Breaking a Barrier: Part One

By Michael Hudson
Updated: November 20, 2007

PART ONE of THREE PART ONE Trailblazer PercyDANVILLE, VIRGINIA — The pitch came in and Percy Miller, Jr. swung. He connected and the ball zipped over second base. Two teammates scored and the runs spurred his team, the Danville Leafs, to a 5-4 win over the Durham Bulls. Miller, 20 years old and just two months out of high school, found himself standing safely on first base as cheers washed down on him from both sides of the rope separating white and black ticket buyers.

“Negro Gets 2-Run Single in Debut,” the Danville Bee’s headline said. It was August 10, 1951, and baseball had been integrated in the Last Capital of the Confederacy.

Percy Miller had broken the color line in Southside Virginia and in the Carolina League. He had become, as baseball historians could best discern, just the third black man in the 20th century to swing a bat or throw a pitch for a white minor league team in the South — the first two having appeared just a few months before in the border regions of Tennessee and west Texas.

On the surface, Miller’s shining moment had the elements of another Jackie Robinson story, just four years after Robinson had integrated the Northern-cities-only major leagues. The story line sounded simple: A lone black man beating down a baseball color line after getting a chance to show what he could do on the field.

But Percy Miller knew better: In those days, nothing about breaking racial barriers was simple. When he ran from home plate to first base he didn’t feel triumphant. He ran on his heels. He was angry.

He was angry because he was wearing a size 48 shirt and a size 46 pants. He says the team’s equipment manager claimed it was the only uniform available, but Miller saw the oversized uniform as a snub designed to put him in his place. “Here I was a 31 inches in the waist,” recalls Miller, now 65. “It fit me like a bathrobe.”

In the end, Miller played 19 games at the tailend of the ’51 season. His batting average sank below .200, and that winter the team released him.

The Carolina League’s first try at integration had ended.

The battle to wipe away the color barriers in sports — as in the rest of society — didn’t play itself out in one dramatic episode. It was a wrenching fight that went on in fits and starts for many years on many fronts, in small towns and big ones, all across America.

Miller, a quiet-spoken man, says he harbors no ill feelings about his painful experiences in the Carolina League, or about his abrupt release. He knew he didn’t play as well as he could have. He just figured he’d catch on with another team eventually.

But James Slade, his former high school coach, will say what Miller won’t. Slade, 80, is an unofficial but passionate historian of black sports in Danville. He says Miller didn’t get much of a chance; the time was too short, the pressure too much, for a young man just entering baseball’s major-league farm system.

Miller never considered himself another Jackie Robinson. He was just a ballplayer. “I didn’t think I was a trailblazer. I figured Jackie had done the job. And everybody who followed along after had him to thank.”

Legacy James “Wimp” Slade was a child of the Great Depression. “Let me tell you the story,” he begins. He was 12 when his family moved home to Danville from Washington, D.C. The year was 1928.

It took him eight years to finish high school. He’d go to school in the fall, stay through basketball season, then drop out. He’d sell newspapers, shine shoes, do odd jobs. His family needed money. His mother never knew he wasn’t going to school. He’d leave the bit of money he earned in a place where his mom would find it, or go buy something the family needed.

One day, Harry Jefferson, the coach at Virginia State College, a black school in Petersburg, remarked to Mrs. Kate Page, one of Slade’s teachers, that he’d never been able to recruit an athlete out of Danville. “I have one for you,” she said.

“You know how you get attached to a teacher?” Slade recalls years later. “She knew the plight I was in.” He played four years of basketball in what was then known as the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

He graduated in 1940 and took a job teaching and coaching basketball at Langston, the black high school in Danville. He became a driving force in the growth of Virginia’s black athletic association, which included Roanoke’s Lucy Addison and Salem’s G.W. Carver High Schools. In 1945, he started Langston’s football program on a shoestring budget with castoff uniforms from Danville’s white high school.

In the mid-’40s, he began to notice three local youngsters –Percy Miller, Eloyd Robinson and Kenny Vincent. He’d never seen athletes like those three. Percy was rail-thin, 6-foot-2, 165 pounds, but he could punt a football 50, 60 yards, or more.

The three formed the heart of a football team that went undefeated — 9-0 — in 1949 and a basketball team that won the black association’s state tournament in 1950. Percy was all-state in both sports.

Before his junior year, Percy was playing baseball on a local black team, the Danville All Stars, when it was booked for a game against a Negro barnstorming club, the Jacksonville Eagles.At the end of the game, his father, Percy Sr., the All Stars’ player/manager, was on second base. It was Percy Jr.’s turn at bat and the game was on the line. The son lights up at the memory. “People said: `Mr. Miller, are you going to let Junior bat?’ My father said: ‘I’m going to win with him or lose with him.’ So I doubled him home to beat ‘em.”

The Eagles’ owner was so impressed that he offered contracts to five members of the local team, including 17-year-old Percy Jr. His mother didn’t want him to go. But his father told him: “Go ahead and pack your clothes, I’ll straighten it out with her when you’re gone.”

Percy Jr. played with the Eagles two summers while he was in high school, and again after he graduated in 1951, batting .375 as the team bounced around the United States and Canada.

One day he had a stopover back home, and his father came in and told him a man was there to see him. The man was from the Danville Leafs, and he had a contract in his hands.


This story originally appeared in The Roanoke Times in April 1997.

For more information about Percy Miller and other black athletes who integrated Southern baseball in the 1950s and 1960s, see “Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor-League Baseball in the American South,” by Bruce Adelson (University Press of Virginia,1999)