In October 1954, WSU fullback Duke Washington made history when he became the first black football player to take the field at Texas Memorial Stadium
When Carl Talmadge “Duke” Washington enrolled at Washington State on a football scholarship in 1952, he was one of five African-American students on the entire campus.
He left in 1954 as the Cougars’ star fullback, team captain and a civil-rights pioneer after earning the distinction of being the first black man to play in a game at Texas Memorial Stadium.
Washington died on Feb. 16 of complications from pneumonia. He was 84.
This Saturday, at 2 p.m. at the Central Area Senior Center in Leschi, Washington’s friends and family will gather for a celebration of his life.
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Washington’s friends and former teammates remember him as a intellectual, insightful man with a great sense of humor who enjoyed art and music and lived a long, full life.
Coming out of college at WSU, Washington was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles but released in training camp. He was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served two years before returning to the Pacific Northwest where he worked as an academic counselor at the University of Washington before he began his teaching career.
Washington grew up in Stockton, Calif., and Pasco, but spent most of his adult life in Seattle, where he established a career as a high school art teacher and football coach within the Seattle Public School system.
Washington’s family moved to the northwest from Mississippi, and he went to Pasco High, where he became the first black student-athlete to play in the state’s all-star football game. He was the third black athlete to ever play football for WSU, and during his college football career, he amassed more than 1,000 career rushing yards and was named an honorable mention All-American.
His legacy was cemented on Oct. 2, 1954 when the Cougars flew to Austin to play Texas.
In the fall of 1954, America was experiencing the birth of the civil-rights movement and African-Americans had to deal with segregation in schools, buses, restaurants and public spaces, particularly in the Deep South.
From that standpoint, Pullman was ahead of its time.
Washington was preceded on the football team by two other African-American players – Howard McCants and Bill Holmes. Robert Gary, who is also African-American, was on the WSU track team when Washington was on the football team and the two became good friends.
Gary said black students never faced any overt discrimination in Pullman when he and Washington were there.
“We had a good relationship with the other students on campus,” Gary said. “They weren’t throwing out words that would upset you. They were always there supporting us, always at the football games, track meets, gymnastics meets. They were always inclined to make us part of the university system.”
But Texas appeared to be an entirely different political environment. In the lead up to WSU’s game against the Longhorns, Texas athletic director Dana Bible called WSU’s athletic director, Stan Bates, and asked if the Cougars would leave Washington at home when they traveled to Austin.
Bates held firm and told Bible that Washington would be on the Cougars’ travel squad as usual. WSU President C. Clement French also backed his decision.
So Washington and the Cougars traveled to Texas to play the Longhorns.
“Duke couldn’t stay with us at the hotel. He had to stay with a black family,” said Skip Pixley, a former WSU offensive lineman and teammate of Washington’s. “We were worried that (the Longhorns) were gonna hurt Duke. But they played a straight-up game.”
On game day, Washington took the field with his teammates and became the first black man to play at Texas Memorial Stadium. That same day, he also became the first black man to score a touchdown in that stadium.
Pixley can still recall that groundbreaking play.
“I was the center, next to my buddy, the guard Vaughan Hitchcock. Vaughan and I were side by side and somebody called a draw play,” Pixley said. “I took my guy this way, Vaughn took his guy the other way, and Duke took the ball and went 73 yards for a touchdown and everybody in the stadium was cheering.”
Washington, the black man the Longhorns had wanted the Cougars to leave behind in Pullman, got a standing ovation from the 27,000-strong crowd at Memorial Stadium
In an interview with The Seattle Times in 2003, Washington said he did not remember the cheering because he was too focused on getting the ball into the end zone.
The Longhorns won 40-14 that day, but in hindsight, Washington’s long touchdown run goes down as a big moment in Texas football history.
“The whites in that stadium, I think they appreciated what Duke did, especially on that electrifying 73-yard draw play,” Pixley said. “That made us feel good.”
Pixley said the opposing team and its fans were all “very respectful” toward the Cougars that day.
“He heard no booing, nothing of that nature. I think people of all races can respect people who have integrity and goodness in their heart. Duke was that kind of guy,” Pixley said.
In 2009, Washington was inducted into the WSU Athletics Hall of Fame. Pixley and several other teammates drove from Seattle to Pullman with Washington to attend the ceremony.
“Duke wrote me a letter later and said, ‘That was one of the greatest moments of my life — to be there at the hall of fame dinner with my team,’” Pixley said. “To have his teammates there when he got selected was a big thing for him.”