It’s been a while since my last post about the Salt Lake City Occidentals, an African-American barnstorming based in that Utah city circa 1910. I recently submitted an article on the Occs for Salt Lake Magazine, and in this post here I discussed the squad’s historic 1909 showdown in Los Angeles with a picked nine of Japanese Americans in the City of Angels.
I’ve been wanting to get back to the Occidentals on this blog for about a month now, but with the holidays and everything, it’s been difficult to write much of late. Plus, as per my usual, I’ve been focused on some health situations that’ve made it a challenge to put much pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, so to speak.
But anyway, back to the Occidentals …
In addition to barnstorming like crazy throughout the West — and, in so doing, touting themselves as “colored champions” of that region, with sufficient success to back up that boast — the Occidentals seem to have had some connections to Salt Lake City’s somewhat seamy underbelly.
That includes links to, among other stuff, a shady saloon owner who might have doubled as, well, a pimp. Or at least an early 20th-century Utah version of one.
First, there was one of the Occidentals’ players/managers, Frank Black, who had a few run-ins with the law during his stint helming the barnstorming aggregation. In September 1908, for example, Black, who was manning third base for the team at the time, was sought by sheriff’s deputies after he allegedly pointed a revolver at one of his players, a U. Campbell, during a squabble over — what else — money. Reported the Sept. 21, 1908, Salt Lake Tribune:
“Campbell stated that he was in the Americus club at 43 Commercial street settling up some money matters with several members of the team, and that Black was dissatisfied with the deal and drew a revolver and threatened to shoot him.
“Campbell claims that a few days ago in paying the members of the team he [Black] gave each $4.15 too much by mistake, and [Black] made the demand that it be given back to him.”
A deputy phoned Black, who agreed to appear at the police station and explain his side of the affair. He was released without bail on the promise that he’d return the next morning.
I couldn’t find the outcome of that case; it wasn’t unusual at the time for newspapers to report arrests and not following up on the judicial outcomes of the cases. Also, keep the Americus club and Commercial Street on the back burner — they’ll come up a little ways down.
About three and a half years later, that scene seemed to repeat itself, only this time with the Occidentals’ star pitcher at the time, Al Mooney, and Thornton Jackson, one of the city’s first African-American police officers.
This time around, Mooney and Black dickered over the whereabouts of the pitcher’s playing uniform and some cash Black allegedly owed Mooney. According to the Feb. 19, 1912, Tribune:
“Black explained to his favorite pitcher the necessity of procuring the uniform instanter [sic]. The argument grew so warm that it disturbed the repose of Thornton Jackson, the newly appointed colored patrolman, who took the two ball players to the police station.”
At the cop offices, Thornton heard the two sides of the verbal battle and ordered the baseball-playing pair to settle up or face formal arrest. Thus, said the Trib:
“The two players left the station together, without having their names placed on the blotter. Patrolman Jackson, having restored peace, went back to his beat, satisfied that he had performed his duty.”
(Jackson’s story is in and of itself a pretty fascinating one. After about five years on the beat, Jackson suddenly resigned from the police force in 1913, with no explanation given by either himself nor the chief of police. Shortly after that, the commission gave Jackson a job at the local waterworks department after “Jackson [had] written a letter to each of the commissioners, asking for work and pleading that because of his sick wife and numerous progeny he is in destitute circumstances.” The Georgia-born Jackson, who had served in the Army during the Spanish-American War, died in 1927 at the age of 65.)
Frank Black’s wife, Gertie, also seems to have run into trouble on occasion. In September 1908 — a week after Black’s run-in with Campbell, the pitcher — Gertie Black was being sought on iffy charges. Stated the Tribune:
“Sheriff C. Frank Emery and his gang of sleuths continued their ramblings about the streets of Salt Lake Friday, keeping a sharp lookout for women who they thought were trying to violate the law.
“As a result, two women were arrested — Mrs. Gertie Black, wife of Frank Black, who played third base on the Occidental baseball team this season, and Beatrice Martin.
“Mrs. Black was released shortly after her arrest on $300 cash bond, given to Justice F. M. Bishop. … Each is charged with vagrancy.
“All the former ‘sporting’ houses of Commercial street and Victoria alley were dark last night, just the same as they have been since the beginning of the crusade against the women on Tuesday night.”
And that’s where the tale gets really interesting, and it weaves together several strands of situations and brings together marital strife, criminal activity and an overtly racist civic “crackdown” on African-American-owned business.
As we’ve already seen, the city’s white majority held feelings of paternalism (in the case of Patrolman Jackson) and suspicion (in the case of Gertie Black’s questionable arrest) at worst toward the black community.
As for the marital issues, it seems that Gertie Black might have divorced Frank Black _ or maybe not — and married another man, Charles C. Rucker, in 1916 in Salt Lake City.
Regardless of her exact marital status, Gertie Black died in April 1952 of a heart ailment in Salt Lake at the age of 54. In newspaper obituaries, she was described as the widow of frank Black, but she had no known survivors.
Thus, Frank Black died before 1952, but I have yet to pin down an exact date of death for the local baseball luminary.
However, what I do have is a reason for the couple’s possible marital discord — a reason that also segues into a larger tale of alleged corruption and overt racism in the city.
Under the sensational headline, “Colored ‘Vags’ Arrested, the Aug. 31, 1906, Deseret Evening News reported:
“Early this morning three colored men and two white women were arrested by the police and lodged in jail on the charge of vagrancy. It is alleged, by the police, that the men have been living with the white women. The names of the prisoners are, E.T. Withers, Bill McKenzie, Frank Black, Maud Montell and Ada Wilson.
“Bonds in the sum of $100 each was [sic] demanded by the bail commissioner, and the prisoners managed to furnish the same. They will be arraigned before Judge C.B. Diehl and will be tried tomorrow morning.”
With that two-paragraph article, the paper opened a Pandora’s Box of complicated, interwoven plotlines — as well as linked the narrative to the city’s prevailing racism of the day.
We have baseball manager Frank Black allegedly shacking up with a white woman, which clearly honked off the city’s white authorities enough to arrest him as a “vag.”
And we have that very charge of vagrancy, which, while vague — and also applicable to Gertie Black’s charges in 1908 — strongly hint at a suspicion of prostitution and “ill repute” on behalf of some of the city’s women.
Then we have another arrestee in the 1906 case, Bill McKenzie, who is, in many ways, the epicenter of this yarn …
First, remember way up earlier in this story, when in 1908 Frank Black allegedly pulled a hefty-sized gun on pitcher U. Campbell? Campbell had been at the Americus club on Commercial street with several other Occidentals players. In fact, the establishment had its own amateur black baseball team who played other city teams and challenged all amateur aggregations statewide.
The Americus club was located a 43 Commercial Street. Which, as it turns out, was smack dab in the middle of Salt Lake City’s seedy red-light district.
It was in the Commercial Street neighborhood where, alleged city authorities, African Americans came for hookers — often white ones, which irked the officials to no end — illicit gambling, booze and, on several occasions, murder and violence. That included, apparently, the Americus club, a popular hangout for members of the Occidentals.
The hub of the neighborhood was William “Bill” McKenzie, an African-American entrepreneur who owned a tavern at 33 Commercial Street and became the bane of the city’s overwhelmingly white law-enforcement officials and politicians.
That’ll wrap up Part 1 of this topsy turvy tale of baseball, politics, institutional racism and criminality, with Part 2 to come in the next day or two …