When a 'Redskin' Is in the Family

Washington Redskins unofficial mascot Zema Williams, known as Chief Zee, in 2007 (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

(Special to The Root) — I never knew my maternal grandfather's mother. She was one of my great-grandmothers. Her name was Alice Apple Woods. And she was a Native American.

Her name came up this week as I watched a PBS documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with my 11-year-old son, Cole. I explained to him that while we are African American, we have other nationalities in our blood. That's when I told Cole about Alice Apple Woods.


I have no doubt that during her lifetime, people called her "redskin" and worse. I bet that the names weren't usually used as terms of endearment or in some kind of tribute to her and other Native Americans. Undoubtedly, some Native Americans might disagree with me. So might Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins professional football team.

When my mother and her siblings were growing up near 15th and C streets in Southeast Washington, Alice Apple Woods lived in the Durham-Greensboro area of North Carolina. But she visited the family in D.C. When she did, she brought her customs and habits with her. So when she walked in the neighborhood, she did so barefoot. Because that's what she did.

The sight of this barefoot, reddish-brown-skinned woman with straight black hair in a single large braid that fell below her waist strolling the streets about 15 blocks east of the U.S. Capitol must have been a sight. Children, and some adults, my mother recalls, teased Alice Apple Woods, my mother and her brothers about that barefoot Indian woman.

Some of that was ignorance. Some was probably racist.

I remember first hearing about Alice Apple Woods in my childhood. Never gave her much thought, and certainly never thought about her in connection with the Washington Redskins. I'd been supporting the team since I can remember in spite of my older brother's insistence that I not, because it was the last National Football League team to employ an African-American player.


When my older son, Miles, was born in 1996, a friend bought a beautiful white two-piece infant playsuit emblazoned with "Washington Redskins" in burgundy and gold on the chest. I stored it in a drawer. Miles never wore it. And when Cole was born six years later, he never wore it either. I knew I would feel uncomfortable with either of them wearing that name outside. I didn't do it because I was thinking of my great-grandmother. It just felt wrong. And I never said anything to my friend. I was silent. That was wrong.

As my sons grew, it was hard for them not to notice my rituals on Sundays in the fall. It was Washington Redskins time in my house — sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, sometimes with them. But I never bought them any Washington Redskins clothing or paraphernalia. And as far as I can remember as I think back, I had not been denying the items with Alice Apple Woods in mind.    


When Miles was about 10, his mother came home with a Clinton Portis Washington Redskins jersey for Miles. I was silent about that. And that was wrong. The first time Miles wore the jersey outside of the house, I was uncomfortable with him parading around with it on. But I said nothing. I remember how relieved I was when somehow the jersey became unfit to wear soon after its purchase because of some mishap in the washer.

This week, as I told both sons for the first time about their Native American great-grandmother, things finally clicked for me. I explained to both of them why, with the exception of that short-lived Clinton Portis jersey, there has not been Washington Redskins apparel in our home.


Alice Apple Woods died sometime during the Great Depression. The fact that I never met her and do not at this point even know the name of her tribe doesn't change that she is a blood relative. If by some miracle she were alive today, and I heard someone call her "redskin"?

That would be a fighting word. So me, I'm done with the term. And I'm through being silent on the matter.


Keith Harriston is former senior editor at the Washington Post. He teaches journalism at Howard University, where he edits hunewsservice.com.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

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