A new exhibit at Johnson C.Smith University aims to remind the community of Charlotte’s Black baseball history.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Exhibit, now located at JCSU’s James B. Duke Memorial Library, features a collection of photos and artifacts from Charlotte Negro League teams and JCSU’s Baseball team, along with loaned pieces from the Negro League Museum in Kansas City, Mo.
“[The exhibition] is a bittersweet story about how amazing the Negro League were and how they brought communities together,” Brandon Lunsford, the exhibition director and JCSU archivist, told QCity Metro. “It’s important for communities and students to learn about this story.”
Why it matters: Black participation in baseball has declined over the decades from the little league level all the way to the Major League.
The school will have an opening reception at JCSU’s James B. Duke Memorial Library on Monday, May 8, at 1 p.m.
A trip to Missouri
The idea to create an exhibition came during a trip to the Negro Baseball Museum in Missouri last September.
Lunsford said he and Michael Webb, a local historian with extensive knowledge of Negro Leagues, decided to visit the museum after discussions about the significance of the Negro League to the game of baseball.
When they arrived, they learned that the exhibition could be loaned.
“We decided to purchase the exhibit for a few months to bring attention to the story of Negro League baseball and kind of tie that into the [Johnson C.] Smith’s history and Charlotte Black baseball history,” he said.
Major League Baseball had very few teams in the South, making way for the Negro Baseball Leagues to gain popularity, especially amongst Black communities.
In the early 1900s, the Negro Baseball League became popular amongst the Black community in cities across the South. Charlotte was no exception, Lunsford said.
In their studies in preparation for the exhibition, Lunsford and Webb found that there were a number of Black minor league teams in Charlotte.
Lunsford said there was a Black minor league baseball team called the Charlotte Hornets in the early 1900s — decades before the basketball team began using the name.
Other teams included the Charlotte Red Sox, the Charlotte Quicksteps and the Charlotte Sluggers, among others.
Collegiate baseball was also popular, Lunsford said.
JCSU and Livingstone College played each other in baseball the Monday after Easter. The annual game drew in such a large crowd that it had to be played at larger white-owned venues, Lunsford said.
Outside the college and professional levels, Lunsford said there were also a number of Black neighborhood and high school teams in Charlotte.
“Baseball was really popular, and that’s weird to think about now because it’s not so popular now [in the Black community],” he said.
Challenges in popularity
Lunsford said it’s hard to pinpoint the primary cause for the decline of Black American baseball players.
Major League Baseball’s discriminatory history has played a part, he said.
“Baseball hasn’t ever really historically been very kind to African Americans,” he said. “Even after [Jackie Robinson] broke the color barrier, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the Red Sox was the last team to [integrate].”
The MLB has made efforts in recent years to acknowledge the Negro League and include its player stats in the official league record books. League officials have also tried to make the game faster to attract the young fan base needed to diversify the game, he said.
Lunsford said that the popularity of other sports with a greater presence of Black players, like football and basketball, will still be a challenge for diversifying baseball’s fan base.
The emergence of these sports contributed to the demise of JCSU’s baseball program in 1932.
“The students started being more interested in basketball and football in the 1930s, and [those] just became the dominant sports,” he said. “There’s not a lot of HBCUs that have baseball teams now.”
Lunsford said he has his “fingers crossed” that the exhibition will spark enough interest for JCSU to one day bring back its baseball team.
The exhibit is on display through June 7.