April 30, 2014

Historic Hinchliffe Stadium Reveals Larger Impact of African-American Legacy

Last week, we opened the doors of Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, N.J., to more than 700 volunteers in an effort to breathe new life into the iconic sports arena. Known for its role in Negro League Baseball, Hinchliffe Stadium was the home field for teams like the New York Black Yankees and the Newark Eagles. Legendary players like Larry Doby, Josh Gibson, Monte Irvin, and more, all graced the field not knowing that one day they’d receive the highest honor in baseball by being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

I must admit that I knew little about the great teams, players, and stadiums of Negro League Baseball before taking on this project. Like so much of African-American history, I’ve had to look beyond school to teach me about my heritage outside slavery. And it was hard to digest the fact that I did not know how much of an impact Negro League Baseball had on our nation during a time when segregation was at the forefront of everyday life.

The history here at Hinchliffe Stadium is so rich that it’s hard to imagine that the stadium has sat vacant for some 20 years, left to crumble in its own memory.

Hinchliffe Stadium sat vacant for some 20 years until hundreds of volunteers recently repainted the historic venue.

While looking around the stadium during the peak hours of the volunteer effort, I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like to be here in its heyday. The stadium was said to be filled with people of all backgrounds, gathered together, cheering on these sports legends.

However, the current state of the stadium is now one of great expectancy. I watched as students rushed to pass through the gates and into what is to them an enormous stadium. I saw adults walking around, sharing with younger people their own memories of times past at Hinchliffe. We were also fortunate to have a few former Negro League Players present who were thrilled to tell of their experience playing alongside Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby.

As remarkable as it was to witness these interactions as they took place, it was also a stark reminder that more places of African-American heritage have yet to be acknowledged as significant. There is still a great need to identify these places and share how sites of African-American heritage are hemmed into the very fabric of our nation.

Some great takeaways from this experience for me have been that Hinchliffe is just one of many stadiums that drew in a crowd of all demographics to cheer on Negro League ball players. Also, Jackie Robinson, although critical to the integration of baseball, was not the first African-American to play with an all-white team (look up Moses Fleetwood Walker to learn more).

All told, the event was an overwhelming success. I feel honored to say that I helped bring a community back to their field of dreams and even more humbled to know that this living history is just one of many places that tell of the African-American experience in the United States.

Some volunteers arrived as early as 7 a.m. and worked tirelessly to bring a fresh look to Hinchliffe Stadium.

Jessica is currently the social impact and marketing strategist at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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