CAPE MAY – The Jersey Shore, known today for its highly rated beaches and seaside hospitality, once was the home of several Black baseball teams during a time when America was more segregated.
Historians spent Oct. 26-28 at Cape May Convention Hall uncovering some of that history through a Negro League Baseball conference, which was open to the public. Each day featured a different presentation about Negro Leagues and players, from the local teams at the shore to former Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Dick Allen.
Throughout the three-day conference, historians spoke about local teams that they said are mostly concealed from the public.
“It was well attended and was thought-provoking,” said Mike Everett, a local historian who helped organize the conference and provided presentations. “I think it accomplished what it was set out to do, which was to lay the groundwork for future years to be able to commemorate an important chapter of sports history.”
Many people know about Jackie Robinson’s path to breaking the color barrier in professional baseball, leaving the professional Negro Leagues to join the all-White Majors as a Brooklyn Dodger, winning the World Series in 1955 with the team. Other noticeable players include Hank Aaron, Willie Mayes and Satchel Paige.
Locally, Cape May was the home of a team that gave Black men a chance to play when America had yet to integrate.
Local historians said the Cape May Giants didn’t compete in the professional Negro Leagues. They were a group of Black men who loved the sport and formed a team, challenging others who visited the seaside town for a match.
“They were always looking for teams to play,” Everett said.
“It’d be like barnstorming teams that came through,” he added.
Everett said Negro Leagues have a more extensive impact on how African Americans earned their modern-day freedoms, crediting smaller teams for being at the forefront of change in America.
“I maintain that the Negro Leaguers who barnstormed across the country were early pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement,” Everett said.
Everett isn’t a stranger to public presentations on Negro Leagues. He’s the director of the John Henry “Pop” Lloyd Committee, named after a hall-of-fame Negro Leaguer who played baseball in Atlantic City. The organization has held programs on the topic for over 25 years, the Cape May conference being its first in six years.
A friend of Everett’s, Mark Kulkowitz, wanted to hold the conference and began planning it pre-pandemic.
The conference, Everett said, was important because of its relevance to what he says is “truth in history,” and pictorialism in the sport’s influence on the social justice campaign. He also feels that while it highlighted Black history, in particular, it emphasized the human experience beyond race.
“This unique chapter in sports history engenders values like perseverance and dignity and pride,” he said. “It’s part of an American struggle.“
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