Words Mean Things

Rube Foster’s Hall of Fame Plaque

Back when I was growing up there were, even in my small town, a handful of public accommodations. These included the waiting rooms at the local Greyhound Bus Station, the train station, a couple of town water fountains; things like that. There were, of course two of each. One said “Whites Only” the other said either “Colored” or “Colored Only.” It was normal where I lived.

“Colored” was an interesting word. It never specified which color, but we all knew. In the society my grandparents lived it was the polite word to use when discussing Black Americans. The impolite word began with an “N” and ended with an “R” and I’ll let each of you figure it out on your own. Even my Grandmother, who knew how to use it, let me know that “you don’t say that in town and you never say it to them.” The “them” was understood.

As I grew older the word changed. First there was Negro, then black, then African-American. I don’t use the latter much because I know a Joseph Mohammed whose parents are from Tunisia. He was born in the US and likes to remind a lot of us that Tunisia is in Africa and that he is, therefore, also African-American. Whatever is currently in vogue is probably better than the “colored” of my youth.

In 1909 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP) was formed. It used the word “Colored” proudly. It was a way to announce that “Colored” was not a word of shame.

All of which brings me to that noted revolutionary, Rube Foster. Did you ever think just how revolutionary Foster’s naming his league the NEGRO National League really was? No “Colored” for him. That was the word the white world used to describe Foster and his people. He would have none of it. He would choose the word to describe both himself and his league. The word Negro was around and in some circles coming into fashion. Foster stepped up to the plate (hey, this is a baseball blog after all) and slammed “colored” away in favor of a word that didn’t have the same stigma as “colored.”

He was somewhat alone in this. The other league that was formed to challenge the NNL was called the Eastern COLORED League. Foster hated the ECL because it challenged his control over black baseball, but he also didn’t like the name. None of this colored nonsense for Foster.

Today, baseball fans who think about the Negro Leagues (and there’s that word again, and it’s thanks to Foster) consider Rube Foster a great player, a fine manager, a league pioneer. He is all of those, but he should also be remembered as something of a revolutionary.


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9 Responses to “Words Mean Things”

  1. Miller Says:

    What a phenomenal post! Especially today, for me. In a few minutes I’m going to teach an Interpersonal Communication class where we will discuss offensive language. That will move to a larger discussion of language and how “Words Mean Things”. I will say those exact words. Thank you for this!

  2. wkkortas Says:

    I’d never thought of that at all–certainly, Foster was in the vanguard of many things, but I’d never considered the language angle.

  3. Jackie, The Baseball Bloggess Says:

    I love Rube Foster. As an Orioles fan, there something sort of sweet about a league head who would move players around to provide parity for his league. (Dear Mr. Foster, May we have Clayton Kershaw? Parity, please. Signed, The Orioles.)

    I think you’re right that he was a revolutionary. But even revolutionaries have their flaws and he had plenty. Part of Foster eschewing the “colored” label is that it included Mexicans and other “brown people,” Indians, and Chinese and other “yellow people”. By calling it the Negro league he felt that he was building a greater understanding of what his team was. I don’t consider this racist, mind you, just a sense of how separate we were as a society then.

    When reading about Foster (as he plays a huge roll in Pete Hill’s story), I was most surprised to learn that he didn’t think black men were suited (ie, smart/good enough) to be umpires and so initially used only white men as Negro League umpires. After the nation’s black papers and sportswriters took him to task he finally relented. In 1923, he hired seven black umpires. He did not call them Negro umpires, though. He called them his “Colored Umps.” Which, with your post, may tell us even more about how Foster felt about umpires.

    • verdun2 Says:

      Nobody loves umps. Even the family’s love is conditional. 🙂
      Good observation about the “colored” vs “brown” issue that confronted Foster.

  4. Precious Sanders Says:

    This is wonderful and thought-provoking. Thanks for writing, v.

  5. glenrussellslater Says:

    V, you didn’t mention this, but I’m going to assume this guy named Joseph Mohammed is Caucasian. Am I right? It’s interesting because I never thought of white people being called “African-American” before. But, of course, there are plenty of white guys who were born in Africa, particularly in The Republic of South Africa, who are Caucasian. I knew a guy who was a fellow student in broadcasting school back in 1982 who was born in the Republic of South Africa, but now lived in America. The term “African-American” wasn’t in style in those days, but it never occurred to me that these days, in these politically correct days, he could be considered an African-American if he wanted to be. Would the political correctness of today deny him that? (That’s a rhetorical question!)

    • verdun2 Says:

      I think the proper “politically correct” term for Joe today is “Arab-American.” But of course you can be of Arab descent and never had any of your family ever live in Africa. BTW Joe likes “Okie” to describe him.

  6. Steve Myers Says:

    I’m always a bit shy or careful to say the word Negro League when in the company of younger people (20-25 years young) due to its closeness to the bad word. I guess at the time it was an improvement towards a more human identification and that’s important. Great work on your part, v.

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