As a historian of mathematics, I have studied women in that field and use the book “Hidden Figures” in my classroom. I can point to some contemporary ideas we can all benefit from when examining Johnson’s life.
1. Mentors make a difference
Early in her life, Johnson’s parents fostered her intellectual prowess.
While at West Virginia State, Johnson took classes with Angie Turner King. King taught at the laboratory high school while she worked to become one of the first African-American women to earn masters degrees in math and chemistry. She would go on to earn a Ph.D. in math education in 1955.
King taught Johnson geometry and encouraged her mathematical pursuits. Thirteen years older than Johnson, she modeled a life of possibility.
Once Johnson completed the standard mathematics curriculum at West Virginia State College, Claytor created advanced classes just for her, including a course on analytic geometry.
Mathematics concepts build on one another and the mathematics she learned in this class helped her in her work at NASA many years later. She used these analytical skills to verify the computer calculations for John Glenn’s orbit around the earth and to help determine the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon, among others.
3. Grit matters
Long before psychologist Angela Duckworth called attention to the power of passion and perseverance in the form of grit, Katherine Johnson modeled this stalwart characteristic.
Initially, Johnson would ask questions about the briefings and “listen and listen.” Eventually, she asked if she could attend. Apparently, the men grew tired of her questions and finally allowed her to attend the briefings.
Later, she joined the West Computing Group at Langley Research Center where women “found jobs and each other.” They checked each other’s work and made sure nothing left the office with an error. They worked together to advance each other individually and collectively as they performed calculations for space missions and aviation research.
6. The power of women advocating for women
Although Johnson started as a human computer in the West Computing Group, after two weeks she moved to the Maneuver Load Branch of the Flight Research Division under the direction of Henry Pearson.
A rusting chain-link fence represents a “color line” for the dead in Columbia, South Carolina. In Randolph Cemetery, separated by the barrier from the well-manicured lawn of the neighboring white graveyard, lies the remains of George A. Elmore.
A black business owner and civil rights activist, Elmore is little remembered despite his achievement. But a granite monument at his grave attests to the “unmatched courage, perseverance and personal sacrifice” that saw him take on the South Carolina Democratic Party of the 1940s over its whites-only primaries – and win.
Nearly 75 years after Elmore’s battle, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates made fervent appeals to African American voters in South Carolina ahead of the primary being held on Feb. 29. For some of the all white front-runners in the race, it could be a make-or-break moment – a failure to win over sufficient black support would be a major setback, potentially campaign-ending.
It is a far cry from the South Carolina of August 1946, when Elmore, a fair-skinned, straight-haired manager of a neighborhood five-and-dime store, consulted with local civil rights leaders and agreed to try once again to register to vote.
It followed blatant attempts to deprive African American citizens of their constitutional rights by white Democratic Party officials who would move voter registration books from store to store and hide them the moment a black voter entered.
When a clerk mistakenly allowed Elmore to register – thinking he was white, contemporary sources suggest – NAACP activists had a plaintiff to challenge the last whites-only primary in the nation.
‘Let the chips fall’
Excluding black voters at the ballot had already been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944’s Smith v. Allwright decision. But in defiance, the South Carolina General Assembly simply redefined the state’s Democratic Party as a private club not subject to laws regulating primaries. Gov. Olin D. Johnston declared: “White supremacy will be maintained in our primaries. Let the chips fall where they may.”
Elmore’s name was promptly purged from the rolls and a cadre of prominent civil rights activists arranged for the NAACP to plead his case.
Columbia civil rights attorney Harold Boulware filed the federal lawsuit. In June 1947, Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter – like Boulware, graduates of the Howard University School of Law – argued Elmore’s case as a class lawsuit covering all African Americans in the state of voting age. The trial inspired a packed gallery of African American observers, including a young Matthew J. Perry Jr., a future federal district judge, who commented: “Marshall and Carter were hitting it where it should be hit.”
