Transnational Imaginations: Rethinking the Role of the Black Press in the Desegregation of Professional Baseball

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 12:00 PM
Salon 10 (Palmer House Hilton)
Brian Campbell, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Historians have established the black press’ role in desegregating professional baseball. Yet most studies of the black press and civil rights describe its activism from a confined national framework without considering how the transnational movement of people and ideas shaped discourse on race and sports in the United States. Between 1920 and 1950, hundreds of African American baseball players traveled to Latin American nations in search of better pay and improved working conditions. As they sought out foreign opportunities, these ballplayers became what Theresa Runstedtler calls “cultural conduits” through which news and information about the broader world could be relayed to journalists and disseminated in the black press. Sportswriters and editors narrated and provided meaning to the athletes’ travel and experiences abroad, commenting on their accommodations, celebrity status, and athletic achievements. This presentation extends Runstedtler’s argument by explaining how stories of sojourning black athletes served an important rhetorical function in arguments for the inclusion of black athletes in the major leagues. By reading news stories, columns, box scores, and photographs from the 1930s and 1940s, I show how the transnational imaginations of sportswriters and journalists were crucial to their protest against Jim Crow in organized baseball. I argue that the work to desegregate the national pastime relied on travel, border crossings, and a nuanced understanding of race and the color line in other parts of the world. Ultimately, civil rights struggles for national belonging cannot be told without considering how black Americans documented and interpreted their movement outside of the United States in the first half of the twentieth century.
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