A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
Making A Difference On And Off The Field
“No crime in American history — let alone a crime that never occurred — produced as many trials, convictions, reversals, and retrials as did an alleged gang rape of two white girls by nine black teenagers on the Southern Railroad freight run from Chattanooga to Memphis on March 25, 1931″.
– Douglas O. Linder from his book “A Trial Account”
NEW HAVEN, Ct. (BASN) — In 1931, Franklin “Doc” Sykes was a successful dentist in his hometown of Decatur, Alabama. He was five years removed from the end of his career as a pitcher in the Negro Leagues.
The 6-foot-2 right hander, who attended both Atlanta Baptist College (now Morehouse College) and Howard University, played for five different teams (Philadelphia Giants, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Hilldale Daisies, Baltimore Black Sox, New York Lincoln Giants) from 1913 to 1926.
Along the way, he tossed a no-hitter (September 16, 1922 vs. the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants) and played on championship teams. 1922 was Sykes’ best season in the Negro Leagues.
Hurling for the Baltimore Black Sox, he was 18-4 that year with an ERA of 3.50. The previous season, he was 13-3. All of this while maintaining his dentistry practice in the city.
But it’s not what Sykes did on the field that makes his story an interesting one to tell. He and many other African-Americans were directly and indirectly affected by one of the most infamous trials in juridical history.
And it’s Sykes’ prominent role in this trial that is our subject for today.
On the night of March 25, 1931, a deputy sheriff posse in Paint Rock, Alabama stopped a freight train bound for Chattanooga, Tennessee. Nine young black men were arrested on the train.
The police also found two young white women — Victoria Price and Ruby Bates — dressed in men’s overalls. Price claimed she was raped by six of the young men, while Bates claimed she was raped by the other three.
The nine men, from Chattanooga and various parts of Georgia, ranked from ages 12 to 20. They were roped together and taken to the Jackson County Jail in Scottsboro, Alabama.
That same night, a mob gathered outside the jail, but Alabama governor B.M. Miller sent in the National Guard to protect the young men who would come to be known as the Scottsboro Boys.
Many local newspapers had made their conclusions about the defendants before the first trial began. One headline read: “ALL NEGROES POSITIVELY IDENTIFIED BY GIRLS AND ONE WHITE BOY WHO WAS HELD PRISONER WITH PISTOL AND KNIVES WHILE NINE BLACK FIENDS COMMITTED REVOLTING CRIME.”
It took less than a week for the all-white, all-male jury to try, convict and sentence the boys to death. During the first trial, there were heated protests in the black community of Decatur. The fact that not one black person was chosen for the jury was the main cause of resentment.
One of the folks leading that movement was Franklin “Doc” Sykes, who testified that several qualified blacks weren’t given a chance to serve on the jury. The protests along with several other trial-related incidents (i.e. due process, unfair jury representation) would pay off as the Supreme Court threw out the decision a year later an ordered a re-trial.
While the protest proved to be a brief victory for the defendants, the aftermath was something that affected the entire Sykes family.
LEAVING HIS HOME
Eventually, there would be at least three more trials for the Scottsboro Boys over the next five years. During the first trial, the Sykes family had housed several Northern black reporters in their home.
Sykes and his family received several death threats along the way. There was one reported incident of Sykes making a high speed getaway while being chased by a car full of Ku Klux Klansman.
After several more incidents including a cross being burned on his front yard, Sykes made the difficult decision to move out of his hometown. He moved back to Baltimore and reestablished his dental practice in 1937.
He would return on different occasions to Alabama, but the former Negro Leaguer would call Maryland his home until he passed away in 1986 at the age of 94. During his time in Baltimore, Sykes would befriend another African-American who wasn’t a stranger to protest.
That friend was also a former athlete with a social conscience — actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson.
NOTE: The Biographical Encyclopedia of The Negro Baseball Leagues; The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues and The Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball all contributed to this story.