Week of November 16, 2005

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inferior treatment

Hey Joe: I am curious about the treatment of African-American people in your hometown during your professional career.

Shermand Palmer, St. Louis

Brooklyn, in reference to everyone knowing one another, was forerunner to The Andy Griffith Show long before it became a TV hit. The town also had its share of Barney Fifes. There was no such thing as being read the Miranda Law. If a person was thought to have violated the law, that individual was going to jail, and — in most cases — that meant walking, because the town had no police car(s). One officer with several notches on his gun had no problem making arrests. So well known was he, he would send people to jail on their own and once they arrived there, he would tell them to tell the jailer that he said to lock them up. He never lost an offender.

This was the Brooklyn in which I grew up long before playing in the Negro League. Respect was the name of the game — the key words being "Mr." and "Mrs." Youngsters respected elders and vice versa, but this did not preclude violators. The town's only inkling concerning nationality was two of its drugstores. One was labeled "colored" and the other "white." People in the community had their choice. What they couldn't find in one, they got at the other. That's how business was conducted throughout the community.

However, blacks received inferior treatment. Blacks lived in a different world. Employment stemmed from an assortment of businesses, which included grocery stores — owned by both blacks and whites — nightclubs, barber shops, ice and coal sales, service stations and dry cleaners.

Although white mayors had presided over the town prior, during my growing up the community had a black mayor. He was supervisor and school superintendent. During his tenure as superintendent, he converted Lovejoy Elementary into a high school. Prior to that, Brooklyn students had to travel to East St. Louis to attend Lincoln High. Brooklyn had two additional schools. My fondest memory of him was in 1953. Shortly after Ernie Banks joined the Chicago Cubs, the team visited St. Louis to play the Cardinals. Upon notifying the mayor, he sent his chauffeur-driven limousine to pick up Mr. Banks at the Chase Hotel. Along with Banks was Gene Baker. After they arrived at the school, classes were suspended in order for the students to congregate in the gym to meet both of them.

As time progressed, especially during the latter 1950s, jobs in the packing and steel industries began to close. A housing project was erected. Citizens began moving elsewhere and the tax base began to erode. Then came adult entertainment, followed by bad publicity, which hurt the town's name. Along with it, the 2,600 residents began to dwindle, to the current population of 700.

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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