiring resolve that transcends any era.
“But I don’t want to make it about race — Duke deserves to be in the Hall based on the career he had, without qualification,” Rozendaal said. “He had a Hall of Fame career despite the fact he was African-American and faced obstacles that would have tripped most guys up.”
Rozendaal’s research unearthed fascinating nuggets, including a Chicago Defender photo of Slater at a charity golf outing in the early 1960s posing with fellow pioneers Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. Another picture showed a helmetless Slater blocking three Notre Dame defensive players in an epic 10-7 Iowa victory in 1921 that ended a 20-game winning streak for Knute Rockne’s team. But the most interesting find was an interview Red Grange did celebrating the league’s 40th anniversary when Grange named his all-time NFL team. Grange named 13 players, including Slater.
The other 12 are in the Hall of Fame.
“He has been overlooked, and that needs to be rectified,” Rozendaal said. “Somebody has to stop and consider this guy’s story.”
John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance and former NFL lineman, takes Slater’s omission personally. Wooten, the leader of a minority advocacy group, believes the movement to induct Slater stalled after Pollard, one of the NFL’s first African-American players and the league’s first black coach, was enshrined in 2005.
“I’ll take part of the blame for not pushing Duke the way we pushed Fritz Pollard,” Wooten said in a phone interview. “What puts him in the same category as Pollard is that he was outstanding in the intellectual community too. You can’t read minds of voters. But you can read actions, and Duke got neglected.”
A Hall of Fame finalist in 1970 and ’71, Slater has suffered from a lack of awareness based on how long ago he played. His name appeared on a preliminary ballot of 2018 candidates the Hall of Fame’s Senior Committee voted on and expects to consider at a meeting later this month, keeping a glimmer of hope alive from Iowa to Chicago, where Slater’s legacy in football and the legal community endures.
In 1948, the South Side attorney became Chicago’s second African-American elected judge on the Cook County Municipal Court. In 1960, Slater enhanced his stature when he ascended to the Superior Court.
“I remember my father talking about Duke Slater,” said Ald. Ed Burke, whose father, Joseph P. Burke, preceded him in office in the 14th Ward.
Burke plans to sponsor a City Council resolution recommending Slater’s induction into the Hall of Fame and urge his brother, Rep. Dan Burke, D-Chicago, to do the same in Springfield on the state level.
“One would think this is what the Hall of Fame should be searching for, not just a great athlete but somebody who contributed to society the way Duke Slater did,” said Burke, who compared Slater to Hall of Famer Alan Page, a former Minnesota Supreme Court justice.
As much as Slater left his mark at the University of Iowa as one of the school’s most influential athletes ever, his life converged conveniently at 61st Street and Racine Avenue on Chicago’s South Side. That was the site of the vacant lot where Slater learned how to play football and developed a love for the game. Later, Slater played for the Chicago Cardinals at Normal Park, the home stadium constructed on the same land. When Normal Park was torn down, the Englewood Police Station was built at the spot in 1953, and Slater often occupied the courtroom upstairs.
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.”
That man rests in peace at Mt. Glenwood Memorial Gardens, the historic cemetery southeast of the city where many other prestigious African-Americans are buried. On Slater’s headstone — Fred W. Duke Slater 1898-1966 — the bottom line summing up 68 years of integrity reads: “A Legend In His Lifetime.”