Before white supremacy, base ball trailblazing in Wilmington

The_Wilmington_Post_Thu__Aug_22__1867_

Of all the cities in the newly repaired Union, why, of all places, was the Southern coastal burg of Wilmington, N.C., one where African Americans actually led the way in baseball?

This was, after all, the place where one of the most open and violent coups d’etat in U.S. history occurred — in 1898, a group of white insurgents bloodily overthrow a democratically elected, biracial city council, in what many historians now believe was the final nail in the coffin of Reconstruction and the official ushering in (along with Plessy v. Ferguson) of a new era of severe Jim Crow political and social policies and white supremacy in the South.

But more than 30 years before, in 1867, Wilmington became one of the select few cities in which, apparently, the first organized base ball (two words back then) team materialized was black. Stated the Aug. 22, 1867, Wilmington Post:

“We are glad to chronicle the fact that a Base Ball Club has been at last organized in this city. On Tuesday evening last, a number of the colored young men met at Allen Evans’ saloon for this purpose. … An election for President and Secretary of the club was held, which resulted in the choice of Allen Evans as President and Robt. H. Brown as Secretary. A committee of five was selected to select suitable grounds, which committee are to report at a a meeting to be held this evening. It was resolved that the organization be known as the Osceola Base Ball Club and the first meeting for practice will be held on Friday … “

Unfortunately, I couldn’t immediately come across much additional information about the Osceola Club of Wilmington, but in the wake of its formation, other aggregations, black and white, popped up throughout the city over the last few decades of the 19th century, during which base ball coalesced as the American pastime and the country lurched, with starts and fits, through the rocky process of Reconstruction.

This was a time when African Americans in the South could be and were elected to positions of power in their local, state and federal governments. Buoyed by the Republic Party and the steps toward racial equality it pursued, black citizens found a level of achievement and access to power that had heretofore been only a pipe dream, especially in the antebellum South.

It didn’t last into the 20th century, of course, but for a couple brief decades, African Americans were, for the first time in many parts of the country, held on more or less equal footing as whites. For example, in Wilmington, Robert H. Brown, who was elected secretary of the Osceola Base Ball Club, served a spell as a city police officer.

But in Wilmington, it was Allen Evans, the president of the Osceolas, who was arguably to most successful African American in the city, one of the leading Republican activists in the region and a successful Wilmington businessman.

Over the years, Evans operated a barber shop, a grocery store and a liquor saloon. He’s listed in the 1866 income tax rolls as both a liquor dealer and a retail seller; in the 1875 city directory as a grocer; in the 1870 federal Census as barber; and in the 1880 Census as a grocer and barber.

In those last two, interestingly, Evans is reported as a “mulatto,” probably the progeny of a white slave holder and a black slave. In fact, it seems like he was a slave who purchased his own freedom before marrying his wife, the former Charlotte Meashey.

For example, the journals of Salmon P. Chase — the sixth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. treasury secretary under Lincoln, and a former governor of and U.S. senator from Ohio who was a strident opponent of slavery — detail one of Chase’s trips through the South, including a stop in Wilmington, where he was met by a local group of black citizens, including Allen Evans, whom Chase described as “a smart young fellow barber by trade — bought himself & had conveyance made to his wife who was free …”

Evans was, in fact, a prime candidate to lead an early African-American base ball team. At the time, black ball clubs were frequently helmed by representatives of the emerging African-American middle class, in which barbers, saloon operators and retail sellers, much like Evans, were held in very high regard.

In addition, the leaders of early black base ball clubs frequently doubled as local political leaders and social activists, many of whom were involved in the nascent civil rights movement. In fact, these leaders sometimes melded the two — base ball and civil rights — with the former being viewed as a vehicle for promoting the latter.

While it’s not clear if this was specifically the case with Allen Evans and the Osceola Club in Wilmington, there’s no doubt that Evans was a well respected political operative, even admired by many in the white community, albeit probably grudgingly. For example, the April 5, 1870, issue of the Wilmington Daily Journal stated:

“The name of Allen Evans has been put forward by himself and friends as a candidate for the Legislature. Allen is a colored man, and one who has always conducted himself properly and becomingly. Without wishing his election we prefer a hundred times seeing him in the Legislature to such carpet-baggers as Gizzard French. During a life-long residence here Allen has shown a most proper deportment.”

True, that paragraph is saturated with condescension, paternalism and a subtle bigotry in today’s light, but for a Southern daily paper just five years after the Civil War, such a statement was downright progressive.

Four years later, the Wilmington Daily Star proffered a similar backhanded compliment, with the requisite amount of 1870s snark:

“Allen Evans is a candidate for the nomination as one of the Board of County Commissioners. He is the first modest Republican we have seen.”

There’s no doubt that Evans was active in Republican and African-American politics; in December 1868, for example, he was one of the organizers of a New Hanover County convention of local black citizens to nominate representatives to a similar national gathering.

That’s not to say that it was always an easy haul for Evans; his name popped up in an unsavory vein in the papers here in there. For example, in August 1871, a man connected to Evans’ saloon was murdered under seedy circumstances; in March 1874 he was accused of fencing stolen goods, a charge he refuted; in April 1876 one of his sons was nearly incinerated by an accidental home fire; and portions of his various businesses were damaged multiple times by other fires.

But by the time Evans reached middle age in the 1880s, he had become such a respected member Wilmington’s African-American community that, in February 1881, he opened a new banquet and event hall at the corner of Fourth and Brunswick streets to the public, arguably the crowning achievement of Evans’ life of business endeavors. In covering the grand opening of Minnie’s Hall — it was named after one of Evans’ daughters — the Morning Star dubbed Evans “one of our prominent and energetic colored men.”

Just more than a year later, Evans died at roughly the age of 48 on April 13, 1882, at his residence. A funeral was held the following day at First Colored Baptist Church. In its April 15 issue, the Morning Star reported:

“Allen Evans, whose death was recorded in our last issue, was one of the most prominent colored men in the city. He was owner of considerable property, and was a shrewd business man, being the proprietor of a large store on the corner of Fourth and Brunswick streets, with a hall above it. He was at one time leader of an excellent colored band in this city, and was a man of considerable intelligence. His funeral yesterday was largely attended by the colored people of the city, the colored masons, to which he belonged, escorting the remains to the grave.”

It was the conclusion of an unfortunately brief but busy and accomplished life that included the founding of Wilmington’s first organized base ball team, one of the first endeavors in the state of North Carolina to merge the newfound freedom of African Americans with the burgeoning national pastime.

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