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From the mid-19th century, baseball was played on sandlots, public parks and white-owned ball fields across the District of Columbia. But the most popular teams, accomplished players and thrilling games, whether professional or amateur, neighborhood or citywide, came out of the black community. Long before Jackie Robinson integrated the Brooklyn Dodgers, exceptional players like Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and James “Cool Papa” Bell were setting records and drawing capacity crowds as players for the Homestead Grays, one of the Negro Leagues’ top teams. Ballplayers such as Satchel Paige and Roy Campanella, who were eventually recruited by major league baseball, played in D.C. honing their skills in the Negro League games.
The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum exhibition “Separate and Unequaled: Black Baseball in the District of Columbia” chronicles and celebrates the history of African Americans in baseball in the nation’s capital despite segregation. “Separate and Unequaled” is accompanied by a traveling exhibit “Discover Greatness: An Illustrated History of Negro League Baseball,” both on view from May 18 through Oct. 5 at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., located at 801 K Street N.W. The society is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The story of black baseball in Washington begins as early as the mid-1800s when the game was “a perfect mania” in the city, according to a Sept. 11, 1866, Daily National Intelligencerarticle. Baseball clubs formed throughout the city as citizens young and old eagerly participated in the sport. But neighborhood and organized African American teams, unable to own ballparks, played wherever they could and often requested the use of white-owned fields, such as the White Lot located on the grounds of what would become the Ellipse. Teams such as the Washington Mutuals and the Washington Alerts held games there until the use of the park by blacks was abruptly ended in 1874. Charles Remond Douglass (son of Frederick Douglass) played on both those teams. Griffith Stadium, the home of the major league Washington Senators, and located in the one of the District’s major African American neighborhoods, became the city’s primary venue for black and white games—with segregated seating when white clubs played. Black semi-pro clubs, such as the Washington Potomacs, frequently rented the stadium and their games drew larger crowds from the general citizenry than those of the hometown team. But black baseball really took off when the Homestead Grays from Pittsburgh became known as Washington’s hometown Negro National League team playing at Griffith’s stadium beginning formally in 1940.
“Separate and Unequaled” features more than 55 photographs, paintings, documents and artifacts illustrating the proud history of black baseball in the area. The show notes the various amateur, collegiate (Howard University) and semi-pro black baseball teams and leagues, as well as the community teams that gave rise to them. Highlights include large, original paintings of Grays ball players by artist and author Kadir Nelson’s that are replicated in his book, “We are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball.” Uniforms, signed balls and bats, gloves, news clippings, correspondence and other memorabilia document the record-setting accomplishments achieved and tribulations endured by these early players—many of whom never got to play in the majors. Recognition is given to the club owners who successfully organized their teams into million dollar enterprises through the onset of baseball’s integration, which ultimately signaled the Negro Leagues’ demise.
The exhibition also highlights the critical role played by sportswriters, such as Sam Lacy, of the Washington Tribune and the Baltimore and Washington Afro-American, and Art Carter, sports editor of the Washington Afro-American and Gray’s publicist in promoting the team and Negro League games. The Negro League participation by woman owner Effa Manley, who in retirement fought for Baseball Hall of Fame recognition for Negro Leagues players, is discussed in the exhibition. Providing an interactive experience, the exhibition offers visitors authentic historic stadium sounds, audio and film interviews with legendary players, and the opportunity to take a photo with a life-size Grays player cutout.
Anthony A. Gualtieri, museum specialist in history, is exhibition curator; Gail S. Lowe, senior historian, is co-curator; and Ryan A. Swanson, doctoral candidate at Georgetown University, provided additional research and writing for “Separate and Unequaled,” which was developed by the museum and presented in collaboration with the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
“Discover Greatness,” a traveling exhibition from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., provides a broad national overview of the Negro Leagues. A timeline accompanied by images and artifacts offers a contextual perspective on this historic sports movement. “Discover Greatness” is presented by the museum in collaboration with the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., and is sponsored by Bank of America.
The Anacostia Community Museum opened in southeast Washington in 1967 as the nation’s first federally funded neighborhood museum. The museum has expanded its focus from an African American emphasis to documenting, interpreting and collecting about the impact of historical and contemporary social issues on communities. For more information about the museum, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or (202) 633-5285 (TTY); for tours, call (202) 633-4870. Web site: anacostia.si.edu.
Marcia Baird Burris