Back in the days before the Great War, Hunslet was the premier professional football club in their home city, ahead – by a considerable distance in the area’s sporting hierarchy – of Leeds (now Leeds Rhinos) and Bramley, in addition to soccer’s Leeds City (who were later succeeded by Leeds United).
The Parksiders, who had become the first side to win All Four Cups in 1907/8, remained a power some four years later and it was therefore seen as headline news (especially by the Yorkshire Evening Post) when the south Leeds outfit became the first professional Northern Union (now Rugby League) club to field a player of colour when they signed the American Lucius Banks in 1912.
Attitudes were very different then, however, in fact the notion of a Black History Month would have been beyond imagining. And although, as far as historian Tony Collins is able to ascertain, Hunslet didn’t mention the colour of Banks’ skin in their programme notes, the Evening Post took a very different tack. In fact it’s quite possible that, in the modern era, the scribe in question could be facing incarceration in view of the headline – which Hunslet do not feel can be repeated here – and the content.
Hunslet demanded an apology, which wasn’t forthcoming.
Banks, a former cavalryman in the USA, returned to his homeland towards the end of the year and enjoyed a successful career as a police officer before again experiencing racism, which led to his leaving the force.
Collins has subsequently unearthed further information about Lucius Banks, which features in his book ‘Who Framed William Webb Ellis?’ as recounted below:
Lucius Banks – The Forgotten Pioneer
Anyone who has looked at the early history of Rugby League may have come across Lucius Banks, an American who in January 1912 made his debut on the left-wing for Hunslet against York.
But sadly his pioneering feats as the first black professional Rugby League player have never received the publicity they deserve.
So let’s start at the beginning. Lucius was born in 1888 in Harmony Village in Virginia, some sixty miles from Richmond, the city that was the capital of the slave-owning Confederacy during the American Civil War. The civil war had ended only twenty-three years before Lucius was born, so it’s quite probable that his parents were born into slavery.
When Lucius was very young, the family moved to Arlington, Massachusetts, a small, predominantly white town six miles from Boston, where his father found work as a manual labourer.
He attended the local Arlington High School, where, despite being one of the few black students, he was the starting pitcher for the school baseball team and also wrote for the school magazine.
When he left Arlington High he joined the US Army’s 9th Cavalry Regiment. The 9th was what was then known as ‘a coloured unit’, which meant that, in line with the racial segregation imposed in the US Army at that time, it comprised entirely African-American soldiers.
Lucius seems to have been part of its 100-man detachment that was based at the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York State. The 9th Cavalrymen were at West Point to teach its elite white cadets the art of horse-riding, and Lucius was one of those teachers.
At West Point, Lucius played for the Cavalry Department’s baseball and football teams, and it was while playing quarterback in football match in 1911 that he was spotted by a member of the Hunslet Rugby League club’s committee who was on business in New York. It’s unclear who the committee member was or what his business was in New York, or indeed why he was at the Cavalry football match.
Nevertheless, on 10 July 1911 the Hunslet committee discussed a report about Lucius Banks and decided to offer him a contract to move to Yorkshire to play for the club. As Lucius was in the Army, he told the committee that he had to have the agreement of his commanding officer.
So in September Hunslet wrote to Captain GV Henry of the 9th Cavalry explaining their desire to sign Lucius. Henry appears to have raised no objections to this pioneering move, and history was about to be made.
Lucius was not the first black player to play Rugby League. A 1903 team photo of the Pendlebury amateur team shows an unnamed black player in the side. But Lucius was the first recorded black athlete to play professionally. He was followed shortly after in 1913 by Jimmy Peters, who signed for Barrow after an illustrious rugby union career with Bristol, Plymouth and England.
By signing for Hunslet, Lucius also become one of the first African-Americans to be a professional player in any code of football. In American football, the first black professional player was Charles Follis, who in 1904 signed a contract with the Shelby Blues of the short-lived Ohio League.
This was long before the NFL. At this time, professional American football was badly organised in short-lived regional leagues that had no national presence – so Lucius became the first black American professional to play in a nationally-organised football league.
