116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
There was a piece of truly good college football news in Iowa recently.
Associated Press’ Ryan Foley reported that the University of Iowa will be naming the field at Kinnick Stadium for Frederick “Duke” Slater, a trailblazing Black player who was an All-America tackle 100 years ago, with approval likely to come from the Iowa Board of Regents.
Slater graduated from Clinton High School, then played at Iowa from 1918-21. He had a 10-year career in the NFL, earned a law degree at Iowa, and become an attorney in Chicago. He was elected to the Cook County Municipal Court in 1948, getting almost a million votes. In 1960 he was the first Black person elevated to the Cook County Superior Court.
Slater was in the College Football Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1951, and will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next month.
It would be easy to say naming the stadium field after Slater is just the university making a public-relations gesture, given the racial issues with Iowa’s football program that were brought to life a year ago and a lawsuit (with a trial date in March 2023) of seven Black former football players against the UI over alleged racial discrimination and mistreatment during their time in the Iowa program.
“It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing,” said Neal Rozendaal, a UI grad who wrote a book in 2012 called “Duke Slater: Pioneering Black NFL Player and Judge.”
Rozendaal is an economist with the Board of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C., an Iowa native and UI graduate. He’ll have a new book on Bump Elliott, the UI athletics director from 1970-1991, out next month.
“When I read the Associated Press story that the university was going to honor Duke Slater, I was obviously beyond thrilled, so happy for Duke Slater’s legacy, for his family,” Rozendaal said.
“And really, for the fact that young people are going to have this additional exposure to Duke Slater’s name and to have an opportunity to learn more about his story.”
Slater, obviously, played major-college football at a time when few Blacks did. He was Iowa’s third Black player. He was a dominant performer for the Hawkeyes when they went 7-0 in 1921 and claimed a share of the mythical national championship that season.
“He was really the first Black player in college football history to play a prominent role for a legitimate national-championship contender,” said Rozendaal. “That’s a very significant thing. That’s a large reason why Slater was the first Black athlete elected to that inaugural College Football Hall of Fame class, which had two Hawkeye players with Nile Kinnick and Duke Slater.”
Legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne double- and triple-teamed Slater, but the Hawkeyes still defeated the Fighting Irish in 1921.
“In 1946,” Rozendaal said, “they were selecting an all-time college football team of 11 players over the first 75 years of the sport in a vote of over 600 sports writers. Duke Slater was selected a lineman on that team.
“That’s the level of acclaim he had when he played at the University of Iowa.”
While a player, Slater also worked the towel concession in Iowa’s locker room, making 35 cents an hour. Full-grant scholarships weren’t part of the deal then.
“You got a little help, but you worked for it,” Slater said.
In 1972, UI President Willard Boyd suggested Iowa Stadium be renamed for Slater and Nile Kinnick in response to a group, including then-Gazette sports editor/columnist Gus Schrader, who had lobbied for years to get the stadium named for Kinnick.
Kinnick was the 1939 Heisman Trophy-winning Hawkeye halfback who was a U.S. Navy aviator during World War II. He died in 1943 during a routine training flight off the coast of Venezuela, forced to crash-land in the sea because of an oil leak.
There was a movement to rename the stadium in Kinnick’s honor shortly after his death. His father opposed the idea, saying he wasn’t comfortable having his son singled out among all the other students who died in that war.
Almost three decades later, Nile Kinnick Sr., relented. Those who had been working to get the stadium renamed for Kinnick weren’t warm to then-UI President Willard Boyd’s suggestion that it be renamed Kinnick-Slater Stadium.
“For many of them,” Rozendaal said, “they had wanted to rename our stadium after Nile Kinnick for decades. And so this was seen as a last-minute curveball, if you will. Once you have it in your head that you want to complete a project a certain way, when you get a twist like that at the last minute there’s a lot of reluctance to change something that you’ve worked so hard on and set forth for so long.”
So a compromise was struck. It was Kinnick Stadium, and the UI’s newest dormitory — a short walk from the stadium — was named Slater Hall.
“Which was a significant move by the University of Iowa,” Rozendaal said, “because, of course, when Duke Slater played at the University of Iowa he wasn’t allowed to stay in the residence halls because of the color of his skin. And now here he was having an entire residence hall named after him.”
The trouble was, it quickly became just a name on the building, with nothing inside or outside informing people why it was named “Slater.” Rozendaal suggests if you interviewed a dozen students coming out of the dorm, none might know who Slater was.
In 2019, though, a 6 1/2-foot-by-14-foot bronze relief of Slater was part of Kinnick Stadium’s north end zone renovation. Now, the playing field will be named for him exactly a century after he was one of the most-impactful players in Iowa history.
Slater’s tie to the university remained strong his whole adult life.
“Through his personal recruiting efforts,” Rozendaal said, “Duke Slater brought a large number of Black athletes to the Hawkeyes, not only to football, but the athletic department overall.
“A large number of Black athletes would gravitate toward the University of Iowa because Duke Slater was so well-known, because they knew the University of Iowa would give them a chance.”
This man was getting it done at Iowa in 1921. Things were far from perfect or ideal for a Black student there, but doors would have been completely closed to him at so many other U.S. universities at that time.
Naming the Kinnick Stadium field after Slater and letting everyone know about it is way overdue, but Rozendaal is correct. There’s never a wrong time to do the right thing.
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