Recently I was reminded that there are some people out there who follow my efforts in this space. A woman called to ask me the hard question: “What were the wives doing while the ballplayers were gallivanting all over the country playing baseball?”
We have to remember that the climate for Negroes in America back then was harsh. The depression years found White men out of work and unable to scrape by. If there was a job available, it certainly didn’t go to Joe Jones because he could field a ground ball or hit for extra bases. If there was an available dime, there were a dozen White men willing to work for it.
Most of the Negro players were single men lucky to have the ability to compete in a sport’s arena. Those who were married had wives who were more than willing to turn their heads to the cavalier lifestyles of their husbands as long as there was bread on the table and milk for the kids in the ice box. Times were so harsh that there were even women who were “kept” by more than one player. The secret was to juggle schedules so they were kept apart. On the rare occasion when these guys bumped heads, the clash was ugly.
When World War II rolled around, it provided gainful employment for many colored men who were scraping the bottom of the employment barrel. And, since so many of our young men were called to war, there were job opportunities filled by Blacks, Whites and women. One would think that since a colored man put his life on the line for his country, there would be some relief from the Jim Crow attitude that ruled America. Not so.
Soldiers returning from the battlefields got a wake up call when they disembarked from the troop ships. At the bottom of the gang plank there was a sign directing White soldiers to one side and coloreds to the other. Jim Crow was alive and flexing his muscles.
There were some opportunities for Negroes provided by owned businesses. The business owners were well respected and played a leadership role in the community. My Pop was fortunate enough to be employed by the AFRO. Dr. Carl Murphy was the publisher when Pop was making his name. Dr. Carl was hard but fair. He insisted on producing a quality product, and you followed this lead if you worked for him. He was never accused of overpaying his employees, but they were paid on time. My Mom was fair-skinned and was lucky enough to get a job with the Department of Defense. By the time they discovered she was a Negro, they decided she was too valuable to be cut by the prejudice knife.
We all know the story of how with the employment of Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey took the first step to integrate Major League Baseball. Well, Rickey also kicked open another door. He had been housing his Negro players in approved homes, but when he got the weight of numbers and the support of other owners, he would approach hotels and refuse to give them the business unless all of his players could stay. They could stay, but they couldn’t eat in the dining rooms. Baby steps.
Now, we have gone from hanging Black men in their uniforms after WWII to killing them on the way to the police station (Freddie Gray). Baby steps?