In July, an unlikely ally, Charleston blueblood Judge J. Waties Waring agreed, ruling that African Americans must be permitted to enroll. “It is time for South Carolina to rejoin the Union,” he concluded. “It is time … to adopt the American way of conducting elections.”
The state Democratic Party again defied the ruling, requiring voters to sign an oath supporting segregation. Judge Waring issued a permanent injunction in 1948 to open the voting rolls: “To say that these rules conform or even pretend to conform to the law as laid down in the case of Elmore v. Rice is an absurdity.”
In that year’s state primary, more than 30,000 African Americans, including George Elmore and his wife Laura, voted. Elmore remarked, “In the words of our other champion, Joe Louis, all I can say is ‘I’m glad I won.’”
His photos of the long line of voters in his community’s precinct are now in the archives of the University of South Carolina where I teach history.
In the years that followed, voter education and registration programs by civil rights organizations transformed the Democratic Party in the state, both in terms of the makeup of its membership and the policies it pursued. The move sparked the departure of many white Democrats to the Republican Party, including the segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond.
Thurmond’s defection in 1964 legitimized the move for other white Democrats and hard-core segregationists who aligned themselves with an increasingly conservative Republican Party. Not surprisingly, some of the key architects of Richard Nixon’s invidious Southern strategy, which sought to weaken the Democratic Party in the South through the use of dog-whistle politics on racial issues, came from South Carolina.
As this year’s presidential candidates focus on South Carolina, it is clear that the racial makeup of the state’s electorate is vastly different than that in Iowa or New Hampshire, two of the states where the popularity of candidates has already been tested. But Democrats should view the South Carolina primary as more than a shift from voting in small, mostly white states. They should see the state as representative of the party’s strategic core, a strong African American constituency with diverse interests and perspectives.
African Americans in South Carolina have been fighting and winning legal and political battles for voting rights and electoral power since Reconstruction and as Democrats since the 1940s.
A personal price
After Elmore’s victory in 1947, state NAACP President James M. Hinton gave a somber, prophetic warning: “White men want office, and they want the vote of our people. We will be sought after, but we must be extremely careful who we vote for. … We must have a choice between those who have fought us and those who are our friends.”
George Elmore and his family paid a price for challenging the entrenched power of the white Democratic Party in 1946. In an interview with the University of South Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research, which I lead, his 81-year-old son Cresswell Elmore recalled the retaliation the family experienced. Ku Klux Klan terrorists burned a cross in their yard and threatened their family. Laura Elmore suffered a nervous breakdown and went into a mental hospital. State agents raided Elmore’s liquor store, claiming the liquor he had bought from the standard wholesaler was illegal, and broke the bottles. Soda bottling companies and other vendors refused to send products on credit. Banks called in loans on their home and other property. Forced into bankruptcy, the family moved from house to house and the disruption scattered Cresswell and his siblings. When Elmore died in 1959 at the age of 53, only scant attention was paid to his passing.
The monument at his grave was unveiled in 1981, at a ceremony attended by civil rights veterans including his original attorney, Harold Boulware.
As the Democratic Party and presidential candidates appeal to African American voters, they would do well to remember the remarkable fight Elmore and others waged against the forces of bigotry and injustice. These historical struggles illuminate both the gains made over many generations and the ongoing battle against inequities and voter suppression tactics that persist to this day in South Carolina and across the nation.
From the moment of capture, through the treacherous middle passage, after the final sale and throughout life in North America, the experience of enslaved Africans who first arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, some 400 years ago, was characterized by loss, terror and abuse.
The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 made it illegal to buy and sell people in British colonies, but in the independent United States slavery remained a prominent – and legal – practice until December 1865. From this tragic backdrop one of the most poignant American musical genres, the Negro spiritual, was birthed.
Sometimes called slave songs, jubilees and sorrow songs, spirituals were created out of, and spoke directly to, the black experience in America prior to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, that declared all slaves free.
