Ratcliff becomes Radcliffe: Double Duty’s roots

Radcliffe, Theodore-Bismarck

So I’m working on an article for Lagniappe magazine in Mobile, Ala., about the great Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, who’s a native on that city. Unfortunately, despite his famed multi-tooled talents and his extremely colorful character, Double Duty has always been overshadowed by that other famous Negro Leagues product of Mobile, Satchel Paige.

My article aims to help change that … I’m not sure if I’d call it an injustice, but it’s definitely something that needs to be rectified, because Ted Radcliffe deserves recognition not only for his accomplishments, but for his longevity in both the game and in life, and for the vast wealth of information he supplied to our collective knowledge of Negro Leagues history.

The piece on which I’m working will not only examine Double Duty’s Negro Leagues legacy, but also his impact on the city of Mobile and its culture as well as his own roots and youth in the city on the bay. (I started my research with a wonderful interview he did with The History Makers, some of the highlights of which I included in this previous blog post.)

But the effort into looking into Ted’s roots almost immediately hit a roadblock because known knowledge, i.e. on Ancestry.com and other research sites, included limited amounts of information, most of which was based on this Census report from 1920, which logs residents of Mobile:

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It spells the family’s last name as “Radcliff,” and it lists Ted by his middle name, Roosevelt, who, it says, was 17 at the time (which, according to interviews he did, is around the time he left Mobile for the North — Illinois and Ohio, in particlular).

The family lists includes his father, James, and his mother, the former Mary Marsh, as well two brothers and two sisters. (Notice also that the family lives right next door to that of William Radcliff. I haven’t been able to conclusively pin down if William is James’ brother, but in all likelihood they are indeed siblings.)

Aside from this Census documents and a few death index records, there has been very little to go on regarding Ted Radcliffe’s genealogy. We do have these excerpts from the aforementioned History Makers interview:

– Now let me ask you this. I want to talk to you about where you were born. And I want your mother and father’s name.
– My father was named James Radcliffe. My mother was named Mary Louise Radcliffe. I was born in Mobile, Alabama, July the 7th, 1902. And I started to playing baseball when I was eight or nine years old. And I didn’t look back.
– Let me ask you. What do you–what about your father James Radcliffe. What do you know about his–him and his family?
– Well my father was a great carpenter. He was the only Negro who could read (unclear). He went to Booker T. Washington School [Mobile, Alabama]. He could read (unclear) blueprint. He was a good man. He brought us up. He brought us up here. He was a good man.
– Hmm. Did he talk about growing up?
– No.

And …

– Was he born into slavery?
– Huh?
– Was your father born into slavery? No.
– He was born after slavery.
– After slavery. Okay. Okay.
– But my grandmother was.
– Do you remember your grandmother?
– Yes, I remember all of them.
– Okay. And what was she like?
– She was a great woman.
– What was her name?
– Her name was Elizabeth. And my mother name was Mary. And my oldest sister was Olga, Emma. I remember all of them.
– And your mother. Did she talk about growing up?
– She used to talk about it. I had a great mother. I had a great father. We didn’t go lacking for nothing.
– And how long did you live in–what were your siblings’ names? Can you go through their names? How many, kids in the family?
– How many kids? Brother and sisters? It was nine. Five boys and four girls.
– Can you give me their names in order?
– Olga, Emma, Ernest, Stanley, Ferney, ‘Double Duty,’ Ellie, Portia and Dorothy [sic, and Alexander ‘Alec’ Radcliffe].

So that’s a start. But, so far as I can tell, it’s also always been the limit to the popular knowledge of Ted’s roots. I knew via cursory research that James, his father, was born in a place called Millers Ferry, Ala., but I found no further details.

That, it turns out, is because Millers Ferry is an aging, unincorporated community in Wilcox County, Ala., which is located in the southwest part of the state, not all that far from Mobile. Wilcox County is, all things considered, pretty tiny; as of the 2010 Census, its entire population was less than 12,000.

Having said that … I couldn’t find the James Radcliff(e) family anywhere in the Census before 1920, either in Mobile or in Wilcox County.

But, from there, I guessed that James’ family — as well as that as his eventual wife, Mary Marsh (Ted’s mother) — was from Wilcox County somehow. But how, exactly …?

