The United States has well over 100 years of soccer history. Much of it has yet to be chronicled. The leagues don’t have the bandwidth to cover it, which leaves it to sports historical societies and fans to uncover. Recently, the Society for American Soccer History produced an incredible report on Fred and Oliver Watson, the first known African American soccer players in the United States.
Oliver (b. 1872) and Fred (b. 1875) Watson were born in Rhode Island, and on September 26, 1894, the Pawtucket YMCA’s soccer team signed Oliver Watson to play for their team. They played that day against the Fall River Olympics, and while Pawtucket YMCA got destroyed by a 8-2 score, Oliver did score a goal. He became the first African American to score in a soccer match.
A year later, Fred also joined the team, and they were the first African Americans to play in a soccer match in this country. In 1901, both became the first to win a league championship when they were part of the Attleboro and Dodgeville team of the Rhode Island Amateur League.
Fred lined up as a defender, playing mostly fullback but eventually moving to centerback. Oliver, or Allie as he was known by his teammates, lined up as a forward. Fred worked in a bolt factory, but eventually became the first African American to play in an American professional soccer league, when he played for the Pawtucket Free Wanderers from 1898-1899. Pawtucket was a standout location in the early days of American soccer history, as it was one of the first places where the sport was embraced by natives and not just the immigrant populations from the United Kingdom.
The two brothers were not the only siblings in the Watson family. They had 3 older brothers: Charles, James, and Eugene. None of them ended up playing soccer, leaving Fred and Allie standing by themselves as the first African Americans in the game. Fred and Allie’s trailblazing quickly led to the formation of other clubs, including the first Black soccer organization in New York City. Progress continued through the years very slowly, with Black players eventually making a name for themselves on the national and international stage.
Fred Watson eventually played for 12 years, making 37 appearances. Oliver played 27 matches, scoring 15 goals. However, the two made history with every kick of the ball they made, creating a society where Black people could be found on the soccer field in the United States.
Many of America’s greatest soccer heroes may have had it harder to get onto the world’s stage if it wasn’t for the path that was forged by Oliver and Fred Watson. And, we wouldn’t know about this history if it wasn’t for the Society for American Soccer History’s research. They recently made a YouTube video chronicling the career of the Watson brothers, but it’s clear that more needs to be done to bring these stories out into the open. America’s modern soccer history may be young, but it’s clear that its history dates back almost as far as any other nation. And Black players were at the center of that early history.
Black soccer history in the United States can trace their lineage back to the true pioneers, Oliver and Fred Watson. And these are the types of stories that should be told throughout the year, and re-told for effect. This is American history. And more should be done to ensure that Oliver and Fred Watson can be viewed in the same light as Jackie Robinson, Willie O’Ree, or Kenny Washington as a true pioneer of Black sports. They shouldn’t be celebrated by just Black people. All of America should want to consume and preserve this history because it tells the story of the game in America.
The Society of American Soccer History started the work. It’s on all of us to keep it going.
This story concludes our daily series of Black History Month stories for 2021. This was a journey that I began a few years ago for personal knowledge and growth throughout an important month to me, and I am honored that I had the opportunity to bring these stories to you everyday throughout the month of February. If you missed an article or want to re-read any of them that you enjoyed over the past few years, check out our Black History Month hub. I hope that all of you can routinely refer to those articles, as they are stories that should be told and retold long after we leave February in the rearview. Thank you so much to all of you who read, commented, or shared these stories this month. Black History Month may be over, but the journey for knowledge continues. Let’s continue to educate ourselves and continue to grow as soccer fans and as people. History is made everyday, and together we can not only make it but bring those stories that deserve to be told to light and, most importantly, keep them there.