When writing about the rookie class of 1956, I mentioned that there was more to say about black defensive end Emery Barnes, despite his only lasting two games as a Packer. Barnes led a full and interesting life. Born in New Orleans in 1929, he moved with his family to Oregon at age 12. A few years later, fully grown to 6’6”, Emery earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Oregon while starring at track and football. He was an alternate to the 1952 U.S. Olympic team as a high jumper and was team captain on the gridiron for his senior year.
Drafted in the 18th round by Green Bay in 1954, Barnes first was inducted into the military for a two-year hitch. He finally reported to Green Bay in 1956 and made the team as a backup defensive end, but was cut after week two. Feeling that his biracial children would have an easier life in Canada, Barnes became a Canadian citizen and tried out with the BC Lions in 1957, but suffered a severe leg injury that sidelined him for 18 months. After a failed try out with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1959, Barnes was out of football for three years while he attained a post-graduate degree in social work. In 1962, though, he earned a spot on the defensive line of the BC Lions and appeared in 30 games for the Lions over the next three years.
After football, Barnes followed a path in social work that led to him serving in the British Columbia legislature from 1972-96, and he rose to the job of Speaker in 1994. His ex-wife, Laverne, wrote a book called The Plastic Orgasm in 1971 that served as an angry expose of racism, exploitation and drug use in the CFL. Barnes died at age 68 in 1998 and a park in Vancouver was named in his honor in 2003.
Some obituaries of Barnes allude to his confronting racism in his short time with the Packers, and I found this interview with him in the spring 1987 issue of Canadian Parliamentary Review that goes into detail about Barnes’ recollections. First, he relates a familiar tale from the 1950s’ American South of black players not being allowed to eat or stay with the white players when the team played a preseason game in North Carolina (September 8, 1955) and asserts that the fact that his white teammates did not stick up for the black players is what bothered him most. He then describes a particular incident:
One day a teammate, Dave “Hog” Hanner, a real southern cracker, knocked on the door of my room. He said he saw me ignore a little white boy who had asked for my autograph. He told me never to do that again and knocked me back against the wall with one punch after another. I went down. That touched off one of the deadliest fights of my life. We were both big and strong and went at it for what seemed like an eternity.
By the time I finally had him subdued, I was so furious I started to carry him over to the stairway with the idea of tossing him about five flights through the stairwell. I might have killed him if some teammates, both white and black, had not stopped me.
When we got back to Green Bay, I had a meeting with the coaches. They told me I did not fit into their plans and they did not have to draw me a picture. As I was packing to leave, I got a note from Hanner asking me to see him in the club training room. I ignored it but [Ralph] Goldston said that sometimes you have to do unpleasant things. I went not knowing what to expect. Hanner was friendly, but in a serious frame of mind. He told me I was one hell of a man to stand up for what I believed and that he had learned something. He wished me well. But what a high price to pay for those few words.
What really happened is anyone’s guess since we only have one man’s remembrance, 30 years later. However, a couple of problems with the story are readily apparent. Barnes’ friend Ralph Goldston was cut by the Packers on September 10, two days after the preseason match in Winston-Salem. The regular season started on September 25, with the player limit at 35. Barnes was seen to be on the bubble at the time, but fellow defensive end Gene Knutson was cut instead. Two weeks later on October 8, the roster limit was reduced to 33, and Barnes was cut. If Ralph Goldston told Barnes to talk to Hanner, then the alleged incident happened a month before and clearly was not a direct reason for Barnes being dropped. The details don’t quite add up.
Assuming there was a knockdown-dragout between the two men, can we be certain there was any racial animus to it? Barnes describes Hanner as “a real Southern cracker,” and the 1956 Arkansas farm boy must have appeared that way to Emery. However, Hawg is one of the longest serving and most beloved figures in Packer history. Vince Lombardi, who tolerated no prejudice, not only coached Hanner for six years, but then added him to the coaching staff. If there were a fight and if it were about refusing a white boy’s request for an autograph, perhaps the “white” part was irrelevant, and Hanner was simply upset about Barnes ignoring a young Packer fan.