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Segregated seats: Black Fans Remember ‘Special’ Seats
GREENSBORO, NC.— Ken Free can sit anywhere he chooses if he comes to watch one of the final four professional baseball games at Memorial Stadium.
That’s a drastic change from the days when he first watched the Greensboro Patriots at the ballpark.
Free and many other African-American fans who enjoy baseball still remember when the stands were segregated. Only white spectators could sit under the grandstand, the covered portion of the seats.
African-American fans were relegated to what Free calls “our little section on the right,” down the foul line beyond first base.
For many years there was a separate entrance for African-American spectators, a gate in right field.
Harold Cotton, who owns Bob’s Hat Shop on McGee Street, recalls ushers telling African-American fans where to sit after they came through the gate.
“If anyone tried to sit anywhere else, they would get kicked out and not be able to be with the friends,” Cotton said, “No one wanted that.”
When Free attended games in the 1950s, he remembers entering through the front gate but not being allowed to walk in front of the grandstand. Instead, he turned right and walked down a corridor that took African-American fans down the right-field line.
The arrangement was typical of the times.
“The standard had been set,” said Jonathan McKee, former football coach and athletics director at Dudley High School.
“It was just like going to see Choo Choo Justice in Chapel Hill — blacks had to sit in a similar corner.”
African-American fans watched and cheered for white Greensboro players. Free enjoyed seeing Don Buddin of the Patriots, a power-hitting shortstop.
The only African-American players to watch were members of the semipro Goshen Red Wings, who later became the Greensboro Red Birds. They also played their games at Memorial Stadium and, when they did, fans had their choice of seats. Segregation of Memorial Stadium’s stands was suspended for at least one day on Oct. 14, 1949. Jackie Robinson, who broke major-league baseball’s color barrier two years earlier, came to town with a barnstorming team.
An advance story in the Greensboro Daily News noted that “a special section of box and reserved seats has been set aside for white spectators.”
That was the first of three times Robinson played here, and the game most people forget. They readily remember his appearances with the Brooklyn Dodgers in two exhibition games against the Patriots, one in 1950 and another in 1951.
But in the 1949 game, the official attendance was listed at 6,620 and Robinson said, “I know 3,000 crawled over the fences that weren’t counted.”
James Tonkins, a second baseman for the Red Birds, played on the opposing team, which lost, 11-5.
“I remember he went sightseeing on old East Market Street, meeting people,” Tonkins said. “It seemed like he went on campus (at N.C. A&T) that day.
“What fascinated me so much was how pigeon-toed he was, almost like he was walking on the tips of his toes. He was quite a guy, real outgoing. His appearance created quite a bit of interest.”
So did Robinson’s second appearance, on April 11, 1950. The Dodgers crushed the Patriots 22-0 and Robinson had three hits, two runs and two RBIs. Attendance was 8,434, the largest crowd to watch a baseball game in North Carolina.
The crowd probably was larger. Patriots owner Rufus Blanchard estimated that 1,500 youngsters slipped over the fence. One account told of 500 people “clinging perilously to tree branches and rooftops outside the stadium.”
Robinson’s talent and charisma created “an electric crowd” that pulled hard for the Dodgers, according to Spencer Gwynn, the radio announcer for A&T football games. “Black people all over the country identified with him,” Gwynn said. “When Jackie struck out, we struck out. When Jackie stole a base, we stole a base.”
Al Smith, who played baseball at A&T and later served in several administrative capacities there, recalled a sense of pride in the African-American community about Robinson and other players such as Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe.
“We had a special relationship with those guys,” said Smith, now the president of Florida Memorial College. “They used to come over to campus.”
Robinson’s presence in the major leagues prompted other teams to sign African-American players to play in their farm systems.
The Carolina League was integrated in the 1950s.
The New York Giants sent several outstanding players to Danville, Va., including Bill White in 1953, Leon Wagner in 1954 and 1956 and Willie McCovey in 1956. Curt Flood played for High Point-Thomasville in 1956.
Patriots games against those teams usually filled the African-American portion of the stands at Memorial Stadium.
“Most of the time we were rooting for opposing teams that had black players,” Free said. “We had to be careful if we made too much noise, because the white fans would look over at us and be displeased.”
Free, former MEAC Commissioner who is now commissioner of a six-school NAIA conference in the region, played in Memorial Stadium with the Red Birds from 1953-55. He returned in 1961 as one of the first African-American players for the Raleigh Caps.
“A lot of people came and sat in that section to see me play,” Free said. “I didn’t know a lot of them, but they would tell me about seeing me years later.”
No one can pinpoint when the segregated seating ended. Tonkins believes it probably was during the era of public school integration.
Maybe it tied in with the first African-American player in a Greensboro uniform, believed to be Jim Horsford in 1961.
But eventually the separate entrance and separate section disappeared, leaving of Memorial Stadium open to everyone.