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Ask a Negro Leaguer Column 

Week of April 6, 2006

Hey Joe: How do you feel about Shaquille O'Neal spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to re-create Tony Montana's Scarface mansion for his 34th birthday? Shouldn't he feel obligated to drop that kind of coin to help out his brothers and sisters?

Cornrow Wallace, White Center, Washington

Although it is Shaquille's prerogative to spend his money as he sees fit despite the plight of his people, it has always been my contention that the only thing blacks in America had in common was each other. My philosophical views in this sense began developing at a very early age in my hometown of Brooklyn, Illinois. At the time, the word "colored" defined the complexion of blacks. And rightfully so due to the variety of skin complexions (including whites) devoid of discrimination. It was a community that lived by the rule: all for one, and one for all. Not so with adjoining townships, which adhered to the laws that separated blacks from whites.

I remember parading up and down streets in celebration of every Joe Louis victory. I was part of this activity without really knowing the national suffering of blacks. I did learn one thing, however: that many felt each time Louis beat a white opponent he was punishing him for whites' mistreatment of blacks. The town's only mystery which drew my concern was the number of churches: There were 14 for a population of 2,600. The first time I came face to face with segregation was in the military.

Thereafter I witnessed the breakthrough of Jackie Robinson into the white baseball league, followed by blacks' support nationally. Because of this gigantic following, the Negro League would eventually die. While with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1956, I became knowledgeable of a man named Martin Luther King without ever meeting him myself — strangely, in Montgomery, Alabama. After arriving there late one summer night following a ballgame in Selma, we took up residency at a boardinghouse. Before retiring I chose to take a seat on its front steps. Several blocks down the street, an encirclement of lights similar to those encircling a baseball field caught my attention. For the following two nights, I resumed my seat on the steps and watched the lights in awe. I completely forgot about them during the day. Before leaving Montgomery, I learned that those lights encircled the King residence. Beginning in late 1955 and for twelve and a half years after, he was the country's foremost spiritual educator.

Although the black church takes credit for his achievements, the majority didn't buy his philosophy. By now the mystery surrounding all those churches within my hometown was solved, especially regarding my departure from them. The Negro League provided transportation for me to see the same sanctuaries throughout black America. The Negro League proved to be the greatest mostly black-owned organization I've ever known. I can't say the same about the black church, with exception of a few. If one wants to know how much divisiveness exists in the black community, count the number of churches. It has never used its facility to educate blacks about their history, the importance of togetherness and the truth about God. But after all, how can it? It is too busy focusing on who's a Christian and who's not.

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 If we don't like yours, we'll hit Joe with our own.

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