George Preston Marshall, though long dead, really could use a public-relations man. The Redskins founder needs somebody to get the word out that he’s a much better guy now than when he was alive, anyway.
“Mr. Marshall deserves some credit,” says James McKay, a trustee of the George Preston Marshall Foundation. “Because of him, a lot of good is being done.”
Marshall died at 72 in 1969. Though rarely mentioned anymore, he made a lot of positive contributions. He was, for example, a sports-marketing visionary, partially or wholly responsible for such things as the Pro Bowl, playoff games, halftime shows, network television and radio broadcasts of NFL games, and the Redskins fight song. Unlike current team management, he was fan-friendly, having once chartered enough rail cars to take an estimated 10,000 folks up to New York for a Giants game.
But in posterity, Marshall’s achievements have gotten their ass kicked by his flaws. Marshall gets referenced these days only in the context of his racist ways—and there were lots of ’em. The name he gave the team in 1933 is racist. The original words of the fight song he commissioned in 1938, “Hail to the Redskins” (credited to his second wife, Corinne), are racist. His unwillingness to sign any black players until 1962, when the federal government forced him to, was racist. (All these years later, Stewart Udall, who as U.S. Secretary of the Interior demanded that Marshall integrate the team or lose the use of what is now RFK Stadium, can’t say enough bad things about the owner. “He hated everybody but the whores,” was about as close as Udall got to a compliment when discussing Marshall last year.)
Marshall’s reputation was such that when Hall of Fame lineman Deacon Jones came to the Redskins in 1974, he initiated a ritual in which he’d spit on the owner’s statue at RFK Stadium on game days.
And, as a coup de grâce, Marshall’s last will and testament was racist.
Marshall stipulated in his will that he wanted his money to go toward the establishment of the Redskins Foundation, and that the group was charged with dedicating all proceeds to the betterment of “health, education and welfare” of children in the Washington area.
All well and good. But Marshall added a caveat that no money from his foundation would ever go toward “any purpose which supports the principle of racial integration in any form.”
A local furor developed when word of the clause got out. A multidenominational group of area pastors, priests, and rabbis formed to publicly denounce the will as “onerous and racist.” Even Marshall’s kinfolk were appalled.
“It was so absolutely ridiculous that he put it in there, but he did put it in,” says Jordan Wright, Marshall’s granddaughter and a Northern Virginia resident. “But with the family, when we saw that, it was all, ‘Egads! Why did he put that in?’ It was never acceptable to anybody in the family.”
Marshall’s pro-segregation verbiage wasn’t acceptable to anybody in the legal system, either.
“That clause got thrown out by the courts,” says Wright. “It’s just not legal to say something like that in a will.”
So when the foundation was established, in 1972, it began giving out grants based on Marshall’s first wish—the one about promoting the health, education, and welfare of local children—while ignoring his second. And over the past three-plus decades, the group (which changed its name to the George Preston Marshall Foundation after severing all ties to the football team) has grown into quite a benevolent force, quietly doling out millions of dollars to all sorts of worthy kids’ causes.
The Marshall Foundation’s biggest grant to date came in 2000, when the board wrote a check for $1 million to the SEED School, an ambitious charter school in Anacostia. Last year, it bought hi-tech monitoring beds for the neonatal intensive-care unit of the Anne Arundel Medical Center. Also in 2003, the foundation bought equipment for the Treatment and Learning Centers, a Rockville nonprofit whose services include a summer camp for preschool children with speech problems.
The Studio Theatre and the Girl Scouts get checks from Marshall. So does the Levine School’s yearly piano campaign. Last month, the crew team at Bethesda–
Chevy Chase High School christened a new scull paid for by the foundation. Crews at Wilson and Gonzaga already row in boats funded by Marshall.
In its quarterly meeting in March, the Marshall Foundation board of directors approved new grants to, among others, the Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts, the Big Apple Circus, the Historical Society of Washington, Kingsbury (a school and therapy
program for learning-disabled children), the Round House Theatre, the Rosemount Center, the Fairfax Child Center, Lutheran Social Services, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the Youth Leadership Foundation.
Marshall’s money has for years underwritten annual scholarships to Georgetown Prep, Georgetown Visitation, Holton Arms, Landon, Maret, Madeira, Potomac School, National Cathedral School, St. Albans, Sidwell Friends, and Stone Ridge.
Elizabeth Frazier, who has been executive director of the foundation since 1974, says the scholarship applicants are judged on “excellence in scholarship, character and leadership, and athletics.”
She doesn’t mention race. —Dave McKenna