Mansfield, La., isn’t a huge city — as of the 2010 Federal Census, its population was a shade over 5,000 — but it’s the county seat of DeSoto Parish, which is south of Shreveport, in the northwest corner of the state. Mansfield is perhaps best known as the location of a significant Confederate victory in April 1864. It was also home to Mansfield Female College, the first women’s institution of higher learning west of the Mississippi River.
Baseball-wise, the grand metropolis of Mansfield is the hometown of longtime major league pitcher and 1971 AL MVP and Cy Young winner Vida Blue. But it’s also the original stomping grounds of another significant, yet largely unknown baseball figure, this one a trailblazer in a different country: Jimmy Bonner, the first African American to play professional baseball in Japan.
This post by Gary Ashwill details the career of Bonner, who eventually moved to, settled in and died in Alameda County, California, where he enjoyed a largely semipro tenure that included — surprise! — a stint in the Berkeley International League. I wrote a brief introductory post to Bonner here following Gary’s one.
There was also quite a lively discussion on Rod Nelson’s Facebook page.
Once I found out that Bonner was a native of the Pelican State, I felt obliged and, indeed, eager to explore his roots in Mansfield and DeSoto Parish.
Turns out, however, that those roots are extremely murky, which, of course, isn’t unusual for underappreciated black ballplayers of the early 20th century like Bonner.
So what exactly did I find about the groundbreaking player’s connection to Louisiana …?
First off, it’s possibly important to note that a fairly decent majority of Mansfield’s modern residents — more than 64 percent — are black, making the fact that the city has produced multiple standout African-American baseball players over the decades not all that surprising.
Now, down to James Everett Bonner. Birth date: It appears to be, according to multiple sources (including the California Death Index) to be Sept. 18, 1906 (which means he shares a birthday with my sister, née 1976, exactly seven decades later).
Bonner’s mother was Martha A. Lewis, whose background is shrouded in mystery. The first confirmed appearance in the U.S. Census is 1920, when she and three of her children are living in Mansfield on Gibbs Street with a blend of white, black and mixed-race neighbors. Martha, who is stated as 38 years old with no listed occupation.
Key to the listing, though, is the that she’s widowed, as well as the fact that her children have different surnames. There’s James Bonner, 13, and Bessie Lee Bonner, 15. But there’s also Mamie Goldsmith, 9.
The presence of three last names in the same house — one with a mother and three kids — is just plain confusing.
The 1930 Census lists Martha living with just Jimmy Bonner; their stated ages are (I think, if I’m reading the handwriting correctly) 45 and 22, respectively. But now Martha Lewis is listed as … divorced. The document also states that she’s a laundress with a family, while Jimmy is noted as a tailor in a shop.
There’s also another hitch in the 1930. While James Bonner appears to be living in Mansfield, La., there’s also a James Bonner noted in … Oakland, Calif., in Alameda County, where Bonner eventually settled for his hardball career. And this James Bonner is eerily similar to the one we “know” — he’s 21 years old, black and a native of Louisiana!
But there’s something else that’s quizzical — this second James Bonner is listed as living with Edward and Lee Freeman and identified as their — get ready — stepson.
However, in my cursory research on Bonner’s background, I haven’t come across that surname in anything other places in relation to Jimmy Bonner. I suppose it’s feasible that Bonner was splitting time between the two locales, but the two Census pages — the one of Mansfield and the one for Oakland — were filled out only nine days apart in April 1930.
Now, speaking of crazy surnames … let’s get back to Bonner’s mother, Martha Lewis and how she a) had children with different last names, and b) is listed in one Census as widowed and the following one as divorced.
According to a (somewhat) handy dandy, bare-bones profile of her I found on Ancestry.com, Martha Lewis allegedly had at least four children with up to three men. In the profile, two of those men are stated as husbands — Peter Bonner (no other information given), with whom Martha had Jimmy as well as Lang Bonner, né 1900; and Rory Goldsmith (born 1880), with whom she birthed Mamie Lee Goldsmith in 1911.
One more child, Bessie Lee Bonner, who is listed as living with Martha, Jimmy and Mamie in Mansfield in 1920, is stated in the profile as the child of an unknown father.
Talk about a family in knots. A guess is that Lewis was Martha’s maiden name, i.e. original surname. But if that’s the case, she never took the name of either of her listed husbands, and she never passed her her own name to any of her children. What???
Perhaps — perhaps — things are cleared up a little bit with the 1910 Census, when Bonner’s mother is listed as 30-year-old Martha … Goldsmith! The wife of none other than 32-year-old Louisiana native Rory Goldsmith! They’re living in DeSoto Parish (not in Mansfield proper, it seems) with their daughter, Mamie Lee Goldsmith, as well as four kids listed as Rory’s stepchildren.
But the children have two different surnames: Gertrude (I think) Louis, 15; and three with the last name of Bonner, including Bessie, 6, and two other kids — I honestly can’t make out their names, but neither of them appear to be Jimmy or James — ages 10 and 6, both boys.
Martha and Rory are listed as having been married for two years, with the marriage being the first for Rory — who’s stated as a laborer at a saw mill — and the second for Martha.
That clears up the picture a little … a little. It appears as though Martha Lewis married this Peter Bonner (for whom I could find no immediate record), who most likely died after having several children with Martha, who then married Rory and had Mamie Lee. I honestly have no idea who this Gertrude is — yet another child of Martha’s by another man? Quite, quite confusing.
(Incidentally, Rory shows up as 4-year-old Roy Goldsmith in DeSoto Parish, the son of Julius and Juana Goldsmith, both listed as “laborers.”)
OK, what if we shift over the Jimmy Bonner’s wife, Lillian? Will things get any more “normal”? Well, yes, but only marginally. According to the California Death Index, Lillian was born in Louisiana on Aug. 21, 1907.
The index lists both her mother’s maiden name and her father’s surname as Victor, which is a little strange.
Lillian was raised as Lillian Victor, not by her parents but by her grandparents, Abraham and Eliza Stewart, in the unincorporated community of Waggaman in Jefferson Parish, which is across the river from New Orleans and also the parish in which I live.
Both Abe and Eliza were also Louisiana natives, born in roughly 1878 and 1876, respectively. In the 1920 Census, Abraham is reported as a farm laborer, but by 1940, he went into business for himself, opening a barbershop.
It’s not immediately clear how and when Jimmy Bonner and Lillian Victor met or got married, but it was apparently sometime in the 1930s, because by the 1940 Census they’re married and living in Oakland, with Jimmy officially working as a railroad porter.
Jimmy died in 1963, while Lillian died in 1984, both in Oakland, it seems.
One final note … The 1940 Census lists Martha Lewis as living in Mansfield, still on Gibbs Street, with Mamie Lee Goldsmith. Martha is now 61 and widowed again while toiling as a cook in a private home. Mamie Lee is 29 and working as a home servant.
That’s what I have so far regarding Jimmy Bonner — trailblazing black ballplayer in Japan in the 1930s and mainstay in the Bay Area semipro hardball scene — and his roots in Louisiana. But I’ll keep at it and work to piece more of it together, hopefully soon …