The Salt Lake Occidentals, the conclusion

Forthwith comes the second part of our intricate Salt Lake City tale, circa 1908, about the intersection of baseball, bigotry and breaking the law. (I like alliteration on occasion.)

In Part 1 from Thursday, I largely discussed the life, baseball run-ins and other travails of Frank Black, player manager of the city’s powerful African-American semipro barnstorming team, the Occidentals.

Part of Black’s story contains links to Salt Lake City’s red-light district of the 19-oughts, centered on Commercial Street. The hub of that seedy neighborhood was one “Candy Bill” McKenzie, an African-American businessman who owned a hotel and saloon at 43 Commercial Street — a business that allegedly was a “den of sin,” one that was constantly drawing the ire and legal attacks of the city’s white establishment.

As for McKenzie’s personal background and data, it’s been a tough slog finding much at all for the kingpin known as “Candy Bill.” About the only thing I’ve been able to glean I that during the 19-oughts, he owned and lived what are described as “hotels” on Commercial Street, according to a few city directories; his occupation is variously given as “bartender,” “porter” and “laborer.”

McKenzie appears to have arrived in Salt Lake City, from whereabouts unknown, in early 1905 but didn’t about the saloon/hotel until a couple years later. However, it quickly became a frequently site of violence and physical quarrels, it seems:

• On March 12, 1908, a popular African-American jockey, Jerry Chorn (or Shon or Shorn, in some reports), was charged with attempted murder after he allegedly pumped another patron of McKenzie’s establishment, Henry Staten, over a squabble over a craps game in the basement. Staten was hospitalized with serious wounds, but he eventually made a full recovery. McKenzie, as well as numerous customers, stated that the fight occurred in the saloon proper, not illicitly in the basement. Their assertions seem to have worked, much to the dismay of the Herald, which stated “the police were so completely hoodwinked by the story that neither the saloon nor the gambling house downstairs were closed because of the tragedy.”
• Roughly three months later, in June 1908, one “negro,” William Marshall, was cracked on the back of the head with a pool cue by an unknown assailant, resulting in a grave gash that required four stitches and place Marshall in a near-coma.

• Then, in September 1908, according to the Salt Lake Herald, “[O]ne more bloody crime was added to the long record of ‘Candy’ Bill McKenzie’s saloon at 33 Commercial Street … when Dick Hawkins, a hanger-on of the street, was shot and killed by David Logan, another Negro.” According to the paper, the fight’s origins began a week before in the Colored Elks Lodge and continued at the Americus club after Hawkins’ application for Elks membership was turned down, eventually spurring Logan to shoot Hawkins at McKenzie’s establishment.

• But the incident that takes the cake in terms of the overtly racist white media in Salt Lake came in September 1908 — that was apparently a very rough year at Candy Bill’s tavern — when Silas Wilson, “a negro,” was rushed to the ER after suffering a half-dozen knife wounds by Henry Taylor, “another negro.” The fracas erupted, allegedly, over a craps game and the winning by Wilson of a dime, an outcome that teed off Taylor, who then reportedly knifed the other man repeatedly. And how did the Salt Lake Herald describe the melée? Under the headline: “Negro Carves Dark Meat.” Oy vey.

The whole chronicle — which also allegedly included a billiard cue battle between two infantry soldiers and two incidents of gun discharges — was perhaps summed up in a Herald article on Sept. 11, 1908, covering the alleged murder of Dick Hawkins by David Logan:

“The murder Thursday morning is the sixth serious criminal act which has been committed in ‘Candy Bill’ McKenzie’s resort … since January. Of the six, only one conviction was secured, and in most cases no complaint was issued.”

However, it’s perhaps important to note that while McKenzie was the locus of alleged crime, other locales on Commercial Street did attract heated incidents as well. One such establishment was another saloon, this one owned by a Gus Williams.

A few days after the July 4, 1910, “Fight of the Century” in Reno between controversial heavyweight boxing champ Jack Johnson and former titlist and “Great White Hope” Jim Jeffries — which ended up with Johnson kicking Jeffries’ ass — the Salt Lake Tribune described a “Humble Edition of Championship Fight” at Williams’ tavern between “George Carter and Fred Clay, negroes, and a number of newsboys [who] got into an argument regarding the outcome of the Johnson-Jeffries fight … which resulted in the arrest of three newsboys and the two negroes …” Although the two sides lobbed empty bottles at each other, no one was hurt.

Then there was this scene described in the Oct. 20, 1903, Deseret Evening News:

“There was a rather torrid time in a Commercial street resort at an early hour this morning when two women, Fannie Lambert and Lillie Mueller, engaged in a hair pulling match. Just what provoked the fight could not be learned but jealousy is said to have been the cause. Officer Brown heard the women yelling and cursing each other and when he arrived on the scene of combat an interesting sight met his gaze. Fanny was doing her best to chew one and Lillie’s fingers off, and Lillie was industriously pounding Fanny over the head with a small alarm clock — just to pass the time away.”

