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Posts Tagged ‘Barron Wilkins’

Lincoln Giants, outside Olympic Field, 1912

In 1911, Harlem gained its own black professional baseball team, the Lincoln Giants. The white brothers, Edward and Jess McMahon, established the team, obtaining a lease on Olympic Field, at 136th Street and 5th Avenue, where the team played home games on Sundays, the only day off for most black workers. Initially managed by Sol White, a well-known former player, the team included five of the best black players in the nation, recruited away from teams in Chicago and Philadelphia. This formidable combination propelled the Lincoln Giants to a dominant record in their first three years.  Many of those wins came against teams of whites, including teams, or all-star teams, from the segregated major leagues.  Those interracial contests drew the largest crowds, including significant numbers of whites; in fact, on several occasions, as many as 10,000 fans packed into Olympic Field, spilling onto the playing area. Whites also attended games between black teams, often making up as many as a third of the spectators. Despite the absence of segregated seating, there are no reports of friction in the mixed crowds; most of the conflict at games centered on the umpires, who were almost invariably white, even in games involving black teams.

Source: New York Age, June 21, 1924, 6

In 1914, the McMahons’ financial difficulties forced them to sell the Lincoln Giants and the rights to Olympic Field to two other white men, James Keenan and Charles Harvey.  Many of the players, however, remained contracted to the McMahons, who for three years operated another team, the Lincoln Stars, based at the Lenox Oval, on 145th Street. When that team folded, the McMahons abandoned baseball, but not Harlem: in the 1920s they took control of the Commonwealth Casino, on East 135th Street, where they staged boxing, including interracial bouts, and, from 1922-24, operated a black professional basketball team, the Commonwealth Big  5.

While the Lincoln Giants had regained their position as Harlem’s team, they played in the neighborhood for only three more years. In 1919, developers transformed Olympic Field into a parking garage, forcing Keenan and Harvey to relocate home games to the Catholic Protectory Oval, at East Tremont Avenue and Unionport Road in the Bronx, taking with them the grandstand and bleachers from their former home.  Surrounded by the gothic structures of the orphanage, and shaded by trees, the field was beautiful but very small. To get there, fans from Harlem had to take a long journey by subway to 177th Street and and then take a street car. The Lincoln Giants would play there until 1930.

Baseball Fields in & Around Harlem (Search Place, Location Type+"Basebal Field")

Other stadiums bordering Harlem also provided venues for baseball games involving black teams.  The Lincoln Giants played several games at American League Park, at Broadway and 167th Street, better known as Hilltop Park, the first home of the New York Yankees. For a season in 1920, the Bacharach Giants, an Atlantic City based team owned by Harlem nightclub owners John Conors and Barron Wilkins, played at Dyckman Oval, at 204th Street in Washington Heights, and at the major league stadium, Ebbets Field, in Brooklyn.  That year the New York Age relentlessly promoted the black-owned team as Harlem’s own, at the expense of the Lincoln Giants.  Despite fans’ apparently enthusiastic response, the Bacharachs returned to their home in Atlantic City after 1920. Dyckman Oval was also one of the homes of the Cuban Stars, the team of Cuban and Latin American players managed by numbers banker Alex Pompez.  However, Pompez lacked control of the venue (until 1935), so the team competed for dates with other white and black baseball teams, football games and boxing bouts, and had to also play ‘home games’ in the Bronx, Manhattan, and even in New Jersey.  Black teams also occasionally played at Ebbets Field, and at Yankee Stadium, the major league stadium close by Harlem in the Bronx.