West African roots
Spirituals have been a part of my life from childhood. In small churches in Virginia and North Carolina, we sang the songs of our ancestors, drawing strength and hope. I went on to study, perform and teach the spiritual for over 40 years to people across the U.S. and in various parts of the world.
Despite attempts, white slave-owners could not strip Africans of their culture. Even with a new language, English, and without familiar instruments, the enslaved people turned the peculiarities of African musical expressions into the African American sound.
Rhythms were complex and marked by syncopation, an accent on the weak beat. Call-and-response, a technique rooted in sub-Saharan West African culture, was frequently employed in spirituals. Call-and-response is very much like a conversation – the leader makes a statement or asks a question and others answer or expound.
An example of this is the spiritual, Certainly Lord. The leader excitedly queries, “Have you got good religion?” and others jubilantly respond, “Certainly, Lord.” Using repetition and improvisation, the conversation continues to build until everyone exclaims, “certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”
In Africa, drums were used to communicate from village to village because they could be used to mimic the inflection of voices.
As early as 1739 in the British colonies, drums were prohibited by law and characterized as weapons in an attempt to prevent slaves from building community and inciting rebellion.
As a result, enslaved people “played” drum patterns on the body. Hands clapped, feet stomped, bodies swayed and mouths provided sophisticated rhythmic patterns. This can be observed in Hambone, an example of improvised body music.
Some spirituals were derived from African melodies. Others were “new,” freely composed songs with a melodic phrase borrowed from here and a rhythmic pattern from there – all combined to create an highly improvised form.
The spiritual was deeply rooted in the oral tradition and often created spontaneously, one person starting a tune and another joining until a new song was added to the community repertoire. The sophisticated result was beautifully described in 1862 by Philadelphia musicologist and piano teacher Lucy McKim Garrison.
“It is difficult to express the entire character of these negro ballads by mere musical notes and signs,” she said. “The odd turns made in the throat; the curious rhythmic effect produced by single voices chiming in at different irregular intervals, seem almost as impossible to place on score.”
Textually, the spiritual drew from the Hebrew-Christian Bible, particularly the Old Testament, with its stories of deliverance and liberation. Songs like “Go Down Moses” direct the awaited deliverer to “go down” to Southern plantations and “tell ole Pharaoh” – the masters – to “let my people go.”
Songs of survival
For the slaves, the spiritual proved to be an ingenious tool used to counter senseless brutality and the denial of personhood. In order to survive emotionally, resilience was critical. In the spirituals, slaves sang out their struggle, weariness, loneliness, sorrow, hope and determination for a new and better life.
Yet these are not songs of anger. They are songs of survival that voice an unwavering belief in their own humanity and attest to an abiding faith in the ultimate triumph of good over systemic evil.
Interspersed within these seemingly hopeless texts are phrases that reflect the heart’s hope: the words “true believer” amid the acknowledgment that “sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” for example; and “glory, hallelujah” interjected after the text, “nobody knows the trouble I see.”
People whose every movement was dictated audaciously declared, “I’ve got shoes. You’ve got shoes. All God’s children got shoes. When I get to heaven gonna put on my shoes, gonna walk all over God’s heaven.” In the same song they denounced the hypocrisy of the slaveholders’ religion: “Everybody talkin’ ‘bout heaven ain’t going there.”
Spirituals weren’t simply religious music. In his seminal work, “Narrative Of The Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave,” published in 1845, the abolitionist explains,
“they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.”
The spiritual served as a mediator between the dissonance of oppression and the belief that there was “a bright side somewhere.”
Four hundred years after the birth of slavery, as the world still struggles with racial division, injustice and a sense of hopelessness, spirituals can teach how to build hope in the face of despair and challenge the status quo.
The name Martin Luther King Jr. is iconic in the United States. President Barack Obama mentioned King in both his Democratic National Convention nomination acceptance and victory speeches in 2008, when he said,
“[King] brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a Mall in Washington, before Lincoln’s Memorial…to speak of his dream.”
