Being Black in North Dakota, 1930s

From Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball’s Color Line, by Tom Dunkel (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013), Kindle Loc. 1692-1722:

Out-of-state semipros like Ringhofer revolutionized North Dakota baseball. Blacks, however, had a disproportionate impact. They were game changers. Negro League refugees brought with them speed, big-time experience, and often charisma: a combination of qualities seldom found in farmboy ballplayers. Quincy Troupe pegged out runners from his knees during games and at practices amazed wide-eyed kids by chucking baseballs over the left field fence while standing at home plate. Double Duty Radcliffe, who was catching (as well as pitching and playing outfield) for Jamestown, would bet batters $1 they couldn’t steal a base off him. After leaving Bismarck to pitch for the town of New Rockford, Roosevelt Davis paid homage to Paige when he faced his former team. He deliberately walked the bases loaded twice just to see if he could squirm his way out of those innings without giving up any runs. Side bets on his chances of succeeding were probably being taken in the grandstand. Davis escaped both jams unscathed, but Bismarck got the last laugh by cuffing him 13–3.

Many spectators at a Jamestown, Valley City, New Rockford, or Bismarck ball game had never before seen anyone who looked like Roosevelt Davis or Quincy Troupe. They were as rare a sight as winter rainbows. The population of North Dakota in 1930 was 680,845. The census listed 377 “Negro.” Jamestown had two blacks adrift in a sea of 8,187 inhabitants. The towns of Beulah, Valley City, Washburn, and Turtle Lake were 100 percent white. Bismarck seemed wildly multicultural with 11,000 people, of whom 46 were black. Era Bell Thompson graduated from Bismarck High School in 1924, then went to college and became an editor at Ebony magazine in Chicago. Growing up, she felt like an exotic species. White classmates marveled at her pale palms, asked to touch her hair. Whenever the topic of slavery was slated for discussion in history class, Thompson cut school.

Bismarck in the 1930s was not much different from the Bismarck of the 1920s—Era Bell Thompson’s time. Black ballplayers moved freely about town, but they were advised to confine their socializing to the lower-class South Side. You couldn’t safely assume that every proprietor on the North Side would be as ecumenical as Jack Lyons, who even allowed Indians to patronize his hamburger stand. If Troupe, Haley, Paige, and Davis wanted to eat at a restaurant, they knew how the game was played: find one that didn’t mind selling black customers takeout meals at the back door. Beyond the orbit of the state capital, the racial climate tended to be more unstable. During the Depression, Moose Kay, a black drifter, wandered through McLeod, an unincorporated village in the sparsely settled southeast corner of North Dakota. He liked baseball and stopped to watch a game between McLeod and the town of Milnor. Afterward, he offered his services on a barter basis: in exchange for meals and a place to stay, he’d be willing to coach McLeod’s team for the rest of the summer. Moose knew his baseball. Things went swimmingly until the Fourth of July, when a white man, who’d likely done too much celebrating, verbally attacked Kay, who’d also been celebrating. Kay floored him. That punch instantly ended his coaching gig and put his life at risk, as was duly recorded years later in McLeod’s official centennial history: “Moose got scared and crawled on a night freight train. The ball team felt pretty bad over this.”

The veneer of civility could crack under even the slightest stress. Third baseman Joe Desiderato cringed at the way hecklers hounded his black teammates during road games. “I saw the kind of abuse that those guys took,” he told relatives back in Chicago. “Way beyond what people should tolerate.” When the team crossed the border into Canada, the hostility didn’t necessarily diminish. At times, it got worse. Whatever city they were in, Churchill had an all-or-nothing policy. If a hotel or restaurant turned away or disrespected a single Bismarck player, everybody turned on their heels and left together. Said Desiderato, “We always stayed as a family.”

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