I’ve been compiling so much info and piles of files about Buck Leonard for my ongoing project about him and my meeting with him that occasionally I come across some pretty neat stuff that’s worth discussing for a bit but doesn’t fit into one of the main posts I write about Buck.
There’s also info, documents and articles I come across that are pertinent to posts I’ve already written, things that I would have included in said previous posts if I had known about them.
For these two types of particulars, I’m going to write some odds-and-ends side posts, of which this one is the first. So onward we go! …
The first item for this piece is an article I found in the Rocky Mount Telegram that perhaps conveys what I wrote in my previous post about the Rocky Mount, N.C., black population forming its own, self-sustaining economic and social demographic as a way of coping with and even defying the lingering racism that permeates the community there.
The article covers a May 1956 meeting and awards ceremony of a local community organization of black men called the Frontiers of America, or the Frontiersmen. At the gathering, Buck received a citation for achievement in sports, while other members were honored for their accomplishments in other fields.
However, the majority of the article involved an addressed by Dr. G.K. Butterfield, a councilman for the small city of Wilson, N.C., located about 20 miles south of Rocky Mount along I-95. Butterfield was the first African American elected to the Wilson City Council and the first black elected official in eastern North Carolina since Reconstruction.
As a dentist, Dr. Butterfield cared for men, women and children in the impoverished East Wilson community. He co-founded the local NAACP chapter and dedication himself to voter registration drives, but he lost his council seat in 1957 thanks to a form of gerry-mandering that blunted the impact of the local black vote. (Butterfield’s son, also named G.K. Butterfield, is currently a Congressman representing North Carolina; the younger Butterfield previously served on the North Carolina Supreme Court.)
G.K. Butterfield and family
Back to the elder Butterfield’s speech at the 1956 Frontiersmen meeting … the dentist and elected official challenged the men in attendance — as well as the entire black community — to establish economic success within that community that would bring local African Americans closer to achieving equal rights and respect from the white community. Here’s an excerpt from the Telegram article:
“The Wilson Councilman challenged Negroes throughout this area to do something about the economic condition of the race. He stated that the pressure had been on Negroes for the past three or four months and in order for the race to survive, members of the race would have to being now doing something about it. The speaker also stated that when a member of the other race took a bold stand for integration, he too, was subjected to the same type of economic pressure. He went on to city instances in other states where this is happening.
“Continuing, Dr. Butterfield told the group that the Negro cannot be independent unless he can furnish all the necessities of life. Because of that fact, he asserted, Negroes are treated as children. He further suggested that Negroes try to help bring in new industries into this section. This can be done, he stated, by helping to vote men into public offices who are favorable to projects of this type. In addition, Negroes must have an interest and a good attitude in the economics of the community. So far, he asserted, the race has neglected this field.”
To me, the speech seems to have included some of Booker T. Washington’s belief in racial uplift through self-reliance and business success, as well as Malcolm X’s message of establishing a separate, successful community apart from the white society that heaped scorn and hate on blacks.
The article, I think, also reflects how those beliefs have been present in Rocky Mount’s African-American community for decades and have helped form the current situation I discussed in my previous post.
The second chunk of info I want to relay in this post is much more upbeat and sunny than Butterfield’s speech from 60-plus years ago. My first post in this Buck Leonard series served as a introduction by chronicling the reaction of the Rocky Mount community and media upon Leonard’s death in November 1997.
The genuine and heartfelt expression of sadness as well as joy in celebrating Buck’s life and legacy that came from the entire Rocky Mount community revealed that, after decades of wrangling with the ideas of integration and equality, Buck had truly been embraced as Rocky Mount’s favorite son, an icon for the city and a symbol of how far the city had come toward achieving full racial reconciliation.
Well, now it’s time to show how Buck Leonard fully and passionately reciprocated that positivity and acceptance he received. Despite all the trials of segregation and the challenges posed by ongoing racism, Buck did love his hometown and never considered living anywhere else during his life. That included eschewing the possibility of a residence in Pittsburgh while becoming a Homestead Grays legend.
