“Justifiable homicide by a gunshot wound.”
That’s the cause of death listed on Louisiana native and Chicago resident Fred Gorée’s St. Louis County, Mo., death certificate. It was signed on Aug. 3, 1925, with date of death stated as two days prior.
The document also said the determination of the cause of death involved an inquest.
Meanwhile, a jury was clearing the deputy constable involved in the incident of any wrongdoing in the late-night, roadside scuffle that caused the officer to fatally shoot Gorée, who was on his way with his semipro baseball team, the Chicago Independents, to play a reported barnstorming game in St. Charles, Mo., depending on the source.
The news of Gorée’s death practically flew under the radar; the black press, even, failed to report much about an incident that, to this day, has Gorée’s descendants searching for any information about their progenitor’s fate.
Here’s an excerpt of an Associated Press report on the court’s determination:
“Deputy Constable Frank Bennett, 29, was exonerated by a St. Louis County coroner’s jury today [Aug. 3] of any blame for the death of Fred Goree, 35-year-old Chicago Negro whom he shot and killed Saturday night in an altercation over a speeding arrest.
“Bennett testified Goree tried to wrest his revolver from him. Goree was the owner of a Negro baseball team which was to have played in St. Charles, Mo., yesterday afternoon.”
(To clear things up, Gorée wasn’t 35 when he was shot — at least not according to his death certificate, which lists his birth date as Jan. 6, 1901, making him about 24.5 years old at the time.)
But what the African-American media reported was a tad bit different. This is what the Pittsburgh Courier said:
“ST. LOUIS, Mo., Aug. 6 — Fred Foree [sic], manager of a Chicago baseball team, was shot to death at 11:15 o’clock Saturday night after hand-to-hand struggle with a white officer.
“The struggle followed a heated controversy between the two men when [Frank] Bennett arrested Foree and two companions for speeding at 48 miles an hour.
“Foree objected to being taken to jail to be held for 20 hours.”
Note that the Courier, an influential and popular African-American newspaper, reported the race of the officer, something articles in mainstream media outlets failed to do. In doing so, the Courier clearly insinuated — and quite rightfully so — that the killing might certainly have taken a racial turn.
The Pittsburgh paper’s story also stressed that Gorée asserted himself in refusing to be questioned and held for 20 hours — nearly a full day, which could, to some, seem unreasonable, especially for something as minor as a speeding ticket.
What’s worse, Gorée, who was buried in Lincoln Cemetery near Chicago —Section 23, Lot 17, Row 2 — in what may be an unmarked grave, a situation that’s all too familiar to Negro League historians who routinely come across segregation-era African-American baseball figures who suffer such indignity in death.
(I called Lincoln Cemetery to confirm that Gorée was, in fact, buried there and whether his grave has a headstone. The woman I spoke with said he was at the facility, but she couldn’t say if the burial spot was unmarked. She also couldn’t divulge any further details about the grave, including who owns the plot, etc.)
Which leaves us with this: was Gorée’s death the result of self-defense on behalf of Deputy Bennett, or was it essentially a law-enforcement lynching — one that could have been swept under the rug — at a time when the St. Louis area had, in some ways, a Southern mindset, where African Americans were second-class citizens?
I was first tipped off to this story by Ron Auther, a fellow Negro Leagues researcher specializing in African-American baseball west of the Rockies and along the West Coast. Ron has a great blog here about those subjects, and it was in researching a story for his specialty that he tripped over a short article in a California newspaper about Gorée’s death.
Ron subsequently wrote this blog post about what he found, and as you can see, it elicited a great deal of feedback from several of Mr. Gorée’s descendants, who expressed both sadness and hope that the mystery surrounding their ancestor could be resolved — and that Fred’s grave can at long last be marked, perhaps by the nationally known Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project.
Details of the incident that claimed Fred Gorée’s life much too soon still remain sketchy, but an Aug. 2, 1925, AP report does shed some light on what happened — or at least the story told by the police. Unfortunately, the archived newspaper in which I found the report has much of the right side of the article folded over, making it tough to decipher the entire context of the story. But here’s what the article reported, more or less (and keep in mind that this dispatch came before the coroner’s jury’s decision to exonerate Bennett):
“Fred Foree [sic], a negro, 35, manager of a Chicago baseball team scheduled to play with [a] St. Charles, Mo., team today, was shot to death late last night by Deputy Constable [?] Bennett of St. Louis County after a hand to hand struggle for the officer’s revolver.
“The struggle followed a heated [?] controversy between the two [?] when Bennett arrested Foree [and] two negro companions for speeding 48 miles an hour on the St. Charles road near here [St. Louis].
“Foree to be taken to [?] and held 20 hours as a suspect. Bennett refused to heed his pleas [?] the negro struck the officer [on the] head with his fist. The officer drew his pistol.
“In the struggle, which rolled [the] men over a six-foot embankment, the negro was shot twice in the stomach. His companion [?] in the automobile under command and assisted in removing Foree [to] the home of a physician, where he died within two hours. An inquest will be held tomorrow. The dead [?] negro and his two companions, Frencher Henry of Chicago and Harold Gaulden of St. Charles [were] on their way to Effingham, Ill., [to] get part of the baseball [team?] stranded there.”
Mr. Gorée’s death certificate states that he died on Pattonville road in St. Ferdinand township in St. Louis County.
Now, the article above doubtlessly only includes the Constable Office’s side of things. But what about the other side, the views of Fred Gorée and his baseball charges about what occurred that fateful night?
In my next post about Fred Gorée, which will hopefully come by the end of the week, will take a look at the man and his life — his roots in Lincoln County, La., his involvement with baseball and, hopefully, his life in Chicago — a life that led up to a tragic, controversial, violent ending on Aug. 1, 1925.
Then, after that, I’ll come back to Mr. Gorée’s death and try to take a closer look at what did happen that night.