A Museum of their Own

Start with Horace Peterson III. You probably have not heard his name, but he was quite a man. He grew up in Oklahoma, and in the 1960s, he became a believer in the nonviolent resistance of Martin Luther King. He marched in Selma. Later in life, he would talk about the time he spent in an Arkansas jail. When he graduated from college, he settled in Kansas City and determined that the greatest thing he could do with his life was teach everyone, but especially young African-Americans, the history of what it means to be black in America.

“History,” he used to say, “is too important to be left in the hands of the historians.”

He started a small museum that he called “The Black Archives of Mid-America.” Small? At first he could fit his entire collection in the trunk of his car. So he went to work. He started taping oral histories with prominent and not-so-prominent African-Americans. He began collecting yearbooks from black high schools and colleges. He looked for books, for photographs, for magazines, for newspapers, for stories. He believed the stories had to be told.

Peterson moved his growing collection into an old firehouse in the heart of what used to be Kansas City’s thriving black community. He started to grow cotton in a field next to the Black Archives so that young people could feel raw cotton in their hands. “This,” he would tell them, “is why we were brought to this country.” Then he would take them to a section of the Black Archives and show them photographs of Charlie Parker or Joe Louis or Ella Fitzgerald or Ralph Ellison or Satchel Paige. He would say, “and this is what we became.”

Yes, Horace Peterson was one of those quiet heroes. He wanted to explain the world. He wanted to give young people a sense of themselves. You never knew what you would see in the Black Archives — there might be an exhibit on comedian Bert Williams (“the saddest funny man,” W.C. Fields had called him) or a shoe of the world’s tallest man, 8-foot-11 Robert Wadlow (an African-American from Kansas City had made and donated the shoe) or a perfect model of a cabin once inhabited by a Kentucky slave named Aunt Lucy Wilson.

There was always a prominent sports section in the Black Archives. Peterson was particularly interested in the Negro Leagues, that diverse collection of leagues that featured African-American and Latin American players who were banned from Major League Baseball because of the color of their skin. The Black Archives were built very close to the home of the most famous of all Negro Leaguers, Satchel Paige, and Peterson found that young people were drawn to his story. He pulled a quote from Paige’s eulogy given by Rev. Emanuel Cleaver.

“From now on,” Cleaver said, “when you hear the thunder roll and the lightning flash across the skies, don’t panic, it is probably the scoreboard of Heaven signaling that Satchel just completed another inning.”

Yes, there was something stirring and uplifting about Paige’s story, something Peterson could see young people connecting with. And then one day in the late 1980s, Peterson came upon a powerful idea. He went to a friend in Kansas City named Buck O’Neil. Buck had been a player and manager in the Negro Leagues, and he was perhaps Satchel Paige’s closest friend. “Don’t feel sorry for us,” Buck had said in his own eulogy of Satch. “I feel sorry for your fathers and your mothers because they didn’t get to see us play.”

“Buck,” Peterson said. “We need to build a Negro Leagues Hall of Fame.”

MORE: Remembering the great Buck O’Neil

Buck immediately dismissed the idea. “No, no,” he said. “We already have a Baseball Hall of Fame. We don’t want a separate Hall of Fame. Our best players should go into the Baseball Hall of Fame.” Buck, at the time, was a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame veteran’s committee and he led the mission to induct great Negro League players into the Hall. He believed strongly those great Negro Leagues players be recognized.

But Buck also sensed the power of Peterson’s idea. At this time, in the 1970s and ’80s, almost nobody knew or cared about the Negro Leagues. There were a few authors — Robert Peterson (no relation to Horace), James Riley, John Holway, Art Rust, Brent Kelley and others — who wrote thoughtful and interesting books as they tried to keep the history fresh in the mind. There had been a silly but pretty popular movie with with Richard Pryor called “Bingo Long and the Traveling All-Stars.” And Buck O’Neil, along with a few other Negro League stars, were still alive, still talking about Oscar Charleston and Willie Wells and Turkey Stearnes and Rube Foster and so many other great ballplayers whose names were fading away.