Dyckman Oval, 1937 (as renovated by Alex Pompez in 1935)

If watching baseball in the 1920s meant leaving black dominated Harlem, the journey of crowds of several thousand to these stadiums, and their occupation of places otherwise associated with whites, was a quite different experience than leaving Harlem in small groups to go to work.  Crowds of fans claimed, albeit it temporarily, spaces within the city for blacks.  Reporting the start of the Bacharach Giants’ 1920 season, Ted Hooks, the sports editor of the New York Age, described a parade of automobiles following the team bus from Harlem to Dyckman Oval, with many returning for several loads, filling the streets around the stadium with vehicles driven by blacks. Black crowds likewise took ownership of the space of the stadiums.  Reporting the first the Lincoln Giants-Bacharach Giants game at Ebbets Field in July 1920, Hooks wrote, “Colored autos, colored sight-seeing cars, colored players, colored band, and, above all, colored umpires.  All the foregoing proved that they knew their business…” Inside the stadium, the press treated the games as social events as much as sporting contests: the Age gave several columns of its coverage to descriptions of the field, the team uniforms, the jazz band, the spectators and the noise they made, concluding, “The game proved the colored fans the equal in deportment of any race that has ever graced Ebbetts Field.”

Source: Amsterdam News, July 2, 1930, 7

In 1923, the Lincoln Giants joined the new Eastern Colored League, a black baseball league.  Crowds at the Protectory Oval hit record levels as in excess of 10,000 people regularly turned out for league games.  However, disputes among the team owners bedeviled the league, which eventually folded in 1929.  The Lincoln Giants played one more season, in 1930, dominating opponents in a way the team had not since its early years.  In July, they played in the first game between black teams at Yankee Stadium, a benefit for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters that drew a crowd of around 20,000.  After several more games at that iconic venue, the team finished the season there with a championship series against the season’s other dominant black team, the Homestead Grays.  The Lincoln Giants lost 6 games to 4, and staging the event brought considerable financial losses for the team’s owners.  Soon after, they also lost access to the Protectory Oval, and the team folded.

Jim Goldfarb, “Harlem’s Team: The New York Lincoln Giants,” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 26, 2 (2002).

Ted Hooks, “Bacharach Giants Lose on Opening Day.” New York Age, May 8, 1920, 7

Ted Hooks, “Cyclone Williams vs Cannonball Dick,” New York Age, May 15, 1920, 6

Ted Hooks, “Bacharachs and Lincolns Clash at Ebbets’ Field,” New York Age, July 17, 1920, 1, 6.

“Homestead Grays Win Title As Champions of the East in 10 Games With Lincolns,” New York Age, October 4, 1930, 6

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Harlem is also a parade ground. During the warmer months of the year no Sunday passes without several parades.  There are brass bands, marchers in resplendent regalia, and high dignitaries with gorgeous insignia riding in automobiles.  Almost any excuse for parading is sufficient — the funeral of a member of the lodge, the laying of a corner stone, the annual sermon to the order, or just a general desire to “turn out….[G]enerally these parades are lively and add greatly to the movement, colour and gaiety of Harlem” (James Weldon Johnson, Black Manhattan (1930), 168)

Parades also represented moments when blacks claimed the neighborhood’s streets for themselves, displacing the whites who drove the buses, trams, and taxis which traversed Harlem’s streets as well as most of the private cars.  A few parades were major events, beginning outside the neighborhood, where the audiences were largely whites, and drawing huge crowds once they entered Harlem.  Most parades remained within the neighborhood, attracting small groups of curious onlookers.  The frequency with which they occurred was testimony to the strength of the rich fabric of voluntary groups, institutions and organizations that sustained life in Harlem.

“Famous New York Soldiers Return Home:” the 369th Regiment, 1919 (National Archives)

It is a parade that is most commonly invoked to mark the beginning of a new era for black Americans in the aftermath of World War One: the return of the 369th Regiment in 1919.  That parade was one of the few that literally marched through Harlem, starting at 61st Street, and proceeding up 5th Avenue, across 110th Street, and up Lenox Avenue.

The 369th Regiment marches up 7th Avenue on its return to Harlem from its summer camp, 1934 (NY Daily News/Getty Images)

Black soldiers reappeared on the streets annually in the subsequent decade, as the 369th departed for their summer camps by parading from their armory at 143rd Street to the train depot/station at East 125th, and then returned two weeks later.  Generally the regiment paraded on 7th or Lenox Avenues; in 1930, they marched down 5th Avenue, disappointing crowds waiting for them on Lenox.