Indeed, much of King’s legacy lives on in such arresting oral performances. They made him a global figure.
King’s preaching used the power of language to interpret the gospel in the context of black misery and Christian hope. He directed people to life-giving resources and spoke provocatively of a present and active divine interventionist who summons preachers to name reality in places where pain, oppression and neglect abound.
In other words, King used a prophetic voice in his preaching – the hopeful voice that begins in prayer and attends to human tragedy.
So what led to the rise of the black preacher and shaped King’s prophetic voice?
First, let’s look at some of the social, cultural and political challenges that gave birth to the black religious leader, specifically those who assumed political roles with the community’s blessing and beyond the church proper.
In slave society, black preachers played an important role in the community: they acted as seers interpreting the significance of events; as pastors calling for unity and solidarity; and as messianic figures provoking the first stirrings of resentment against oppressors.
The religious revivalism or the Great Awakening of the 18th century brought to America a Bible-centered brand of Christianity – evangelicalism – that dominated the religious landscape by the early 19th century. Evangelicals emphasized a “personal relationship” with God through Jesus Christ.
This new movement made Christianity more accessible, livelier, without overtaxing educational demands. Africans converted to Christianity in large numbers during the revivals and most became Baptists and Methodists. With fewer educational restrictions placed on them, black preachers emerged in the period as preachers and teachers, despite their slave status.
Africans viewed the revivals as a way to reclaim some of the remnants of African culture in a strange new world. They incorporated and adopted religious symbols into a new cultural system with relative ease.
Rise of the black cleric-politician
Despite the development of black preachers and the significant social and religious advancements of blacks during this period of revival, Reconstruction – the process of rebuilding the South soon after the Civil War – posed numerous challenges for white slaveholders who resented the political advancement of newly freed Africans.
As independent black churches proliferated in Reconstruction America, black ministers preached to their own. Some became bivocational. It was not out of the norm to find pastors who led congregations on Sunday and held jobs as schoolteachers and administrators during the work week.
Others held important political positions. Altogether, 16 African Americans served in the U.S. Congress during Reconstruction. For example, South Carolina’s House of Representatives’ Richard Harvey Cain, who attended Wilberforce University, the first private black American university, served in the 43rd and 45th Congresses and as pastor of a series of African Methodist churches.
Others, such as former slave and Methodist minister and educator Hiram Rhoades Revels and Henry McNeal Turner, shared similar profiles. Revels was a preacher who became America’s first African American senator. Turner was appointed chaplain in the Union Army by President Abraham Lincoln.
To address the myriad problems and concerns of blacks in this era, black preachers discovered that congregations expected them not only to guide worship but also to be the community’s lead informant in the public square.
Such tide-swelling events, in multiplier effect, ushered in the largest internal movement of people on American soil, the Great “Black” Migration. Between 1916 and 1918, an average of 500 Southern migrants a day departed the South. More than 1.5 million relocated to Northern communities between 1916 and 1940.
A watershed, the Great Migration brought about contrasting expectations concerning the mission and identity of the African American church. The infrastructure of Northern black churches were unprepared to deal with the migration’s distressing effects. Its suddenness and size overwhelmed preexisting operations.
The immense suffering brought on by the Great Migration and the racial hatred they had escaped drove many clergy to reflect more deeply on the meaning of freedom and oppression. Black preachers refused to believe that the Christian gospel and discrimination were compatible.
However, black preachers seldom modified their preaching strategies. Rather than establishing centers for black self-improvement focused on job training, home economics classes and libraries, nearly all Southern preachers who came North continued to offer priestly sermons. These sermons exalted the virtues of humility, good will and patience, as they had in the South.
Setting the prophetic tradition
Three clergy outliers – one a woman – initiated change. These three pastors were particularly inventive in the way they approached their preaching task.
Bishop Ransom’s discontentment arose while preaching to Chicago’s “silk-stocking church” Bethel A.M.E. – the elite church – which had no desire to welcome the poor and jobless masses that came to the North. He left and began the Institutional Church and Social Settlement, which combined worship and social services.
