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Although it seems almost inconceivable today, the University of Nebraska was on the cutting edge of race questions when the football team fielded its first African-American player. That football star would later become a widely respected, almost revered physician in an out-state area where his and his father’s families were isolated in the preponderantly Swedish community of Stromsburg in Polk County.

George Albert Flippin was born Feb. 8, 1868, in Port Isabelle, Ohio, where his father Charles had just served in the Union Army as a freed slave during the Civil War. Charles first became a doctor simply by announcing he was one, but then he graduated from a medical college. In 1888, when George was only 3, his mother died and the family moved to Henderson, Nebraska, where Charles set up a medical practice. George graduated from high school in Henderson in the spring of 1891 and that fall headed for Lincoln to enroll at the University of Nebraska.

In 1891 the University of Nebraska’s football team was in its infancy and had played only six games. The team, first known as the Old Gold Knights, named for the school color of gold, was about to receive the sobriquet of Bugeaters, and the school colors changed to scarlet and cream. The Bugeaters would later be dubbed the Cornhuskers by Lincoln sports writer Cy Sherman, but the colors would remain.

When Flippin joined the football team, one of its first games was to be with the University of Iowa. Because Nebraska’s team had no coach, Iowa’s T.U. Lyman “tutored the Nebraska boys for 10 days before the game … (but) despite ‘heroic efforts’ and the brilliant play of George Flippin, Nebraska’s great halfback, Iowa won 22 to 0.” Interestingly the Iowa game was played in Omaha, and the team planned to stay at the Paxton Hotel but were refused a room for Flippin. When the rest of the team threatened to walk out, the Paxton relented but would agree to serve them dinner only if they would eat in a private room.

In 1892, the University of Nebraska played the Denver Athletic Club in Colorado and was defeated 18 to 4. The team elected to stay at the Brown Palace and attend a play at the Denver Opera House. When Flippin was refused admittance to the play, the team voted “to retire early.” Also in 1892, the Nebraska team manager received a letter from the manager of the Missouri “Tigers” manager saying “they would probably refuse to play against colored players.” That action was “deeply resented” by the Nebraska team, which responded that “the color line has not and never will be drawn in this university.” Missouri did refuse to play and forfeited the game. Missouri did play against Nebraska and Flippin in 1893 and 1894, winning both games.

Flippin, who was noted as being 6 feet or 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighing 200 pounds, was said to be “one of those linemen who could, and did, carry a large part of the opposing team with him on every play.”

Flippin’s exposure to racism was not confined to outside sources. In 1893, he was voted captain by his fellow players. The newly hired coach, Frank Crawford, however, overrode the vote, saying, “It takes a man with brains to be a captain; all there is to Flippin is brute force.”

Crawford need only have looked around to see that Flippin was considerably more than brute force. In 1892, he was not only the president of the Palladian Literary Society but also sergeant-at-arms of the 105-member University Debating Club and, in 1894, a charter member of the University Medical Society in Lincoln (a student organization).

In 1893, Flippin married Georgia Smith and, in 1894, moved to Chicago to attend the University of Illinois College of Physicians and Surgeons. After briefly practicing medicine in Arkansas, the Flippins moved to Stromsburg in 1907 to join his father's practice, which he had established in 1900-01.

Father and son first remodeled Stromsburg’s hospital, which had originally been the home of Olaf Headstrom, and then in 1910 established Mawood (occasionally Maywood) Hospital across the street as the city’s first purpose-built hospital. This extant building later served as a funeral home, again as a hospital, an apartment and a B&B.

George Flippin died May 15, 1929, with his funeral noted as the largest the community had ever experienced. In 1974, George A. Flippin was inducted to the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame, its first African-American, which may overshadow his medical career, but in Polk County he is still remembered as the doctor who always would respond with a house call even when he knew he would never be paid and always “had more patients than he could care for.”

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Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com.

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