Rare Photo of “Ray Kemp” Steelers First Black Player

May 30, 2016 | | 11 comments
James P Rooneys 1932 featuring Ray Kemp (tagged)

Click on photo for enlargement

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.

Posted in: Collections, History

11 Responses

  1. I’m pretty sure the guy in the back row second from left is my great uncle and the guy in the back row second from right is my grandfather. Do you have any more pictures?

    1. Yes. We have many photos at the Allegheny City Historic Gallery, 433 East Ohio Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15212. We are open Tues-Sat 11a-5p.. (412) 321-3940.

    1. If it is not Ray Kemp, then the photo is even more rare than we thought. There are no other African-Americans known to associate with the Rooneys during this period. We will do further research, if it’s not him it will truly be a huge story. Thank you.

  2. That would also mean that there may have been another Black Pioneer before Kemp, which would provoke a rewriting of history. This has just become very interesting and I sorta hope it’s not him. Perhaps a lost pioneer is not receiving proper credit.

    1. Not really rewriting history – just writing it accurately. There was another African American player that practiced with the team in the pre-season at the same time as Raymond Kemp, but the other player got injured and never got to play. Years ago the other player’s name was in an article in the Pittsburgh Courier – Pgh’s Black newspaper, but I don’t recall off the top of my head what his name was. Raymond was my uncle and when people would say he was the first, he’d always clarify that there were two of them but the other player got injured and never played. Also, there are several pictures of Raymond in his Steelers uniform available publicly if you need to compare. I’d be happy to help you with the Ray Kemp story if you’d like to pursue.

      1. We can only find two images of Ray Kemp on the World Wide Web. If you have any others can you please share it with us. According to my eyes, this is a face match. Ray Kemp Sporting News Photo We will also contact Jimmy Scanlon the owner of the photo to confirm. If it’s not him, I need to know who this is.

  3. The gentleman in the “Pittsburgh Sports Report – February 2008” in the #27 jersey with the football appears to be Chuck Thrower. I think it would be best if we continued this discussion via email. You have my email address, right? Please email so I can help clear this up. Thanks. I have at least one other pic that I can send to you.

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