The Vigilants of Cincinnati

Peter-H-Clark-dm

Peter H. Clark

A little dip into the 19th century with a story that was *supposed* to be published in a paper in Cincy …

In July 1874, a reader calling himself “Vigilant Play” wrote in to the Cincinnati Daily Times, pondering why the city’s white base ball teams — the game was spelled in two words back then — for some reason steadfastly declined to cross bats with one of the best African-American, or “colored,” nines in the country, the Cincinnati Vigilants.

To the writer, such adamant refusal seemed inherent quizzical and remarkably stubborn.

“Now, why the white clubs refuse to play our club, I can’t see,” wrote Vigilant Play, adding the claim that the Vigilants were “the champions of Ohio.” “The Vigilant Club is composed of as good players as the Arctics [a white team]. Is this giving our colored boys a show? The Arctics, Favorites and Hunkidories have to work for a living as well as we Vigilant boys do, and we will play any of the above-mentioned any day next week, except Sunday.

“It seems as if the white clubs are afraid of us,” he added boldly.

Essentially, the writer asserted, the Vigilants weren’t getting their just do as a top-quality base ball aggregation in the Queen City. However, today, one could easily argue that the Vigilant Club hasn’t garnered the respect of historians in general, many of whom laud 19th-century African-American teams from cities like Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore and even Indianapolis as crucial not just to the development of the American pastime among the black community, but to the overall history of the game itself.

But perhaps the Vigilants don’t deserve such short shrift. Author and Northern Illinois University professor James E. Brunson, the preeminent researcher on 19th-century African-American base ball, argues that the Vigilance Club carved a significant place in black baseball history because it linked the nascent sport with education.

Brunson notes that Peter Humphries Clark, the “Father of Black Baseball” in Cincy who founded the Vigilants in 1871, served as principal of Gaines Colored High School and, between 1866 and 1873, “steered young student-athletes toward baseball. They formed the nucleus of the Vigilance.”

That funneling of high-school graduates to the Vigilant Club apparently worked, too — Brunson points to the fact that the squad claimed a record of 165-0 between 1871 and 1874. In August 1875, the Cincinnati Daily Star reported that the Vigilance had recently returned to Cincy from an extended road trip “showing an untarnished record … and up to this time have never been defeated.”

And, as evidenced by the published challenge issued in 1874 to the city’s white squads, the Vigilants weren’t afraid to take on all comers, either.

“They played and defeated white and black teams,” Brunson says. “By scheduling road tours in the early- to mid-1870s, they became seasoned and formidable players.”

However, as with so many African-American base ball teams, there was more than met the eye with the Vigilants. |n their case it was politics, education and the uplift of the African-American politics during the era of Reconstruction.

Those qualities came in the form of Peter H. Clark himself, a mixed-race sociopolitical activist, both as a leading abolitionist before the Civil War and a proponent of equal rights and racial advancement via education and political “agitation” at a time when the Queen City was still clinging to segregation.

Clark was a close friend and disciple of the great Frederick Douglass, but over the years Clark, who was born around 1829 in Cincinnati, the son mixed-race of a barber who paid to have his son attend the best schools available to black children at the time.

However, despite his closeness to Douglass, Clark wasn’t afraid to switch party allegiances in order to help the black population make advances in society. In fact, in the late 1870s joined an early socialist party, for whom he ran for political office in 1878. This stridency was detailed by author Nikki Taylor in her 2013 book, “America’s First Black Socialist: The Radical Life of Peter H. Clark.”:

“In the final analysis, Clark deserves a seat at the table with the giants: very few figures in American history can lay claim to having fought for African American freedom on all fronts: from abolition to access to public education, citizenship and voting rights to political power, access to trades to unionism to socialism, or across several periods in history — antebellum, Civil War, Reconstruction, and post-Reconstruction eras. In fact, there were few significant moments in African American history in this period that Clark did not witness, participate in, speak about, or protest.”

Perhaps a prime example of Clark’s tutelage, influence, and emphasis on education and the Vigilance base ball team was a Gaines graduate named Andrew J. DeHart, a star student at the school — he was chosen by Clark, for example, to lead one of the school’s spelling bee teams in April 1875 — and a shortstop for the Vigilants in 1876.

After graduation, DeHart went on to earn a doctorate and become a minister before serving as a teacher and principal of Cincinnati’s colored Frederick Douglass Elementary School for many years.

It was that type of well rounded, active and educated members of the black community that Clark hoped to produce through education at Gaines and athletic pursuits like the Vigilance Club.

By coming on-field success with educational and sociopolitical advancement, the Vilgilance Club’s place in the history of the national pastime is secure and positions the aggregation as deserving of historical attention and reflective respect.

The Vigilants certainly garnered respect in their own time as well.

“It is the champion colored club of the United States at this present time,” printed the Daily Times in July 1874. “It was organized March 1, 1871, and has played one hundred and sixty-five games and lost none.”

Hyperbolic? Perhaps. But not too far off, either. But such documentation, even when exaggerated a little, is crucial in preserving the legacy of early black base ball teams, each one of which, says Brunson, plays a vital historical role in the national pastime.

“In my view,” he says, “there is no insignificant black baseball club of the 1870s. They are important simply for the fact that there stories need to be told.”

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