The Allegheny City Historic Gallery has obtained a very rare photo of Ray Kemp, the Pittsburgh Steelers (then Pirates) 1st African-American player from around 1932. Back on April 9, 2016 we hosted a reunion for the 1st Ward. This was Allegheny City’s oldest ward and also the area where the Rooney football legacy began. Attending the reunion were many former players of the Rooney’s semi-pro teams; Hope-Harveys, Rooney’s Reds & James P. Rooneys. Dan & Patricia Rooney also attended the event. We obtained many great photo contributions and scans. However, during events there is no time to actually look at the photos.
On Sunday, May 29, 2016 I decided to look through the 1st Ward collection to tag and archive them. I’ve seen many photos of their earlier semi-pro football teams thanks to Kathy Rooney. Even though I knew that that Art Rooney was instrumental in breaking down color barriers in professional football, I’ve never seen an image of African-American players on any of the earlier teams. That is until Jimmy Scanlon, friend and neighbor of the Rooney family, provided us with this personal photo from 1932. I’m sure he told me what the photo was about when he gave it to me, however, I could find no notes and could not remember anything about the photo. So after Swiss & I did some research, we discovered that this photo is very rare & not yet in the public stream.
Kemp was a graduate of Cecil High School and planned to go to Duquesne University in 1931. He had great success playing football at the university. Art Rooney asked him to join his team the James P. Rooneys while he attended law school. After Art obtained an NFL charter in 1933, Ray Kemp became 1 of only two African-Americans playing in the National Football League. Kemp was a defensive tackle with an unorthodox style. He rushed the line standing up with his hands in the air. This made him disruptive to the other teams quarterback, and somehow brought out the ire in his own teammates who complained to the coach (Jap Doud).
There is always a price with being a pioneer. He experienced lots discrimination at home and in other cities. In his 1st game in New York, the hotel manager asked him to stay at the Harlem YMCA claiming that he had no more room. His career with the Pirates lasted only four games. He felt that he was released because Doud was a player-coach with the same position and he had many cronies on the team with him.
After his release, the Pirates went 2-5 over the next seven games. The following year, Kemp was hired as the head football coach at Bluefield State College in West Virginia, where he led the Blues to an 8-0-1 record in the first of a 39-year coaching career. After Kemp left Pittsburgh in 1934, there were no African-American players in the NFL until 1946.
What makes this photo so rare? There are no known photos of Kemp playing for the Semi-Pro team James P. Rooneys. This is a photo of the Rooney’s last Semi-Pro team before turning professional. It’s an image of 1 of only two black NFL pioneers at the time. It’s a personal photo. It was the last team that played on the Northside until 3-Rivers Stadium was built. We encourage you to read more about Ray Kemp, his story is truly incredible.