So I went back to our old pal Google, did some basic searching, and found that there was a slaveowner in Wilcox County named … Leonidas Ratcliff. I also discovered that in the 1870 Census (the first one after the end of slavery), there were numerous African-American Ratcliffs living in Wilcox County … where James “Radcliff(e)”, Double Duty’s father, was from!

After that, the pieces quickly began to fall into place. Because, in the 1910 Census of Mobile, I found James and his burgeoning brood — under the surname Ratcliff. James — who, incidentally, is tagged as “mulatto” in the document — is the head of the house, with Mary and six kids, including 7-year-old Roosevelt. Also dwelling in the home are James’ 65-year-old mother, Elizabeth Bennett (likely the grandmother to whom Ted Radcliffe referred in his History Makers interview); James’ 85-year-old grandmother, Nancy Stuart; and his 34-year-old brother-in-law, H.W. Marsh, a fact that confirms Mary’s maiden name.

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So let’s go back a little more, back to the 1900 Census, in which we have 32-year-old James Ratcliff and family living in Mobile — there’s wife Mary, 28; daughter Olga, 10; son Ernest, 3; son Ferny, 2 months; and grandmother Nancy Stewart, 75 (notice the difference in spelling of her last name from the 1910 Census).

Interestingly, though, there’s also a six-year-old daughter named Mamie, who isn’t mentioned in any other Census record for the family, or by Ted himself in his History Makers interview. Did she die shortly after the 1900 document was transcribed, and before Theodore Roosevelt Radcliff(e) was born?

Also of interest is the fact that there’s also a 55-year-old woman named Eliza Bennett living as a servant in a separate home in Mobile. Is this Ted’s grandmother (and James’ mother)?

After (or, I suppose, before) that, things get somewhat murky — actually, very murky. Nailing down James Ratcliff (Ted’s dad) in Wilcox County via documents has proven difficult. There is, for example, a sharecropper named James Ratcliff listed in an 1880 Census report of agricultural production in the town of Canton in Wilcox County; he rents a total of 60 acres that produced a whopping $100 in products.

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But is that James Ratcliff listed in that farm report the same one who fathered Double Duty Radcliffe? That’s highly unlikely, given that, using later documentation, Ted’s father would have been around 12 in 1880.

And in an 1870 report on agricultural production in Clifton, Wilcox County, there’s a a farmer named Jake Ratcliff; “Jake” is sometimes used as a nickname for “James.” So is this Jake Ratcliff the same as the James Ratcliff in the 1880 farm document? I’m just not sure yet.

Further, regarding Elizabeth Bennett — Ted’s grandmother and James’ mother — the 1870 and 1880 Census reports includes a slew of African-American Bennetts. But again, connecting any of those Bennett families to Elizabeth (or Eliza?) Bennett — and therefore James and Ted Radcliff(e) — will prove tricky, especially because, so far in my research, I’ve found a familial spider web of connections to women named Elizabeth Bennett in both Wilcox County and Mobile.

I also need to research more extensively Mary Marsh’s background and her ancestral roots, a process I’ve really only just begun. However, just like Double Duty’s paternal side of the family, there were slaveowners named Marsh in Wilcox County pre-war, and there are numerous African-American Marshes listed in Wilcox County post-emancipation.

That’s enough for this post, and in a follow-up article, I’ll try to delve a little more into the hazy picture in Wilcox County and attempt to further discern Double Duty Radcliffe’s family tree. But here’s what I believe so far:

Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe can trace his entire family tree back to slaves in Wilcox County, including those owned by Leonidas Ratcliff and HIS ancestors (and they owned dozens of them). Leonidas Ratcliff was originally from North Carolina, and he seems to have purchased and/or brought slaves with him to Wilcox County, Ala., from several states, including both Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and possibly Mississippi.

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I also believe that the Jake and James Ratcliffs listed in the 1870 and 1880 agriculture reports, respectively, are one and the same person, and that that man is Double Duty’s grandfather and that Ted’s father, James, is actually a Junior, the son of Jake/James Ratcliff, who himself was no doubt originally a slave owned by Leonidas and family.

Finally, Elizabeth Bennett is both a sphinx and a key to much of Double Duty’s genealogy, and unraveling that mystery will be quite a challenge.

But, onward and upward …!

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