Har har har.

Finally, way back in 1897, the Salt Lake Herald reported on a kerfuffle at a Commercial Street saloon operated by a businessman named Bruce Johnson. Allegedly, one Charles Barnett, “colored,” had been imbibing a decent amount when he got into heated words with a Fred Collins. Barnett came back to the bar in the evening and, upon spying Collins, whipped a large rock at Collins, ripping up a billiard table. Then, stated the July 22, 1897, Herald:

“Collins and Barnett then got together and as the former threw up his left arm to ward off a blow Barnett struck him in the side with a pocket knife. Barnett was immediately thrown out of the house and Collins went to have the cut, which bled considerably but was not serious, fixed up.

“Soon after the occurrence, Bruce Johnson, the proprietor, came in an heard of it. He immediately went out on a hunt for Barnett and soon found him. Johnson then marched Barnett to the police station and had him locked up.”

But it was doubtlessly McKenzie, his business and their clientele — most of them African-American — that irked the city’s establishment the most, partially because it seemingly was the crucible of all the “criminal activity” that was going down on and around Commercial Street.

And, as a result, city officials targeted McKenzie and his surroundings with a vengeance, beginning at least as early as September 1907, when the police chief launched a massive, early-morning dragnet of the Victoria alley area, a sweep that included the arrest of Bill McKenzie. We’ll let the Sept. 4, 1907, Deseret Evening News take it from there, with some barefaced racist reporting under the headline, “Dragnet Gets Scum of Society”:

“The raid was made by Officers Taylor and Seager … and as a result, 21 vags, thieves and resorters to houses of ill fame were rounded up and landed in the city jail.

“The haul was a big one and will do much toward cleaning out the undesirable element, for among the captured ones are a number of notorious violators of the law …
“In police parlance, the raid is called a ‘crib raid.’ The joints rounded up by the police are frequented by negro female pick-pockets, thieves and their male companions — parasites of the under-world. …

“When the officers swooped down upon the notorious alley, they found a most shocking state of affairs. White and black men and women, drunkards, ‘dope’ fiends, thieves, robbers and parasites were there in one heterogeneous mass. White men and black women, black men and white women, with a Jap or two to complete the ugly picture, is what confronted the minions of the law.

“Some were in a beastly state of intoxication. Others were under the influence of cocaine of morphine. Some of the women had blood-shot and blackened eyes. All were in a most depraved condition. Drinking, fighting and screaming was their pastime.

“Among the notorious ones arrested were Josie Russell and W.J. McKenzie, better known as ‘Candy Bill.’ Why he is called ‘candy’ no one knows, unless it is because of the fact that he is of the chocolate variety of negro.

“After they were landed in jail, Josie sang out to Bill: ‘Say, Candy, mah honey, what did dey all do t’you-all?’ ‘Candy’ did not deign to answer. Another one screamed out: ‘What fo’ did dey go an’ grab us an’ let a lot ob othah niggahs go fo?’”

So, yeah, there you have, laid bare for all to see, both then and now — a virulent racism  on behalf of a white population outraged at the fact that so many different races and genders were allegedly involved in such notorious and even obscene together.

Whether or not such crime was indeed going on around Candy Bill McKenzie and his saloon is probably irrefutable; just about every city, at one time or another, has had an infamous red-light district.

But what’s sinister about the true motivations behind such legal sweeps — as well as the press coverage of them, which obviously employed racist, stereotypical language, slurs, pigeon English, and “coded” terms like “parasites” and “undesirable elements” — is the fervorous nature with which they were undertaken and the fact that much of the white establishment’s anger was spurred by the cross-racial interaction that permeated the neighborhood.

But what’s also important to remember, though, is that one of the reasons for such zones was the segregation — whether enforced by law or by de facto economic and social separation — that disallowed and prevented African Americans in cities across the country from patronizing and enjoying above-board, legal (read: white) businesses, clubs and neighborhoods.

That forced minorities, as well as white citizens who wanted to interact with them, into such black-market, underworld establishments and hangouts. Often, they practically had no choice to do so.

Also inducing such “vice” and seedy behavior was often the lack of employment and other socioeconomic opportunities for African Americans that created poverty and despair and drove people to support themselves and their families any way they could, including saloons, gambling, drugs and prostitution.

Intertwined in this, quite unfortunately, was the existence of black baseball teams, which —again, because of segregation and lack of opportunity — were sometimes forced to the fringes of society and the economy, driven to legally iffy clubs and establishments that served as a base of operations for these teams and athletes.