Few listened then. The trouble was that some people just wrote off the Negro Leagues as irrelevant while others were embarrassed by those leagues. Baseball fans, many of them, would have preferred for baseball history to begin AFTER Jackie Robinson crossed the line in 1947. Buck could remember how people would interrupt his memories by telling him what the Negro Leagues were really about. “I would tell them, ‘That’s not true, I was there,’” Buck would say. “But they wouldn’t listen.”

And so, Buck said to Peterson: “No, we don’t want a Negro Leagues Hall of Fame. We want to build a Negro Leagues Museum!”

It was, at first, a one-room office in a Kansas City office building. There were no exhibits, no displays, no visitors. A few pieces of memorabilia were locked away in drawers and a filing cabinet. A few dreamers — Peterson, O’Neil, a successful youth baseball coach named Don Motley (whose brother Bob umpired in the Negro Leagues), a few former players like Slick Surratt and Connie Johnson — would take turns paying the rent just to keep the idea alive.

That “museum” was opened 25 years ago this week.

Two years after it opened, Horace Peterson drowned while playing with his children. He was just 47 years old, and he would not live to see his vision fully realized. But by the time he died, he did know that his vision of a Negro Leagues Museum had captured the imagination of many people, including Satchel Paige’s eulogist Emanuel Cleaver, who had become Kansas City’s first black mayor. Cleaver began to put together a plan to build a real museum.

At the same time, Peterson’s vision was also shared by pretty important filmmaker named Ken Burns. They were nothing alike, of course, but Peterson and Burns both believed in the importance of history and the power of small stories. Burns had just released his masterpiece “The Civil War,” a collection of those small stories which had been the most watched television show in the history of PBS. Now Burns was interested in tackling baseball and its connection to the American history. He knew the Negro Leagues were an important part of the story, but he did not know to tell it. He had never heard of Buck O’Neil, not until his co-producer Lynn Novick went to a Negro Leagues reunion and came across him.

“Oh, Ken,” she said. “You have to meet this guy Buck O’Neil.”

Buck became the star of “Baseball.” He told the same stories he had been telling. He told them the same way. But, for one thing, Ken Burns didn’t interrupt. And, for another, something fundamental had shifted. People now wanted to hear these stories.

“Baseball” made Buck into a star. He was invited to speak all over the country. He became a media darling. He wrote an autobiography (“I was Right on Time”) and later allowed a clueless first-time author to follow him around America for a book I called “The Soul of Baseball” (“Who’s the white guy?” people would ask him; “That’s my son,” he would say).

People started hearing Buck O’Neil. And, with the wind behind him and the support of Cleaver, Buck led the charge to build the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, around the corner from where the Negro Leagues themselves had been founded in 1920. After a time in a temporary home, in 1997 the museum moved into a beautiful building near the corner of Kansas City’s 18th and Vine, one of the birthplaces of American Jazz (the Negro Leagues Museum shares the building with the American Jazz Museum).

“We spend so much of our lives honoring the people who crossed the bridge,” Buck said on the day the new museum opened. “Today, we honor the people who built the bridge.”

History is not exactly a growth industry. Museums struggle. Historical sites grow over. Birthplaces shut their doors. The Negro Leagues Museum itself has, at times, been near death and it’s never exactly thriving. But here we are 25 years later, and Horace Peterson’s spark of an idea still has powerful resonance. When you walk into the Negro Leagues Museum, you see a baseball field. But you can’t get to it — you are blocked by chicken wire. This was how African-Americans saw baseball games in those days, separated by chicken wire.

Then, if you’re lucky, you can follow around Buck O’Neil’s great friend Bob Kendrick as he takes you around the museum. You will see the “Colored Only” signs. You will see the people who made sure that Major League Baseball was kept white. You will the photographs of Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell and Martin Dihigo and the young Henry Aaron. You will see the barbershop where the black community used to gather. You will sit in the lobby of an old black hotel where every African-American celebrity from Billie Holiday to Joe Louis had to stay. You will see what some of the most amazing players of any time had to endure just to play baseball.

And it is only after you get a sense the tension and frustration and hatred but also feel the love and joy of the baseball (Rush’s Geddy Lee donated cases of autographed baseballs to the museum), only then do you get to the baseball field. And when you get to the field, you will see statues of some of the greatest Negro Leaguers ever. “We got to the field,” Buck used to say when he was giving these tours. “We finally got to the field.”

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