History matters, even more for the young people than for the adults. The future is well-equipped with overanxious erasers standing by to wipe out the memories and the truth of those who came before us and the lives they lived, so it will always remain up to those of us in the present to fight for the preservation of those who can no longer tell their own stories and their own truths.
In that spirit, it was great to hear that the Afro-American Sports Hall of Fame and Gallery will now be preserved for future generations following a dedication celebration held last week at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. In an effort led by the Wayne County Council for the Arts, History and Humanities, the collection was transferred to the Wright Museum as part of a special, one-day display – “The Dream Lives!” – commemorating the lives and legacies of the Hall’s founders and inductees.
“How lucky we are that these things were preserved and kept,” said Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, who gave opening remarks at the event. “As the city starts to grow and as the city starts to come back I think it’s very important that we remember things like the importance of the arts and humanities and sports and those other things that bring a cultural heritage that is really important to all of us.
“It’s exhibits like this that will help kids understand the history of ball players of color. A black kid sees somebody doing something, he knows he can do it. If he sees somebody who looks like him doing something, he knows he can do it.”
The Afro-American Sports Hall of Fame & Gallery was a first-of-its-kind organization founded in 1982 by the late Elmer Anderson and co-founder Art Finney to honor African-American sports legends and pioneers, such as Joe Louis, Turkey Stearnes, and Althea Gibson, as well as lesser known athletes. The Hall of Fame’s collection was displayed in the old Wayne County building until the County moved in 2009 and had been preserved in storage by the Old Wayne County Building Limited Partnership and Farbman Group, who assisted in managing the building. Mr. Anderson’s sister, Sharon Hasan, agreed to donate the collection to the Wright Museum in 2017.
“The Afro-American Sports Hall of Fame helped preserve the stories of so many African American sports legends, some of which might have been lost with time,” said Wayne County Council for the Arts, History and Humanities President Jocelyn Rainey. “When the Council learned the Hall of Fame’s collection was in storage, we made it our priority to find it a suitable home where these critical stories from our past would be accessible for generation after generation. We owe a big thanks to Farbman Group and the Wright Museum for being such great partners.
“We are celebrating the realization of a dream. But it takes a journey for the dream to be realized. The Afro American Hall of Fame has been on a Journey. The journey started in the heart of a man named Elmer Anderson who understood the importance of collecting history. All too often, important documents in our history have not been preserved such as film, visual arts, and oral stories. It’s important to know that we have an obligation to document and preserve the history for future generations.
“It’s been years that people have protected this collection, and it ended up here. And that’s where it’s supposed to be. This is the right time, and it’s at the Wright Museum!”
With the encouragement and assistance of County Executive Warren C. Evans, the Council hosted a special “Celebration of the Afro-American Sports Hall of Fame & Gallery” at the Wright Museum on Thursday, featuring “The Dream Lives!” one-day display. The Hall of Fame will now be located at the Wright Museum to be preserved and accessible as part of its object collection. The Wright Museum is continuing to catalogue the collection and will selectively display artifacts as part of future programming. In addition to Evans and Rainey, the event featured WXYZ-TV Public Affairs Director Chuck Stokes, who served as moderator. Stokes interviewed Sharon Hasan, plus hosted a panel discussion featuring retired ballplayer Ron Teasley; Joyce Stearnes Thompson, daughter of Baseball Hall of Famer Turkey Stearnes; and Kevin Lloyd, son of NBAS pioneer and former Pistons Coach Earl Lloyd. Gary Gillette, baseball historian and president of Friends of Hamtramck Stadium, also gave a detailed and informative presentation on the history of Negro League baseball.
“These great athletes blazed a trail for generations to follow,” said Evans. “Their successes, often in the face of intolerance and discrimination, teach an important lesson about equality and the value of diversity. They left their unique and inspiring signature on our history and offer insights that are just as relevant today.”
Evans told the comical story of the legendary Negro League baseball player “Cool Poppa” Bell, whose speed was said to rival that of Olympic champion Jesse Owens. Evans remembered his father telling himthe story of how Cool Poppa “was so fast that when he went to bed at night and he cut out the bedroom light, he was under the covers before the room got dark. Now that’s fast.”
On a more serious note, Evans made the point of how progress sometimes comes at a cost. For example, when Jackie Robinson broke the color line by being drafted into Major League baseball as a player for the Brooklyn Dodgers, that opened the door for other black players to follow his lead and compete against someof the best players in the world. That was the good news.
“But there was a downside to that. In the Negro Leagues, there were great ball players, they competed against each other, and they wanted the opportunity to compete against the best everywhere. But just think about the institutions that we lost when the Negro Leagues dissipated. ..Think about the black owners, the Ruth Johnsons, the coaches the managers, the whole industry of baseball dissipated in the AA community with the integration into the major leagues. And where the stadiums were there were side businesses too. There were other businesses run by people of color that was significant to those communities. Do I think it was a mistake to lose the league? No, I don’t think it was a mistake. But I think it is a reality to understand that there were a lot of benefits that were inured to communities of color when we had those leagues. And the thing that always sticks out in my mind is while they wanted to compete against what they felt was the best in the country, people like me would say they were the best in the country anyway.”