Randolph and Powell synthesized their roles as preachers and social reformers. Randolph brought into her prophetic vision her tasks as preacher, missionary, organizer, suffragist and pastor. Powell became pastor at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. In that role, he led the congregation to establish a community house and nursing home to meet the political, religious and social needs of blacks.
Shaping of King’s vision
The preaching tradition that these early clergy fashioned would have profound impact on King’s moral and ethical vision. They linked the vision of Jesus Christ as stated in the Bible of bringing good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind and proclaiming liberty to the captives, with the Hebrew prophet’s mandate of speaking truth to power.
Similar to how they responded to the complex challenges brought on by the Great Migration of the early 20th century, King brought prophetic interpretation to brutal racism, Jim Crow segregation and poverty in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Indeed, King’s prophetic vision ultimately invited his martyrdom. But through the prophetic preaching tradition already well established by his time, King brought people of every tribe, class and creed closer toward forming “God’s beloved community” – an anchor of love and hope for humankind.
Justice Clarence Thomas, the member of the Supreme Court known for his reticence, speaks for much of a new two-hour documentary about his life.
Part of the story he tells in “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” centers on his longtime Catholic faith — nurtured by his grandfather who raised him in his Georgia home, nuns who taught him in school and people who prayed with him during his confirmation process to serve on the nation’s highest court.
Producer/director Michael Pack interviewed Thomas and his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, for 30 hours for the film that is currently in 20 cities, including Washington, New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles. Pack recently served as president of Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank, but has produced documentaries for PBS about George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and “God and the Inner City.”
He talked to Religion News Service about what he learned about Thomas’ religious life as he filmed his latest documentary. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What struck you most about Clarence Thomas’ faith?
I’m struck by the depth of Clarence Thomas’ faith. It was strong when he first had it, but when you have a faith, lose your faith and come back to your faith, in some ways it’s stronger then. I’m also impressed at how Justice Thomas relies on his faith to get him through the difficult and dark moments of his life, especially his contentious confirmation hearing.
Could you talk about the role of his grandfather and how the Bible shaped his philosophy and the lessons he passed on to Thomas?
Thomas’ grandfather was functionally illiterate. So what he would do with the Bible is he would try to get a few words by heart and rely on those. The values he gave to Clarence Thomas, he felt were rooted in the Bible: working from sun to sun, never quitting, being true to yourself.
In addition to his grandfather, Thomas cites the influence of nuns at a segregated Catholic school he attended.
As he says in the documentary, he felt that they loved him and he worked hard to live up to that. And even though it was segregated Savannah, he felt they were on his side. They believed in these young boys and girls. And he adopted the faith they instilled in him. He continued to visit those nuns until several of them passed away.
He has spoken in the past about wanting to be a priest at a young age, and he attended seminary before he went to college. What drew him to seminary life?
That’s right. He went first to a minor seminary for his last year of high school and then he went to a seminary for his first year of college so he went to two different seminaries. He loved the ritual. He loved the prayers. He loved the Gregorian chant. I think he loved the entire religious environment that he lived in. He found it appealing. It spoke to something deep in his soul.
He ended up leaving that second seminary. Why?
It was racist incidents. We tell a story in which he was in one class where some kid passed him a folded note and on the front of the folded note it said “I like Martin Luther King Jr.” You open it up and it said “dead.”
This sort of mockery of somebody he thought was important and of the civil rights movement was upsetting to Justice Thomas. But it confirmed his feeling that the Catholic Church wasn’t doing enough for civil rights. And don’t forget this is the late ’60s and he’s swept up in the mood of the times as well. It’s the time of black power, of rebellion, of urban riot and, I’d say, that as a young man, Justice Thomas got caught up in those ideas too.
Clarence Thomas’s yearbook picture from Holy Cross College, 1969-1970. Photo courtesy of Leola Williams
How does that fit with his attendance at College of the Holy Cross?
