Frank Holbrook’s stint as Hawkeye successful, but not easy

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Monday, February 16, 2015

(Editor’s note: The Old Gold series provides a look at University of Iowa history and tradition through images housed in University Archives, Department of Special Collections.)

Old Gold was not an English literature major in college, but when he quotes Shakespeare, it’s for a good reason. To wit:

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Read more Old Gold columns in Iowa Now.

True enough for Romeo and Juliet’s struggles with their families’ widely differing backgrounds. But for an individual who broke the race barrier in collegiate sports, the name matters completely. In this case, the name is Frank Kinney Holbrook.

Frank Kinney Holbrook was born in 1874 or 1877 (sources give conflicting dates), in Tipton, Iowa, the only child of Kinney and Pinkey Holbrook. As a freshman entering the State University of Iowa in the fall of 1895, he became the university’s first African-American football player and among the first in the nation. His timing to participate in the sport at Iowa couldn’t have been worse, though: SUI’s football program, entering its seventh season, was facing possible closure due to a lack of funds and, consequently, the lack of a coach. Iowa would post a 2–5 record for that season.

The next season—Holbrook’s sophomore year at SUI—proved far more successful under the leadership of newly hired coach A.E. Bull. Holbrook was switched to halfback position and was called on to carry the ball in crucial fourth-down plays. The 1896 season ended at 7–1–1 for Iowa, thanks in large part to Holbrook’s efforts. Iowa outscored its opponents by a stunning combined 132–12.

As a black man, though, Holbrook was at times a target of opposing players on account of his race. This ugly reality was perhaps no more stark than on Nov. 9, 1896, when the Hawkeyes traveled to the University of Missouri. At Columbia, hostile fans yelled threats and racial epithets at Iowa’s star halfback, as recounted in The Vidette-Reporter, the forerunner to The Daily Iowan, the following day, under the headline, “Shameful Treatment of Holbrook by the Missourians.”

“The line of demarcation between the students and hoodlums could not be drawn. Evidently from the concern depicted on their faces, and from their expressions of regret, there were some students who deplored the [racist] situation but they seemed to be so in the minority that their expressions were very feeble, and none made the least effort to quiet the crowd.”

Despite the Missouri fans’ threats of violence, Iowa prevailed ultimately, 12–0, on two touchdowns, including one by Holbrook. Iowa would not play Missouri again for six years. Holbrook finished his sophomore—and final—year at Iowa with 12 touchdowns for the season.

Frank Holbrook completed only two years of study at Iowa and did not graduate with a degree, and it is not known why he left college early. At that time, many students left college early because of funding and family obligations. Perhaps he chose not to be the subject of ongoing racism and discrimination. His brief career on the gridiron, however, was brilliant and memorable as one of collegiate football’s first student athletes to break the color barrier. In 1895, doing so was nothing short of a daunting and dangerous step, taken with great courage and grace.

A blacksmith by trade, Holbrook returned to Tipton but moved away in 1900, first to Muscatine, later to Omaha, and eventually settling in the Los Angeles area. His last known address was Sierra Madre, California, in 1913, but little more is known of his later life—whether he married, had a family, or his date of death. Perhaps a genealogist or researcher can help Old Gold track down more information about Mr. Holbrook’s life.

Back to our question: What’s in a name? When the State University of Iowa began to recognize Frank Kinney Holbrook’s accomplishments, it did so by consulting only its alumni records to verify his name—not the full registry of enrolled students. That left only one other Holbrook who was also a registered student at the time: Carleton W. Holbrook, a law student from Manchester, Iowa, who graduated in 1898. Carleton Holbrook, however, was not a member of the football team. Nonetheless, beginning as early as 1939, he was identified incorrectly as Iowa’s star halfback. The error was repeated for decades in subsequent books and publications until newspaper accounts in the Quad City Times (Feb. 26, 1995) and The Cedar Rapids Gazette (June 30, 1996) set the record straight.

With all due respect to Shakespeare, much is in the name.

To learn more about the life of Frank Kinney Holbrook, see this website.