In this post from about a couple weeks ago, I addressed the issue of shifting ethnic identity as exemplified by the case of Wabishaw Wiley, best known as a catcher on the great Lincoln Giants teams from the early 1910s. The question of whether Wiley was African-American, Native-American or mixed-race remains basically unanswered to this day.
Soon after I put the post up, I got an e-mail from friend and mentor Gary Ashwill, who helped clear up the questions I raised with my entry. Primary among Gary’s items of input was the basic identification of a pattern in the way Wiley described his ethnic background as time went on — the earlier the official document, the greater the likelihood that it identified Wiley as black and hailing from Louisiana, and the later the form, the increased chance that it states that the backstop was from Oklahoma and of Native-American bloodlines.
It’s certainly an intriguing trend, and one that raises the simple question of why Wiley’s racial identification evolved the way it did. In my post, I raised the issue of “passing” as one or another ethnicity for various reasons of necessity and/or convenience. Gary feels that Wiley’s elusive cultural identity was less a matter of passing and more simply a personal preference that simply evolved as Wiley aged.
The other main fact that Gary helped crystallize was exactly where in Louisiana Wiley was allegedly from. Because his WWI draft card states that he was from “Vernon, La.,” I assumed — incorrectly, as it turns out — that Wiley meant Vernon Parish, Louisiana, which is on the western edge of the state.
But Gary noted something I overlooked — that there’s an unincorporated community in Jackson Parish named Vernon, and if one looks hard, and creatively, enough when sorting through old records and documents, they’ll see that this Vernon is indeed where Wabishaw and his ancestors were from, not Vernon Parish. It appears the Vernon community in Jackson Parish might be more or less abandoned today but, during Wiley’s life, used to be well known and somewhat thriving.
And thus enters another factor in all this confusion — the various name spellings and monikers Wabishaw Wiley and his relatives were known as in contemporary records. Throughout his life (and his baseball career as well), Wabishaw went by numerous first names and nicknames — Doc, Spencer, Bill, William, Willie, etc. In addition, different Census reports and other documents list the Wiley surname with several varied spellings, including Wyly, Wyley, etc.
Put this all together and we have the following connected pages from the 1900 U.S. Census:
The sheets indeed identify young Wabishaw and his family as living in Jackson Parish, headed by 46-year-old Anderson and 37-year-old Janice. The family surname is spelled “Wyley,” and 13-year-old Wabishaw is pegged as “Willie.” Interestingly, the whole family is listed as black, and Anderson is stated as hailing from Alabama, a fact that will come into play in a few paragraphs down from here.
Upon further examination, the Wiley/Wyley family does indeed go back a fair ways in Jackson Parish. In fact, the 1870 federal Census appears to peg a 5-year-old Anderson as living with a family headed by a single mother in the post office section of Jackson called … Vernon! Again, the family name is spelled Wyley, and all the members are stated as black.
The 1880 Census lists Anderson living in Jackson with his own burgeoning family, but, quizzically, his ethnicity is pegged as “mulatto.” Then, fast-forward to the 1920, and Anderson Wiley is still living in Jackson Parish with his family. Anderson, now about 65, is listed as black and still toiling at his lifelong career as a sharecropper. By now, though, the family surname is stated properly as Wiley.
But there’s something a little strange as well … in that 1920 Census document, Anderson (as well as his own parents) is listed as hailing from Georgia, not Louisiana or, as the 1900 Census claims, Alabama.
On that note, a page from the 1866 state of Alabama census of the “colored population” appears to list what could be an Anderson Wiley in Pike County. However, thanks to a different style of handwriting at that time and some other document vagaries, it remains somewhat unclear whether this could be the Anderson Wiley who later fathered Wabishaw Wiley, the famed pre-Negro Leagues catcher.
Does any of this conclusively clear up whether 1) Wabishaw Wiley was African-American, Native-American or both; or 2) whether he was from Louisiana or Oklahoma? No, not really. But it does lend some credence to the Louisiana side of the ledger. (The issues of the often-forced migration of Native-American peoples from the southeastern U.S. west through Oklahoma to “Indian Territory” also come into play, i.e. if the Wileys were in fact Indian, could they have originated as Choctaws or Cherokees from Georgia and/or Alabama?
However — and there’s always a “however,” isn’t there? — there’s some evidence that Wiley, or at least someone called “W.S. Wiley,” was indeed from Oklahoma, not the Pelican State, and was actually Native-American. Those clues come in the form of contemporary articles from after the turn of the 20th century in what is now Oklahoma but what was, a century-plus ago, called Indian Territory.
Take, for example, a March 2, 1906, issue of the Durant Weekly News that reports on a Rev. W.S. Wiley, a Baptist minister and president of the board of trustees of Bacone University, revving up a campaign to raising $100,000 for the institution of higher learning. Bacone was formed in 1880 as The Indian University by the American Baptist Church.
Or look at the April 9, 1910, edition of a paper in Guthrie, Okla., that includes an article about the fundraising efforts to build a new structure for the Oklahoma School for the Deaf. Among the committee leading the charge? Rev. W.S. Wiley.
The Oklahoma School for the Deaf
Or geez, there’s the multiple articles in the Tulsa Daily World in June 1914 about the annual Baptist Young Peoples Union being held in that city. One of the presenters and organizers at the event is Rev. W.S. Wiley, who is stated as hailing from Muskogee — just as Wabishaw Wiley’s WWII draft card does roughly three decades later.
Such information also jibes with later press coverage of Wabishaw Wiley’s life, including obituaries in both the New York Amsterdam News and the New York Times after his death in November 1944. Indeed, Wiley attended Arkansas Baptist College.
But those postmortem articles make no reference to Wiley being a minister. In fact, they stress that, in addition to his status as a former baseball star, Wiley was a very successful and respected dentist and Howard University graduate.
So what’s going on? But ahhh, that’s perhaps best addressed in an ensuing post, because this post is getting a little bit far afield and too much off point …