I think that he felt he had no alternative but to go to Holy Cross. His grandfather had kicked him out of his home. He had no job. He happened to have applied to Holy Cross and had a full scholarship. So he went. But he, as soon as he got there, he hung around with Marxist students, black radicals that didn’t take religion all that seriously — even if they were at Holy Cross — so he went through a period of time where he wasn’t going to church and he wasn’t thinking about religion.
After the King assassination, Thomas said that race was his religion. But he had a turnabout in his faith again.
That’s right. He participated in an anti-war demonstration that got violent in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he got swept up in the mob violence of the moment and he watched himself being swept up and did not like what he saw. By the time that was over and he returned to Holy Cross, it was well past midnight and everything was closed, but he went to the chapel where he had not prayed in a long time. He knelt in front of the chapel and prayed for God to take anger out of his heart. And that was the beginning of his return to his faith.
While working for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Thomas delved into the history of law and particularly noted a reference to equality in the Declaration of Independence. How did those words shape his thinking about law and life?
Justice Thomas felt that the words of the declaration, “all men are created equal” and that they’re “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” that these truths pointed to a deep basis of American life and of the Constitution. And I think that underpins his jurisprudence today.
Justice Clarence Thomas sits at his desk. Photo courtesy of Justice Thomas
How has he applied that to court decisions?
His sense of what equality means underlies his jurisprudence in the Grutter decision on affirmative action. Justice Thomas was saying, I believe, that every man has that right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, to succeed or fail on their own. And he felt that the affirmative action that was under discussion in the Grutter opinion was not doing that, that there were two sets of criteria for different kinds of people and he felt that was unjust in the sense that the declaration points to justice.
What role did faith play in his life as he was being considered for the Supreme Court amid allegations that he sexually harassed onetime colleague Anita Hill?
His confirmation battle had two parts and the first part was closer to a traditional confirmation battle. After that the Anita Hill allegations of sexual harassment were leaked and that leak caused the Senate Judiciary Committee to reconvene and hold several more days of hearings. And that second time, he and Ginni felt it was a spiritual battle and they felt, rather than relying on their political skills or intellectual skills, they were relying a lot on their faith to get them through.
There is a brief mention of the “prayer partners” that were important to them at that time. Did he say more about that?
They needed to pray with other people to sort of be in touch with their faith during that second part of the hearing. He needed to be sustained by prayer and by prayer with other people as well. And because the media camped out in front of his house, it was easier for people to come to his house than for him to go out to a church.
Is there anything else about his faith that ended up on the cutting room floor?
He’s always coming back to the nuns. We portray his going to parochial school at the time that it happens in his biography. But in my talking to him, he’s always talking about what his grandfather and the nuns taught him at many points in his life. It’s a touchstone that he goes back to.
A century ago, on Feb. 13, 1920, teams from eight cities formally created the Negro National League. Three decades of stellar play followed, as the league affirmed black competence and grace on the field, while forging a collective identity that brought together Northern-born blacks and their Southern brethren. And though Major League Baseball was segregated from the 1890s until 1947, these teams played countless interracial games in communities across the nation.
After World War II, Jackie Robinson hurdled baseball’s racial divide. But while integration – baseball’s great experiment – was a resounding success on the field, at the gates and in changing racial attitudes, Negro League teams soon lost all of their stars and struggled to retain fans. The teams hung on for a bit, before eventually folding.
Years ago, when I worked on a documentary about the Negro Leagues, I was struck by how many of the interviewees looked back longingly on the leagues’ heyday. While there was the understanding that integration needed to happen, there was also the recognition that something special was forever lost.
A league of their own
Given the injustices of the 1890s – sharecropping, lynchings, disenfranchisement and the Supreme Court’s sanctioning of segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson – exclusion from Major League Baseball was hardly the most grievous injury African Americans suffered. But it mattered. Their absence denied them the chance to participate in a very visible arena that helped European immigrants integrate into American culture.
