Ask a Negro Leaguer Column

Week of May 9, 2006

Brooklyn, Illinois

Hey Joe: I'm a proud resident of Brooklyn, Illinois. It really saddens me that outsiders see my hometown as a little poverty-stricken village that some have referred to as Sin City. What do you think it would take to make this township prosper?

Jaye Woolfork, Brooklyn, Illinois

On many occasions, I've been in the presence of celebrities and I didn't receive an emotional stir. These same individuals, though, were swamped by autograph seekers. I respected them for what they were, but if they failed to relate to issues concerning their own kind (especially if black), my knees didn't buckle. The pride and concern you have exhibited for the betterment of your community has certainly made my knees buckle. We share similar sentiments.

My reflections on Brooklyn's past reveal what America could have been had its laws not divided blacks and whites. It was a community of people left to their own choice. In most cases throughout America, railroad tracks established the dividing line between the two. Adjoining townships adhered to the laws of separation. But Brooklyn, though surrounded by railroad tracks from all points of the compass, was an independent township. The only physical division in this two-county encirclement of Madison and St. Clair was a large plot of tillable land and the town.

Running from this location are the seven major east-west streets: Short, Madison, Jefferson, Washington, Canal, Adams and Monroe. Intersecting them are: Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh streets. In addition to these blocks replete with homes and businesses, every other available location followed suit. Brooklyn's populace of 2,600 did not abide by the laws of separation laid down by some of our country's founding fathers. Residents used every positive means to their advantage. In addition to working jobs that paid inferior wages, they converted the large plot of land owned by the railroad into what was called the Community Gardens.

If there were ever differences between blacks and whites, they were cleared up before my day. Distinction was a thing of the past. There were Democrats and Republicans and no biases in who arrested whom. Any type of discrimination practiced against blacks because of their color in other townships was out of here. Venice residents who lived on Brooklyn's Short Street were freed of such embarrassment. They were a component of the community.

State Representative Wyvetter Younge and State Senator James Clayborne, who are both black Democratic elected officials, and Democratic Congressman Jerry Costello should be asked by the residents of Brooklyn to come into this town and learn its history. They should be showed the headstone at a cemetery on the town's outskirts with the year of death as 1840, 23 years before Lincoln released blacks. This history, in addition to the book Brooklyn, America's Oldest Black Town, should be more than enough for them to fight in Springfield and Washington, D.C., for Brooklyn to be officially declared America's Oldest Black Town. Then the doors to grants will begin to open.

It is not Sin City. Those other townships throughout America that practice discrimination are sin cities.

Prince Joe Henry, one of professional baseball's original "clowns," was an all-star infielder for Negro League baseball teams in Memphis, Indianapolis and Detroit throughout the 1950s. But up until the late 1940s, Prince Joe didn't know anything about the Negro Leagues. His knowledge of organized baseball was limited to the Cardinals and Browns games he attended during his preteen years at Sportsman's Park, accompanied by lifelong buddy Eugene "Gene" Crittendon, who could pass for white.

Perhaps Henry's most vivid memory of those games: Upon entry, white ushers would politely escort the boys to a small section of the left-field stands reserved for "Colored." After climbing past several tiers of bleachers, they'd arrive at their stop, rows and rows behind their white counterparts.

Even at a young age, the boys were conscious of the double standard -- and determined to vent their disdain. The opportunity would arise with the urge to urinate. Rather than head for the latrine, the boys would edge their way to the front of the section and let fly. As the liquid foamed its way down the concrete steps toward the white kids, Henry and his pal would ease back and relax, politely rooting for the visiting team to beat the hell out of the Browns or the Cards.

After all, Henry and Crittendon hailed from Brooklyn, Illinois, a small, predominantly black township just east of the Mississippi River. So hospitable were the residents of Brooklyn that they were known to take in a rank stranger, treat him to breakfast, lunch, supper and a night out on the town -- and afterward, if he messed up, treat him to a good ass-whippin'.

Direct questions on any and all topics to [email protected]. If we don't like yours, we'll hit Joe with our own.

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