Alex Nathanson, Features Editor
If you’ve been outside enjoying the 60 degree February weather, you might have noticed an eye-catching sign on the western side of campus. Lodged between the Ebert Art Center and its parking lot is a remembrance plaque to Charles W. Follis: the first African American professional football player who played baseball here on The College of Wooster’s original baseball field back during the brief period where it was known as Wooster University. Follis began playing college-level baseball in 1901 – 46 years before Jackie Robinson’s historic signing to the Brooklyn Dodgers. His impressive performance at the then-University drew the eye of the Shelby Blues Football Club, which offered to pay him $10 (around $340 dollars when calculated for inflation) per game if he moved and played football with them. On Sept. 16, 1904, Follis signed a contract with the Blues, officially making him the first Black man playing professional football on an integrated team. As a member of the Shelby Blues, Follis led his team to victory week after week, only losing one game in their 1904 season. Unfortunately, Follis sustained serious injuries while playing for Shelby and had to cut his sports career short in 1906. Nevertheless, his stellar performance in multiple sports teams earned him the nickname “The Black Cyclone,” which has been adopted as the title for all things celebrating Follis’ historic achievements.
The Charles Follis Memorial Committee that established the Black Cyclone tour aims to preserve the knowledge of this historically significant Wooster resident, who bravely ventured into the unexplored territory as a Black player on a historically all-white team. Since 2014, they have been spreading word of Follis’ significant and underappreciated achievements, including a stage play that bears the same name as the tour, renaming a street in Shelby to Charles Follis Way, granting him and his family a new headstone and plans for a film adaptation of “The Black Cyclone.” Most significantly, a bill was passed by then-Governor John Kasich in 2018, officially marking Feb. 3, Follis’ birthday, as “Charles Follis Day” all across Ohio. These efforts have helped revitalize interest in Follis’ life and transformed him into an icon of local legend, with hopes of the film adaptation broadening his influence across the country.
The plaque on Wooster’s campus is the fifth stop of the 12-stop tour. The tour begins in downtown Wooster and leads people to Follis’ childhood home, which happens to be right across the street from campus’ own Weber House at 818 Spink Street. Another part of the tour stops at Wooster High School, where Follis first got his nickname. As a student at the High School, Follis became captain of the first Wooster High School football team and had such an influence there that the new fields built in 1998 were named in his honor. Continuing on, the tour covers other spots that were important to Follis throughout his career in Ohio, ending in Shelby, where he furthered his endeavors as a football player with the Shelby Blues.
Thanks to the efforts of the Memorial Committee, Follis’ name has been cemented as a local legend in both Wooster and Shelby, Ohio. Follis’ efforts had not been recognized until the 70s, when scholars stumbled upon old sports journals from the area. Since then, the last decade has been one of significant breakthroughs for celebrating his career and the future promises only more exciting retellings. The next time you find yourself by Ebert, take a second to immerse yourself in our step in the journey of Charles Follis.