Rocky Mount Telegram, Aug. 16, 1970
These excerpts come from various other articles in the Rocky Mount Telegram in which the writer expounds on Buck’s love for his hometown. I want to note that right now, as of this moment, I don’t have much personal testimony on this subject from Buck, i.e. him in his own words, for various reasons, but I will uncover them at some point. One example is his autobiography, written with James Riley, the book that inspired me to get up the gumption to call Buck in the first place; I’ll discuss that in my next post.
So here are some of those article excerpts …
Staff writer Mike Hixenbaugh, Nov. 30, 2007, issue, upon a celebration and remembrance on the 10th anniversary of Leonard’s death:
“If there was one thing the baseball legend loved above all else, it was the town he grew up in. After his 1972 induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Leonard was offered a job in the Major League Baseball Commissioner’s office, but refused the position to stay in Rocky Mount — avidly supporting little league, running a local minor league team and also working as a truant officer and real estate broker.”
Sports editor Jessie Nunery, Oct. 10, 2010:
“To understand Walter Fenner ‘Buck’ Leonard was to know that no matter where life took him, Rocky Mount was home. …
“Leonard always came home to Rocky Mount, no matter his accomplishments.
“‘As a man, he was a good man, a good community man,’ said Rocky Mount native Henry Barnes, who lived in the same neighborhood as Leonard’s family, an area known as ‘Little Raleigh.’ ‘The one things we always say is, ‘He went off an accomplished quite a bit, but he did not forget where he came from.’ He didn’t build a house on the hill. He was always right here.’” …
Nunery also discusses Buck’s activities and impact during the years after his baseball career; I’m going to have a couple posts of my own down the road focusing on this topic. Wrote Nunery:
“Those who missed out on Leonard’s playing days were able to learn about him as a man here in Rocky Mount. …
“These years were about giving back to Rocky Mount. Little boys who didn’t know it was possible to play baseball for a living were exposed to the game when Leonard made the rounds at black elementary schools on a weekly basis. For many, Leonard’s visits were the first time they swung a bat. At that time, physical education was not a part of the curriculum. …”
The final article comes from just under a year ago, on March 12, 2017. This story is particularly special because it’s authored by Rose Hunter, Buck’s step daughter and director of the Buck Leonard Association for Sports & Human Enrichment, an organization created in 1999 to provide athletic opportunities and personal enrichment services to children of low-income families in Rocky Mount. I’ll discuss the BLASHE and hopefully interview Mrs. Hunter and other family members and community volunteers down the road.
These final quotes begin to examine Buck Leonard’s formative years and how they affected the man he became and his love for Rocky Mount. Wrote Hunter:
“To begin to unveil the making of North Carolina’s first baseball Hall of Famer, we begin with a look at the early and formative years that most likely contributed to Leonard’s ascension to prominence both and and off the baseball field.
“Leonard enjoyed what he believed an idle family life with his father, mother and five siblings. His mother ran a strict and immaculate household while his father worked with the Atlantic Coastal Railroad. …
“The path of Leonard’s life was dramatically altered with the death of his father. At the behest of his mother when he was 12, he became male child head of the household. Working at the local hosiery mill and later on the local railroad, Leonard took on the responsibility of his succession with the aid of his siblings until the Great Depression led to his unemployment. …
“Leonard was not the flamboyant, bombastic jock seeking the limelight, but one who approached the game in a very methodical manner, a thoughtful practitioner; he was a critical thinker — sure in the clutch and almost never left a man on base. Possessing a calm demeanor, Leonard was a near-perfect fielder; his pull-style hitting resulted in both power and average.”
That wraps up this here post. Like I noted at several points during it, I still have much, much more to do for this project, and my goal is to do as much of it as I can — namely, interviewing folks, getting personal information and presenting some of Buck’s own words. This is a work in progress, and it’ll hopefully continue to gestate into something special.