In celebrating Black History Month, Columbus Municipal School District hosted Negro League baseball historian Larry Lester and Robert Paige — the oldest son of Leroy “Satchel” Paige, a longtime Negro League star — at a presentation Thursday morning at Cook Elementary Magnets Fine Arts School.
“This is a way to bring (Black History Month) to life, bring it to reality,” CMSD Superintendent Philip Hickman told the hundreds of fourth and fifth graders gathered in the school’s auditorium for the presentation.
The Columbus High School Baseball team also attended.
Hickman told the crowd he, in fact, owed part of his success to an encounter with National Negro League player, Buck O’Neil. Hickman, who worked as a ballboy for the Kansas City Royals in his youth, had an encounter with O’Neil, who scouted for the team following his retirement.
“He told me to focus on my grades,” Hickman said.
He then introduced CMSD Board of Trustees member Glenn Lautzenhiser, who introduced Lester and Paige.
As the children sat wide-eyed and silently in the audience, Lautzenhiser — who wore a jacket representing the 1935 Pittsburg Crawford Negro League team — brought home the aspect of the injustices of inequality that plagued the nation, including sports teams, and which disallowed black players from joining teams with white men.
“It was so wrong for these men not to be afforded the opportunity to play in the American League or the National League,” Lautzenhiser said. “They overcame so much.”
Lester, one of the founders of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, had a number of messages for students, including how thrilled he was to be in an area with such well-known black culture.
“I cannot think of a place I’d rather be more than here,” Lester said.
He pointed out that the area was the birthplace of many of baseball greats, like Sam Jethroe, a Lowndes County native, and “Cool Papa” Bell, of Starkville, another Hall-of-Famer. Bell was also played for the 1935 Crawfords alongside “Satchel” Paige.
“There’s just so much rich history right here in Lowndes County,” Lester said.
Lester showed photos of the players to the crowd including that of Oscar Charleston, who was player-manager of the Crawfords during its famous reign and is considered by many to be the best player in the history of the game. Lester spoke of Charleston’s fearlessness as a black man in a time of segregation.
“He was so tough, that when the Klan came to town he ripped the hood off of a Klansman, and dared him to speak,” he said.
He noted the pictures of the players showed “proud black men” who “dressed up,” and followed a certain standard of decorum, before asking the students to follow their lead.
“Pants up,” he said, having the students repeat his chant. “Hands up, raise your hands and ask questions. Grades up.”
Lester also offered some startlingly statistics to the young crowd.
He said that while one in 17 white men, and one out of six Hispanic men, will go to prison at some point in their lives, one in three black men will do the same — numbers collected by the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for prison reform, in a 2013 report submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Committee.
“We have a first-class prison system, and a second class education system…racism isn’t going away,” Lester said, reminding students to respect their teachers and invest in their educations. “Learn how to deal with it and prove them wrong. You can make it just like these proud black men made it.”
Lester then introduced Paige as the “oldest son of the greatest pitcher who ever played the game.”
Paige spoke of not knowing what his father did for a living until he was a teenager, and reveling in the times his father would return home from trips, sometimes with a new car, and the way the “sky was the limit” at those times. However, he said for a long time he harbored resentment for the way things had gone with an unjust system.
“I did not relate to his history or accomplishments. I was angry,” Paige told the crowd, adding he too had been involved deeply in sports, as a baseball player, but that he long held an “anti-authority” attitude that dampened his chances of success.
However, he spoke of his father’s zest for life and the ways he taught him to believe in himself.
“Like my father would say, you are here for a purpose. You were created for a reason, and you have value and you have to always conduct yourself in a way as to receive respect,” he said, adding his father’s sharp style of dressing had also been passed down to him.
He noted that while many would assumed his family had lived “very well,” due to his father’s success, that it wasn’t always so.
“He had a lot of material things, but he didn’t manage his money…there were periods when we didn’t live very well, where my mother had to go to work,” he said.
The message he’d learned over the years, Paige said, was that ultimately he was responsible for himself, not his parents.
“It doesn’t matter who your father or mother is, but what matters is who you are,” he said. “You don’t have to let anything influence you.”
Many of the student’s hands went up during a question-and-answer session that followed, and it was clear the crowd’s attention had been held.
Deonteau Rieves, shortstop and pitcher with the Columbus Falcons’ baseball team, said he learned a lot from the discussion. Rieves regards Paige as one of the greatest pitchers in history, and is glad race relations have changed in sports.
“I’m thankful I’m able to play without having to face any of that,” Rieves said, adding he hopes to one day play for Major League Baseball.
Sam Luvisi is news editor and covers education for The Dispatch.
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