McKenzie’s story doesn’t end there, though. In fact, the September 1907 police shakedown of the district marked a beginning, of sorts, of an all-out legal blitz by city officials against McKenzie and his neighborhood.

One day after the Deseret Evening News’ story on the September 1907 sweep, the Salt Lake Herald published a story that labeled the massive police action part of “a movement … to clean out dens of vice” that netted 21 “dissolute and vicious inmates of resorts.” While not directly using the word prostitution, the article made it clear that that was the main problem, especially because it involved the mingling of “black, white and yellow.” It added:

“Morphine, cocaine and opium fiends, as well as inveterate drunkards, were included in the haul. After the midnight crowds have deserted the street, the denizens of the resorts gather and complete the night with wild orgies, often continuing until after daybreak.”

The article points to Bill McKenzie as one of the primary kingpins of the neighborhood, largely because, it seems, McKenzie had by then, despite his relatively short time in town, amassed a large amount of political pull, which was derived from the city’s black population. The paper claims, in a tone dripping with racial animus, that McKenzie is “known to the criminal element as the colored chief of police” and someone who:
“… makes a business of supplying bail for unfortunates of his class and of ‘squaring’ resort robberies committed by the women with whom he associates.”

That one paragraph pretty much summed up the seems like the prevailing attitude of the white patriarchy in Salt Lake City at the time by implicitly linking race, socioeconomic class and corruption.

The establishment was so flat-out frightened by the immense pull McKenzie had with he city’s African-American and “lower class” populations that in March 1908 the Herald lamented that McKenzie’s business was not only still open, but was being used as a base of operations for allegedly crooked party politics, despite ongoing investigations and crackdowns by the police. The March 15, 1908, issue stated:

“‘Candy Bill’ McKenzie is exerting himself to the utmost to prevent any action being taken toward the closing of his place. Back of him, it is said, are several influential politicians whose efforts in his behalf are expected to result in the dropping of the investigation into the quick outbreak of lawlessness following the opening of ‘Candy Bill’s’ dive.”

A few months later, the city administration OK’ed a plan to essentially create a segregated city — if not explicitly according to race, then de facto via economic and social separation — by moving the “denizens,” especially the prostitutes, into a neighborhood that would be strictly contained and monitored by law enforcement.

The city fathers’ fear of Salt Lake’s working-class, i.e. largely black, population and its allegedly illicit connection to several officers in the police department — an association supposedly spearheaded by McKenzie as a successful businessman — reached a fever pitch in October 1909, when explosive allegations surfaced that claimed numerous police officers “herded” dozens, if not hundreds, of people from the tenderloin district to a voter registration office inside the police station. The goal, allegedly, was to qualify such citizens to vote, perhaps illegally, under the guise of “arrests” in the Commercial Street district.

The intrigue heightened a few days later, when the Herald-Republican newspaper published an exposé about allegations that members of the city’s so-called “American party” had clandestinely used the local Republican Party — which, more than 100 years ago, was the supposed champion of civil rights and racial equality — to sign up residents of and employees in the Commercial Street tenderloin district to the positions of city judges via base fraud.

And, coincidentally, that storyline brought the plot back to the Americus club, one of the informal headquarters of the African-American baseball team, the Occidentals, a connection I discussed in my previous post. The club, which was located just a couple doors down from McKenzie’s saloon on Commercial Street, allegedly played a large part in the corruption of judge appointments. Asserted the Oct. 16,1909, Herald-Republican, harkening back to its previous report:

“At the negro dive at 43 Commercial street, known as the ‘Americus’ club, the patrolmen went in and herded the negroes and brought them practically under arrest to the registry agent. There they registered, and checking up the number from that address it appears that the negroes must have been sleeping four to a bed, if the club was their legal residence. Some of these men who were forced to register by the policemen have since appeared in police court and received ‘floaters’ as vagrants.”

And thus we have everything tied up in a (somewhat) neat little bow that ties together all of these thematic strands — racial politics, bigotry, socioeconomic segregation, law enforcement and, unfortunately, baseball.

Was Salt Lake City alone in such containing such a quagmire of race and poverty — a quagmire that often dovetailed, sadly, with the segregated American pastime? Of course not.

But I see the Utah metropolis’ situation in the 19-oughts as a type of microcosm for the entire country at the time, especially in the West, where states — and their social, political, economic and racial structures — were still coalescing and solidifying.

As stated, it’s quite unfortunate that baseball, especially African-American baseball, was often entangled in this mess. But I believe that, in large part, that entanglement was necessitated by the prevailing institutional racism and segregation of the day. …

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One thought on “The Salt Lake Occidentals, the conclusion

  1. Pingback: The 1910 Western Colored League | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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