Dave Giddens, May 29, 2022
Exploring how sports, racial history intertwine in an Ontario community
2020 saw a groundswell of activism among athletes in North America. Sports leaders became social justice leaders, especially in matters of race. This has been inspiring, and even history-making, but for author, teacher, and sports journalist Ian Kennedy, the athlete-activist is literally nothing new.
Within a few kilometres of his home in Southwest Ontario, Kennedy has collected more than 100 years of stories about athletes who excelled amid systemic racism. Black Lives Matter was not the catalyst for On Account of Darkness but Kennedy says the movement helped him realize that in addition to celebrating athletes who fought for inclusion, we need to also recognize how sport acted (and still acts) as a vehicle for exclusion.
“Chatham-Kent, and the sports community that thrives here, typify the paradox of Canadian identity—celebrating our history as heroes of the Underground Railroad while ignoring the century of racism that followed. Touting the brave Chief Tecumseh who fought with local soldiers in the War of 1812, while ignoring the disenfranchisement and genocide of Indigenous peoples. We produce food for the world but fail to mention the years we forced Japanese Canadians to labour in those fields while their homes were sold to pay for their internment. We are the wheat, and we are the weeds, growing amongst each other.”
Kennedy describes a diverse pocket of the province, which might lead people to think the local European settler population were an extraordinarily welcoming group. This is, after all, where Uncle Tom’s Cabin still exists. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel was based on community founder Josiah Henson’s autobiography. Black people made up nearly 30 per cent of Chatham’s population in the 1860s. But even then, local priests were alarmed: “There is not a place in Canada where the whites are more prejudiced against the blacks than Chatham,” thundered Reverend James Proudfoot.
Kennedy’s research leads him to say that sporting history is inseparable from racial history. Kennedy describes how Base ball (originally two words) was popular in the Black community as far back as the 1870s. Black teams formed leagues, and barnstormed against Black, white, and Indigenous teams. But by 1887, rules were put in place to keep Black athletes off “white teams.”
Indigenous reserves and communities are located throughout the area. One of them, Walpole Island, remains unceded territory. Baggataway – the creator’s game – was widely played, but things began to change in 1867. That was the year both the dominion of Canada and the National Lacrosse Association came into being. Baggataway was medicine, played for healing, to resolve disputes, and for social and political reasons. Kennedy describes how “In the hands of white Euro-Canadians, lacrosse was reduced to entertainment and became subject to the hyper-competitive, results-driven hierarchy that underpins Western sport. What was originally a borderless game was hemmed in, defined and given structure where none previously existed.”
Elijah “Ed” Pinnance was among the first of Walpole Island’s kids who were sent to Shingwauk Residential School near Sault Ste. Marie, 635km from his home. In 1900, Pinnance was recruited to play baseball for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in the traditional Lenape territory of Pennsylvania. From there, he got called up to play for the Philadelphia Athletics in the Major Leagues. Until then, only two Indigenous athletes had competed in Major League Baseball: Louis Sockalexis and Bill Phyle. Pinnance’s success inspired others. Indigenous youth began taking balls and bats into open fields and creating makeshift bases. Teams from Walpole Island were a dominant force in Kent and Lambton Counties. The 1905-1906 Walpole Island Base Ball team were “probably the champions of any Indian team in the Dominion of Canada.”
The 1934 Chatham All Stars
The book gains its title from a shameful incident involving a Black baseball team, the 1934 Chatham All Stars, who to this day, have yet to receive their due recognition in the Ontario Baseball Hall of Fame. For Kennedy, understanding this team was key. CBC Sports asked Kennedy whether he had qualms, as a relatively privileged white man, telling this story and those that flowed from it.
“For me, personally, I took it from an approach of a story preservationist, not necessarily a storyteller, because I don’t feel they’re my stories. But I was someone that, through my love of sports and writing, was able to preserve stories that have been otherwise overlooked for generations. The book itself, just for background, the genesis of it actually came as I was sitting in the Black Mecca Museum in Chatham, just writing [and] researching for my own articles and interest.
“While I was there, an email came from Tidewater Press saying, ‘Hey, we’re very interested in the story about the Chatham Coloured All-Stars. Do you know of anyone locally who’s writing about it that might be capable of putting together a book?’ And Sam, the director, looked over and said, ‘Ian, read this email.’
“I said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is me.’ So it really wasn’t like I was out to tell someone else’s story. I’ve always been here trying to just keep the history preserved.”
The All Stars’ story, (excerpted below) is powerful in its own right, but it also contains surprising links to modern sports history. Fergie Jenkins and fishing star Bob Izumi are just two of the area celebrities strongly connected to that team.
Kennedy traces multi-generational stories of another Chatham-Kent standout, Delores Shadd. She and her forebears were inspirational women in sports, education, and farming.
“Dolores was a farmer. She was a coach. She was a teacher. A black woman in a very rural community, she crossed borders into Detroit and coached a Chinese-American team and then a Mexican-American team, Kennedy says. “To see a Black woman take those roles in the 1930s and 1940s is incredible. She was just the quintessential intersectional challenger of every norm that could exist.”
Baseball, hockey, boxing, horse racing, basketball, golf, fishing, On Account of Darkness has stories about excellence and exclusion in all these sports. Kennedy’s first editor is his wife, and given the political divisiveness of vaccines in their community, she felt strongly that his introductory comment should be trimmed. With respect, Kennedy disagreed:
“There were stories people had decided were best forgotten, things we don’t talk about that stayed locked between axon and dendrite, unwilling to emerge. But, like societal vaccines, stories protect us. It’s best to know the truth, to recognize the warning signs of illness, and to put up a fight.”
Read the full article at CBC Sports