The Color Barrier

 

 

In July 1874, a reader referring to himself as “Vigilant Play” wrote to the Cincinnati Daily Times, pondering why the city’s white “base ball” teams—the game was spelled with two words back then—declined to go head-to-head with one of the best African-American, or “colored,” clubs in the country: the Cincinnati Vigilants.

To the writer, such adamant refusal seemed inherently quizzical and remarkably stubborn.

“Now, why the white clubs refuse to play our club, I can’t see,” wrote Vigilant Play, adding the claim that the Vigilants were “the champions of Ohio.” “The Vigilant Club is composed of as good players as the Arctics [a white team]. Is this giving our colored boys a show? The Arctics, Favorites, and Hunkidories have to work for a living as well as we Vigilant boys do, and we will play any of the above-mentioned any day next week, except Sunday.

“It seems as if the white clubs are afraid of us,” he added boldly.

As far as the writer was concerned, the Vigilants weren’t getting their just do as a top-quality base ball team in the Queen City. Even today, one could easily argue that the Vigilants haven’t garnered the respect of baseball historians in general, many of whom laud 19th-century African-American teams from cities like Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, and Indianapolis as crucial not only to the development of America’s pastime in the black community, but to the overall history of the game itself.

The Vigilants don’t deserve such short shrift. In fact, author and Northern Illinois University professor James E. Brunson—the preeminent researcher of 19th-century African-American base ball—argues that the Vigilance Club carved a significant place in black baseball history by linking the nascent sport with education.

Brunson notes that Peter Humphries Clark, the “Father of Black Baseball” in Cincy who founded the Vigilants in 1871, served as principal of Gaines Colored High School and, between 1866 and 1873, “steered young student-athletes toward baseball. They formed the nucleus of the Vigilance.”

That funneling of high-school graduates to the Vigilants worked just fine, too—Brunson points to the fact that the squad claimed a record of 165-0 between 1871 and 1874. In August 1875, the Cincinnati Daily Star reported that the team had recently returned to Cincy from an extended road trip “showing an untarnished record…and up to this time have never been defeated.”

And, as evidenced by the challenge issued in 1874 to the city’s white squads, the Vigilants weren’t afraid to take on all comers, either.

“They played and defeated white and black teams,” Brunson says. “By scheduling road tours in the early- to mid-1870s, they became seasoned and formidable players.”

But, as was the case with so many African-American baseball teams at the time, there was more to the Vigilants than one might initially gather. |n their case it was politics, education, and the uplift of the African-American movement during the era of Reconstruction. Those qualities came in the form of Peter H. Clark himself—a mixed-race sociopolitical activist—both as a leading abolitionist before the Civil War and a proponent of equal rights and racial advancement via education and political “agitation” at a time when the Queen City was still clinging to segregation.

Born in Cincinnati around 1829 and a close friend and disciple of the great Frederick Douglass, Clark wasn’t afraid of altering his political alignment in an effort to help the black population make advances in society. In the late 1870s, he joined an early socialist party, even running for office in 1878 while identifying as such. This stridency was detailed by author Nikki Taylor in her 2013 book, “America’s First Black Socialist: The Radical Life of Peter H. Clark.”

“In the final analysis,” penned Taylor, “Clark deserves a seat at the table with the giants: very few figures in American history can lay claim to having fought for African-American freedom on all fronts: from abolition to access to public education, citizenship and voting rights to political power, access to trades to unionism to socialism, or across several periods in history—antebellum, Civil War, Reconstruction, and post-Reconstruction eras. In fact, there were few significant moments in African-American history in this period that Clark did not witness, participate in, speak about, or protest.”

A prime example of Clark’s tutelage, influence, and emphasis on education and to the Vigilants was a Gaines graduate named Andrew J. DeHart, a star student at the school—he was chosen by Clark to lead one of the school’s spelling bee teams in April 1875—and a shortstop for the team in 1876. After graduation, DeHart went on to earn a doctorate and become a minister before serving as a teacher and principal of Cincinnati’s Frederick Douglass Elementary School for many years.

It was that type of well-rounded, active and educated member of the black community that Clark hoped to produce through education at Gaines and athletic pursuits like the Vigilance Club, combining on-field success with educational and sociopolitical advancement. The Vigilants certainly earned that on-field respect, as well.

“It is the champion colored club of the United States at this present time,” printed the Daily Times in July 1874. “It was organized March 1, 1871, and has played one hundred and sixty-five games and lost none.”

Hyperbolic? Perhaps. But not too far off, either. Such documentation, even when exaggerated a little, is crucial in preserving the legacy of early black “base ball” teams, each one of which, claims Brunson, plays a vital historical role in the national pastime.

“In my view,” he says, “there is no insignificant black baseball club of the 1870s. They are important simply for the fact that their stories need to be told.”

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Ryan Whirty is a special contributor to Nuxhall Way. Visit his blog, The Negro Leagues Up Close.

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