The Elks Annual Convention Parade, 1927

Processions of lodge members, not marching soldiers are  what Johnson evoked in his description of Harlem’s parades; they were the groups that most frequently took to Harlem’s streets.  The Elks produced the largest parade of the decade, when Harlem hosted their national convention in July 1927.  On that occasion,  25,000 men and women marched in pouring rain, following a route from 60th Street up 5th Avenue, then up Lenox Avenue, before crossing to 7th Avenue to go through the neighborhood (that the Elks did not march up Lenox as the 369th Regiment had in 1919 reflected that 7th had become Harlem’s main street by 1927).  A platoon of mounted police, followed by a car containing James Blondy Brown, grand marshal, and Casper Holstein, honorary chairman of the local entertaining committee, led the parade, followed by the hosts, the Manhattan, Imperial and Monarch Lodges, and twenty-eight bands, including four female bands.

Oddfellows Parade on 7th Avenue (note the masonic aprons worn by the ranks of men) (Untitled photo by James Van Der Zee, 1920s, Minneapolis Institute of Arts [object 32])

July 4th Parade of Monarch Lodge

Fraternal lodges also held smaller parades to mark their anniversaries, marching from their lodges to local churches, participated in parades for the groundbreaking of churches, and to mark holidays such as July 4th; in 1929, Holstein led the Monarch lodge through the neighborhood up Lenox Avenue and down 7th Avenue, before crossing 135th St to St Nicholas Park.

Johnson’s description applied equally well to the parades of another group, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Although they occurred only once a year, as part of the organization’s convention or anniversary, the UNIA’s parades were Harlem’s most photographed.

Black Cross Nurses, in the 1922 UNIA Parade (Corbis)

What drew the cameras was a combination of spectacle and controversy.  Led by an ornately garbed Garvey — or, after his deportation, by a large photograph of their leader — UNIA parades displayed a combination of military and fraternal elements, including bands and ranks of men and women in the uniforms of the African Legion, Black Cross Nurses, Motor Corps, Juvenile Division and Marching Band, military attire more like that of the 369th Regiment than that worn by members of fraternal orders.  Those UNIA members not in uniform carried placards adorned with slogans such as “Scattered Africa unite” and “The Negro Won the war,” which in expressing the often controversial positions that Garvey took throughout the 1920s gave these processions a political character.  Automobiles, buses and floats also featured in the parades

Marchers in UNIA 1924 Convention (James Van Der Zee, Marcus Garvey Papers, vol V)

When the UNIA took to the streets in the early 1920s, it also typically ventured further south than fraternal organizations, out of black Harlem into blocks populated by whites, to 125th Street on the occasion of its first convention in 1920, and as far south as 110th Street in 1922 and 1924.

UNIA 1922 Convention Parade, with the boundaries of the area dominated by blacks in 1920

When the parade for the 1922 convention crossed into the area occupied by whites, according to a report in the New York World, banners appeared reading, “White man rules America, black man shall rule Africa,” “We want a black civilization,” and “God and Negro Shall Triumph.” (For more, see the post on the UNIA in Harlem)

The final group of parades, those for funerals, were far smaller than those consisting of soldiers or celebrating the anniversaries or activities of organizations.  Funeral processions also followed shorter routes, bearing the coffin from the undertakers to the site of the funeral, and then out of Harlem for burial, usually in Woodlawn cemetery in the Bronx.

As Johnson noted, the typical parade came on the death of a lodge member.  Such parades drew few onlookers, unless that member had attained some degree of celebrity or notoriety, when large crowds could come out, as they did for the funeral of Barron Wilkins, a cabaret owner and sporting identity who was also a member of the Monarch Lodge of the Elks.  The funeral procession that drew by far the largest crowd of any that occurred in Harlem was for one of the neighborhood’s true celebrities, singer Florence Mills, when somewhere over 150,000 packed the streets.

New York Age, June 6, 1924, 1

While the crowds might have differed, funeral parades themselves took essentially the same form. Pallbearers took the lead, as is the photo of Wilkins’ funeral, followed by the hearse and other vehicles.  Bands from lodges also often formed part of the procession, as they did in Mills’ funeral.

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