Sixty-plus years after the film's debut, it is difficult to imagine an American entertainment landscape without the number of major African American film and recording artists whose performances we enjoy today.
But sports is our primary focus here, and African Americans were, at the time, excluded by either league edict or franchise owners from playing major league football, baseball and basketball. However, in the 1940s, Washington and UCLA teammate Jackie Robinson would integrate two of the major professional sports - football and baseball - and pave the way for hundreds of outstanding black athletes to follow.
Washington and fellow UCLA football star Woody Strode had gravitated to the Westwood, California campus during the late 1930s, in part because the school did not ban or discourage African Americans from participating in intercollegiate athletics, as was the case at many other colleges of the period. Their acceptance as athletes gave encouragement to Robinson, who joined Washington and Strode at UCLA for the 1939 football season, their final year as Bruin performers.
Washington was named to the 1939 All-American team, yet was snubbed from participating in the prestigious East-West Shrine Game, an all-star contest staged to raise money for handicapped children. Organizers had never invited an African American player to compete.
Hollywood attempted to capitalize on Washington and Strode's popularity and rugged good looks with minor film offers, such as Washington's role in While Thousands Cheer. Strode began with limited roles in lesser films, as well, first appearing in 1940.
Both, however, wanted to try their skills in professional football. The NFL, having allowed very limited integration for 31 years, had banned African American athletes in 1933, so the two turned their sights to the fledgling Pacific Coast Professional Football League, a top minor league in which blacks were allowed to play.
Washington became the first player to break the NFL color line when he signed with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. Strode signed with the Rams later that year.
In 1947, Robinson, after a stint in the service, the Negro Leagues and minor league baseball, broke into what had been Major League Baseball's all-white ranks, beginning a Hall of Fame career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He is professional sports best-known African American pioneer.
In the 1950s and 60s, opportunities in professional sports and entertainment became much more accessible to African Americans.
Strode continued his film career, appearing in scores of movies, including The Ten Commandments (1956).
Washington, Strode, and Robinson were trailblazers who ultimately were able to participate in areas of American popular culture at levels that must have seemed unimaginable even to them when they first came together on the UCLA campus.