Those watching ABC’s weekday program “The View” might have noticed Friday’s Black History Month segment on Charles Follis. One of the hosts, Whoopi Goldberg, narrated the segment about Follis on the Friday before the Super Bowl as part of the program’s nod to the 51st championship game.
Follis is credited with being the first African American professional football player, and was nicknamed “The Black Cyclone.” What wasn’t on the show— and would be familiar to regular Herald readers and local historians like Judy Barnett— is the fact that Follis is a Botetourt County native who was born in Cloverdale and lived there until his family moved to Ohio before he started high school.
Barnett saw the segment on “The View” and, of course, knew of Follis since he is among those featured in her exhibit on Botetourt’s African American history that opened last week in the Botetourt Historical Museum in Fincastle. The special exhibit is on display through February— and is on permanent view in a video presentation arranged through the museum, the Fincastle Library and genealogist Rena Worthen.
Follis was featured in Anita Firebaugh’s article that appeared in The Fincastle Herald’s 2008 Profile Edition about the Cloverdale area.
Follis broke the professional color barrier in 1904 when he played for the Shelby Blues, which was then officially a professional team ranked with the American Professional Football Association, a precursor to the National Football League (NFL). The Blues went 8-1 that season. Only five other African Americans played pro football prior to the NFL years.
According to Firebaugh’s article that cited Internet reports, Follis “faced many challenges while playing football because of the color of his skin.” Apparently in 1905, after learning the Shelby halfback was black, a crowd during a game in Toledo became rough.
Reports say that “Toledo captain Jack Tattersall addressed the crowd by saying, `Don’t call Follis a n—-r. He is a gentleman and a clean player, and please don’t call him that!’ He was applauded for his sentiment and the colored player was not molested during the rest of the game.”
Follis remained with the Shelby Blues through the 1906 season but was sidelined by an injury. He recovered but left football to play professional baseball for three seasons, first as “a catcher for the Negro League’s Star-Light Champs” in Cleveland and then with the Cuban Giants in New York.
Follis died in Cleveland on April 5, 1910 at the age of 31 after a bout of pneumonia.
His legacy would have been lost to history had not researchers in 1975 found mention of his career in the Shelby (Ohio) Daily Globe.