Thursday, May 17, 2018

Moses Fleetwood Walker and his Times

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The Thaddeus Walinsky History Group (named after a devoted Toledo historian) meets on the first Monday of every month.  The last meeting, which my friend Teddy and I attended, focused on a talk by David Wise and Bill Romp about Moses Fleetwood Walker. Walker was an Ohio native son, African-American baseball player with a stint in the Major Leagues before Jackie Robinson, and entrepreneur.  His name suited him, emblematic of Biblical naming patterns adopted by freed slaves and their descendants on the long road to freedom.  But actually it seems he was called "Flint," and that suited him too!

The History group meets at the Beirut Restaurant, an homage to Toledo's large and long-established Lebanese-American community, from which have come prominent lawyers, judges, teachers, and  civic and business leaders. It takes me back in time to the 1970s-80s, when I worked with Judge Charlie Abood on a pioneering Lucas County family violence prevention project chaired by the Bishop of the Toledo Diocese, James Hoffman.  I will always remember these two civic leaders, the Judge and the Bishop, for their commitment to promoting a compassionate Toledo.

The History group is a wonderful opportunity to learn about local and state history, as well as American and World history of interest to particular members. Members take turns giving presentations, with time for questions and answers. It's fun and intellectually stimulating to have a chance to talk history over a wonderful Lebanese meal.

Moses Fleetwood Walker,
Wikipedia. 
So we learned about Moses Fleetwood Walker (1856-1924), with Bill Romp presenting an interesting biography.  Walker was born in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, a working class town in eastern Ohio with a large Quaker community that had served as a sanctuary for runaway slaves since 1815 (fascinating information). When Moses was a child the family moved to Steubenville, where his father became one of the first black physicians in Ohio and later a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. The AME church was among the first denominations founded on racial grounds rather than theological differences, and always advocated for civil rights through social improvement and political action. (Wikipedia).

Walker's family and the Steubenville Black community where he grew up influenced the direction of Moses' life. He became a star athlete at Oberlin College, where his baseball career as a catcher started, and later at the University of Michigan. These colleges were ahead of their time in accepting women (such as women's rights advocate Lucy Stone) and Black students, and Walker took advantage of it. He was a good student, favored philosophy and art, but his first love was baseball.

Logos of these great  organizations.
"Discover Greatness!" a perfect motto
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He played for semi-professional and minor league teams before joining the Toledo Blue Stockings of the MLB's American Association (AA) for the 1884 season.  Moses was apparently the last African American to participate in a major league before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line in 1947. Like Robinson, Walker bore his share of  racial taunts and jeers.  I recalled that it was the virulent racism in America that infused our "favorite past-time" and led to the formation of the Negro Baseball Leagues, where some of the best players in the country, like pitcher Satchel Paige, played in segregated games to the thrill and pride of huge Black audiences. Robinson's achievement in "integrating" the Majors led to the end of the Negro Leagues (documented in several studies and in Ken Burn's "Baseball" series).  It remains debatable to this day whether the end of segregation hurt more than helped the once-thriving black communities of America. 

Moses was proud of his African-American heritage, Bill Romp noted, and he had an entrepreneurial spirit. Besides his love of baseball, he engaged in various business ventures; edited a newspaper, the Equator, with his brother Weldy (also a baseball player); and wrote a book, Our Home Colony (1908), exploring ideas about emigrating back "home" to Africa. He floundered a bit when his baseball career ended and he had his rough times as well as good times. Moses died in 1924 at the age of 67.

Considering the historical context in which Moses Walker lived--the Era of Apartheid and White Supremacy, as vicious here as anywhere in the world--his achievements and those of other African Americans at the time are remarkable.

Human bondage did not end with the Civil War.  No. Another form of bondage emerged during Reconstruction and well into the 20th century, and in the most vicious forms imaginable.

It was human bondage embedded in stifling Jim Crow Laws and the southern Black codes; the passage of laws forbidding former slaves from hunting, fishing and foraging (major means of survival); the resulting creation of a new "criminal" class of  young black men who worked like slaves on chain gangs as cruel as any South African prison or Russian Gulag; relentless oppression and injustice without civil rights, without any rights at all; and the terrorism of the KKK, which dominated the American landscape.  Lynchings were at an all-time high, a sickening spectacle of emboldened White Supremacy. These gruesome murders led to the courageous anti-lynching efforts of journalist Ida B. Wells (the history of  black women pioneers too often hidden) and then to the NAACP's Anti-Lynching Campaign. (I worked in the NAACP records, at the Library of Congress; they are the most graphic, unnerving, and saddest documents I have ever worked in as an historian).

