Today’s announcement by the National Football League’s Washington franchise to drop its Redskins nickname over charges of insensitivity recalls 20th century developments in New York City, involving political power Tammany Hall — which is credited with starting Washington’s Native American nickname — and St. Johns University.
After St. John’s retired its Redmen nickname and such other usage as the oxymoronic Lady Redmen, former St. John’s head men’s basketball coach Lou Carnesecca was appointed chairman of St. John’s name-change committee. He noted, “Out of sensitivity to Native Americans, St. John’s did a bold and courageous thing… always remain in the forefront and show sensitivity to a changing society.”
Carnesecca’s comments came when the St. John’s varsity sports teams took the nickname the Red Storm, a moniker that remains. St. John’s also discontinued a much-used Indian-themed logo.
Redmen started as a reference to the dominant color of some St. John’s team uniforms. After some school loyalists associated red with Native Americans, some students swiped a wooden Indian statue from a tobacco shop and named the figure Chief Blackjack. For years, Chief Blackjack was brought as a good luck object by St. John’s representatives to school athletic contests.
Chief Blackjack — attired with head dress, necklace, armbands, and a tobacco-leaf belt — was in the news multiple times after being stolen by students of the city’s St. Francis College, as part of a prank tied to the schools’ basketball rivalry. The mascot was repeatedly returned after swapped for items St. John’s had captured from St. Francis, such as the latter’s good-luck monastery bell.
The Redmen nickname had started no later than 1926, 11 years before the Washington Redskins’ start. In 1926, The Brooklyn Daily Times called the St. John’s football team the Redmen many times, starting during the pre-season. Four days before the St. John’s season opener, the newspaper reported of the team and the home of Major League Baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers, “The Redmen have been handicapped in practice by the fact that Ebbets Field is still being used by the Dodgers.”
Washington can trace its former Redskins nickname to New York politics. The team had started as the Boston Braves and kept its Native American identity when the team moved to Washington and became the Redskins. The Boston Braves’ nickname was used because the team played at Braves Field, already established as the home field of the Boston Braves of Major League Baseball’s National League.
In 1912, when Boston adopted the Braves name for baseball, its principal owner was James Gaffney, a New Yorker active in Democratic party politics. The New York Democratic political machine in those days was commonly known as Tammany Hall, which was named after an Indian tribe.
In honor of Gaffney and his connections to Tammany Hall, the Boston team adopted the nickname. The Boston Braves became the National League’s Milwaukee Braves and are now a National League team that has triggered some name protests — the Atlanta Braves.
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