He made his Rugby League debut on 17 January 1912, where he scored a try against York in front of 6,000 people at Hunslet’s famous Parkside ground. He went on to score tries in each of his first four matches, no doubt helped by the fact that his centre partner was future Hall of Fame pioneer Billy Batten.
It also seems that the club thought that his experience as a quarterback would translate to the stand-off position, and he began the next season as a number six. This was not so far-fetched as it might seem today. The forward pass had only been legalised in American football in 1906 and was not widely used, so the role of the quarterback was to hand-off or laterally-pass the ball, or run himself.
Hunslet were clearly committed to his long-term success: “The lad will feel a little strange for a short time (and) we hope that he will receive every encouragement,” wrote the club programme, and to help him settle in, the committee found him a job with a local saddler.
However, despite the fact that there is no indication that the Hunslet committee ever gave a thought to the colour of Lucius’s skin – for example, the club programme does not seem to have mentioned it – the local press sought to whip up racism against him.
A letter protesting the “importation of a foreigner” that did not actually mention Lucius’ colour was disgustingly headlined “Hunslet’s Coloured Coon” by the Yorkshire Evening Post, while the Yorkshire Post complained about the “gimmick” of “coloured players from America”. Hunslet were outraged and in March 1912 demanded a public apology from the newspapers “with the same publicity” that was given to the original insults.
Despite this, it appears that Lucius was popular with Hunslet fans and made a real contribution to the side. In November 1912 he was even compared to the great Billy Batten when he leapt over a Bradford tackler, a skill that is now confined to the gridiron. This was also a time of change for Hunslet. The great team led by Albert Goldthorpe that had done the clean sweep of All Four Cups in 1908 was breaking up and the club was uncertain how to return to its glory years.
But in December 1912 Lucius decided to return to America. He had not successfully made the transition from quarterback to stand-off and, probably more importantly, the contrast between living in New York and south Leeds may well have resulted in significant homesickness. On Boxing Day 1912 Hunslet match-day programme announced that Lucius would be returning home on New Year’s Eve: ‘‘We know you all will join with us in wishing him a pleasant voyage and every success in the future.”
He returned home to the Boston area, and when America entered the First World War in 1917 he joined the 349th Field Artillery, serving in France as a first lieutenant. When the war was over, he joined the Boston Police Department.
In September 1919, Boston policemen had gone on strike and the governor of Massachusetts, future US president Calvin Coolidge, refused to negotiate and recruited new cops to replace the strikers. Lucius was one of those, being recruited in November 1919. He soon found that racism was as rife in the police service as it was elsewhere in America.
In the summer of 1922 he arrested a drunken white man who had propositioned two black women. However, the man complained to the police that he had been roughly treated and he was acquitted. He had powerful friends – a character witness was local state senator George Curran – and Lucius now seemed to be a marked man in the police department. In 1926, he was dismissed from the police for unspecified “conduct unbecoming an officer”.
His dismissal became an important campaign for Boston’s black community. In 1932 the Massachusetts’ House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to reinstate him in the police. One representative stated that Lucius had been “framed out of the police department because his is a coloured man.”
Although he got his job back, it wasn’t until eighteen years later in May 1950 that he finally received financial compensation. But by this time Lucius had been retired for six years.
He died in February 1955 and was buried in Arlington’s local cemetery. Such was his standing in the community that on the day of his funeral the flags on Arlington’s public buildings flew at half-mast.
His son Richard L Banks became Boston’s most prominent civil rights lawyer and was appointed a judge in 1980. And so the spirit that took Lucius Banks to Hunslet to become America’s first pro rugby player in 1912 and black history pioneer lived on.
There can be no better icon for American Rugby League.
You can listen to Tony Collins’ weekly rugby history podcasts at www.rugbyreloaded.com and his new book ‘Rugby League: A People’s History’ will be published in July.
This post is based on a press release issued by Hunslet RLFC
Photo: Lucius Banks front left with the 1912-13 Hunslet team
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