While the sons of white immigrants – John McGraw, Honus Wagner, Joe DiMaggio – became major leaguers lionized by their nationalities, blacks didn’t have that opportunity. Most whites assumed that was because they weren’t good enough. Their absence reinforced prevailing beliefs that African Americans were inherently inferior – athletically and intellectually – with weak abdominal muscles, little endurance and prone to cracking under pressure.
The Negro Leagues gave black ballplayers their own platform to prove otherwise. On Feb. 13, 1920, Chicago American Giants owner Rube Foster convened a meeting at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City to organize the Negro National League. A Texas-born pitcher, Foster envisioned a black alternative to the major leagues.
Northern black communities were exploding in size, and Foster saw the league’s potential. Teams like the American Giants and the Kansas City Monarch regularly competed against white teams, drew large crowds and turned profits. Players enjoyed higher salaries than most black workers, while black newspapers trumpeted their exploits, as did some white papers.
But the Negro National League’s ascent was stunted after Foster was exposed to a gas leak, nearly died and suffered permanent brain damage. Absent his leadership and hammered by the Great Depression, the league disbanded in 1931.
A proving ground
Gus Greenlee, who ran the popular lottery known as the numbers game, revived the league in Pittsburgh in 1933 after a sandlot club called the Crawfords, which included the young slugger Josh Gibson, approached him for support. He agreed to pay them salaries and reinforced their roster with the addition of flamethrower Satchel Paige.
Greenlee went on to build the finest black-owned ballpark in the country, Greenlee Field, while headquartering the Negro National League on the floor above the Crawford Grill, his renowned jazz club in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
Pittsburgh soon became the mecca of black baseball. Sitting along America’s East-West rail lines, the city was a requisite stop for black entertainers, leaders and ball clubs, which traveled from cities as far away as Kansas City. Its two teams, the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, won a dozen titles. Seven of the first 11 Negro Leaguers eventually inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame – stars like Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Satchel Paige – played for one or both squads.
The sport, meanwhile, became a major source of black pride.
“The very best,” Pittsburgh-born author John Wideman noted, “not only competed among themselves and put on a good show, but [also] would go out and compete against their white contemporaries and beat the stuffing out of them.”
“There was so much [negativity] living over [us] which we had no control [over],” Mal Goode, the first black national network correspondent, recalled. “So anything you could hold on to from the standpoint of pride, it was there and it showed.”
Sacrificed on integration’s altar
For Major League Baseball, no moment was more transformative than the arrival of Jackie Robinson, who, in 1947, paved the way for African Americans and darker-skinned Latinos to reshape the game.
But integration destroyed the Negro Leagues, plucking its young stars – Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Roy Campanella and Ernie Banks – who brought their fans with them. The big leagues never considered folding in some of the best black teams, and its owners rejected the Negro National League owners’ proposal to become a high minor league.
Like many black papers, colleges and businesses, the Negro National League paid a price for integration: extinction. The league ceased play after the 1948 season. Black owners, general managers and managers soon disappeared, and it would be decades before a black manager would get a chance to steer a major league ballclub.
The playwright August Wilson set his play, “Fences,” which tells the story of an ex-Negro Leaguer who becomes a garbageman in Pittsburgh.
“Baseball gave you a sense of belonging,” Wilson said in a 1991 interview. At those Negro League games, he added, “The umpire ain’t white. It’s a black umpire. The owner ain’t white. Nobody’s white. This is our thing … and we have our everything – until integration, and then we don’t have our nothing.”
The story of African Americans in baseball has long been portrayed as a tale of their shameful segregation and redemptive integration. Segregation was certainly shameful, especially for a sport invested in its own rhetoric of democracy.
But for African Americans, integration was also painful. Although long overdue and an important catalyst for social change, it cost them control over their sporting lives.
It changed the meaning of the sport – what it symbolized and what it meant for their communities – and not necessarily for the better.