A parallel reality also existed at this time. It is, indeed, a major theme of the African-American experience: the persistence and strength of Black communities across the South and into the North, surviving against the odds; the grassroots struggle for civil rights, including the right to vote, like the efforts of Fannie Lou Hammer and sharecroppers in Mississippi; the emergence of Black educational, religious, businesses, and social and cultural institutions that sustained these communities; and the training and rise of brave men and women leaders who put Black civil rights on the national agenda.

In Walker's time, hundreds of African-American women, working to the bone to keep their families
together and sick and tired of the oppression, rose up to mobilize the masses of Black folks across the South and North. Among them were women pioneers like Ida B. Wells and Mary McLeod Bethune, educated activists way ahead of their time. In their footsteps, three prominent African-American men also stepped onto the national stage. They were Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Marcus Garvey. They shared the same goals--equality, justice, equal opportunity--but they had different strategies for getting there, strategies that are debated to this day.


Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was probably the most well-known of the three, and certainly the least feared by the white community because he did not focus on integration or civil rights. Born into slavery, Washington called for black progress through education and entrepreneurship.  He promulgated this strategy in his famous "Atlanta Compromise," which called for building the black community's economic strength and pride through self-help. His base was Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college in Alabama. It could well be that Walker the entrepreneur learned a lot from Booker T, and in many ways embodied his self-help strategies.

W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963), a Harvard PhD, sociologist and historian, author of the epic "Reconstruction in America" and "The Souls of Black Folks," moved beyond Booker T's "Atlanta Compromise" approach.  DuBois focused on working for political change, integration, and equal  rights. He was a co-founder of the NAACP in 1909, but in time moved beyond this organization as well to call for more revolutionary actions against American racism. There are plenty of hints that Moses knew of DuBois, shared the goals of the NAACP, and was familiar with its remarkable lawyers, including Walter White, who headed the Anti-Lynching campaign, Professor Charles Houston of Howard University in DC, and perhaps even Houston's student, the young Thurgood Marshall, who later become the first African American Supreme Court Justice.

Marcus Garvey  (1887-1940) was a proponent of Black nationalism and leader of  a mass movement called Pan-Africanism.  Moses Walker certainly knew of Garvey's ideas, and incorporated them into his own book, "Our  Home Colony." Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the African Communities League, and the Black Star Line, a shipping and passenger line that promoted the return of the African diaspora to their ancestral lands.

Moses Fleetwood Walker's life is part of this larger story of  the African American experience and the struggle for freedom. It's truly an American story of Achievement against the Odds.  Incredible odds.  There was a mountain of  oppression, hatred and despair to overcome, Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us. America is still a work in progress, still struggling to live up to it's ideals, time after time, generation after generation.

Some sources:  Talk by history group members David Wise and Bill Romp; Wikipedia and blackpast.com.  Pat and Frederick McKissack, Jr., Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Scholastic, 1994) and "Baseball," Ken Burns' documentary. Wikipedia bios on Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey.

Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr.,  I've Been to the Mountaintop, April 3, 1968
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.
Longevity has its place.
But I'm not concerned about that now.
I just want to do God's will.
And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain.
And I've looked over.
And I've seen the promised land.
I may not get there with you.
But I want you to know tonight,
that we, as a people will get to the promised land.


From interesting article by Kevin Baker, "Does America need truth and reconciliation after Trump," New Republic, May 2018, discussing another period when America did:
"African Americans were ... moved from slavery to serfdom. The new Southern constitutions contained horrific “Black Codes” so close to the same states’ old “slave codes” that in places they simply lifted entire blocks of text from the antebellum statutes and substituted “Negro” for the word “slave.”
The Black Codes of 1865–1866 restricted every form of African American activity as closely as any totalitarian state has ever controlled its population. They legally tied the former slaves to the lands of their once-and-future masters and began the long tradition of convict labor that still plagues America to this day, creating incentives for local police forces to arrest people of color on the flimsiest of pretexts and force them into what Douglas Blackmon called, in his book of the same title, “slavery by another name.”"



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