Fascinating article at Slate today about William Edward White, who played a single game for the Providence Grays in 1879. The significance? White was the first black man to play a game in major league baseball.
Or was he? That’s the subject of the article (the fact of White’s lone game has been reported for over a decade). You see, White was born to a white father and a mixed-race mother who, at the time, was his father’s slave in pre-Civil War Georgia. By law and general social rules of the time, that made White black.
But White’s father and mother — who stayed together as a family and raised White — sent him north for his education in the 1870s and, as was often the case for mixed-race people of the time, White passed as white. Indeed, he did so for the rest of his life, being listed as white in his educational records, census records and death certificate. And, one presumes, the Providence Grays — who picked White up from Brown University for his single game — assumed he was white as well.
Which leads to the interesting philosophical/social/historical question of whether or not one should consider White to be the first black baseball player. On the one hand you can say it’s merely a matter of biographical/genetic information: White was partially black and, per the understanding of the times, would be considered black by all who knew his heritage, ergo he was. On the other hand, we don’t laud Jackie Robinson simply because he was able to be slotted into a demographic group when he played. He laud him for his bravery and leadership in breaking a barrier and visibly and forcefully righting a wrong. White wasn’t likely trying to do anything other than live his life and play some baseball. Which he did, based on the available evidence, while thinking of himself as a white man.
There’s a lot of interesting discussion in the linked article from historians and the like. It’s a truly fascinating conversation about identity and race and social convention. And, of course, baseball.