Notes on the Anniversary of the High Point Sit-ins

Photograph courtesy of the Hig  h Point Historical Society, High Point Enterprise Collection

Photograph courtesy of the High Point Historical Society, High Point Enterprise Collection

This piece originally appeared in the February 15, 2016 edition of the High Point Enterprise.

Last week was the 56th anniversary of the beginning of the Woolworths sit-ins here in High Point, North Carolina. Inspired by the actions of four college students from North Carolina A & T, who had launched a similar protest ten days earlier in neighboring Greensboro, twenty-six 14 to 18 year olds initiated what appears to be the first U.S. civil rights sit-in led by high school students. Accompanied by their mentor Reverend B. Elton Cox (one of the original thirteen Freedom Riders) and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, these students marched the mile from all-black William Penn High School to the Main Street store, where they asked for and were refused service. Their actions that day instigated a three-year process that ultimately led to the desegregation of the city’s lunch counters in 1963.

The High Point sit-ins are less well-known nationally than their Greensboro counterparts, but in this area they receive a variety of commemorations every year. In the past, students at Penn-Griffin School for the Arts (which stands on the site of the former William Penn High School) have marked the February 11th anniversary by retracing the march that occurred in 1960. A prayer vigil occurs yearly at 4 pm, the exact time the students entered the store, and the February 11th Association holds an annual banquet each year to celebrate the occasion and raise money for nonviolent education for high school students. This year, Penn-Griffin held an emotional ceremony unveiling a mural celebrating the sit-ins and honoring the students who participated.

These honors and memorials are richly deserved. The bravery of those students who peacefully demanded their rights in the face of not only angry store employees and police inside the store, but also a wrathful mob that pelted them with snowballs filled with needles as they marched back to William Penn, is both extraordinary and inspiring. At the same time, such honors (like the annual lovefest that surrounds Martin Luther King Day) fit neatly into a narrative that media outlets and the majority of Americans find easy to accept — that of a courageous underdog standing up peacefully in the face of a vague and distant form of tyranny. Every TV station in the region sent a truck to cover the unveiling last night because they know it’s a heroic story that aligns with the racial messages of progress and hope that their viewers want to hear.

Partial image of the mural unveiled at Penn-Griffin School for the Arts on February 10th

Partial image of the mural unveiled at Penn-Griffin School for the Arts on February 10th

The unveiling ceremony was moving and important, but during a week when Cam Newton and Beyoncé were vilified widely for diverging from such easily digestible narratives and a year when the simple phrase Black Lives Matter has come under fire from Democratic and Republican politicians alike, such celebrations don’t feel sufficient. We need to do more than celebrate the heroic; we need to grapple with the mundane.

The William Penn Project, a collaborative endeavor dedicated to exploring and publishing the history of William Penn High School, is one example of what such grappling might look like. Our students examine the civil rights activism that occurred at the school throughout the 1960s, but they also explore the daily lives of students in the classroom, on the playing fields, at afterschool jobs, and at home in their neighborhoods on the south and east sides of High Point. What was it like to grow up in a Jim Crow educational system in which only white students got free transportation to school, new textbooks, and guaranteed money for extracurricular activities such as the yearbook and school newspaper? There are lots of individual memoirs about growing up black in the Jim Crow South, but institutional histories that address these and other issues confronted by legally segregated black schools remain shockingly rare. Without better knowledge of the systemic inequities that the High Point 26 and hundreds of thousands of Africa-American children just like them experienced on a daily basis, the prevailing narrative that marginalizes the vast majority of their stories is never going to change. Rewriting the history of High Point and of the nation in a way that respects and values their experiences might be the greatest honor we can offer to those students from 56 years ago who wanted to change the world.

Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life

This review will appear in a future issue of the journal The Historian. The editors encouraged me to publish it here in advance, with the caveat that editorial revisions may cause the final version to differ from this one (though probably not substantially).

In Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life, author Mort Zachter strives to make a case for why Hodges, the late Dodgers All-Star and Mets manager, deserves induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. As his subtitle suggests, Zachter builds his argument not only on Hodge’s statistical accomplishments but also on his intangible qualities of character and leadership. The celebratory biography that emerges from this effort makes a compelling case for Hodges as a Hall of Famer, but may not be of interest to historians unless they are particular fans of the so-called golden age of New York baseball from the late 1940s through the late 1960s.

Hodges was a vital member of the post- World War II Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers teams that dominated the National League, winning nine pennants and two World Series between 1947 and 1959. Hodges provided those clubs’ most consistent source of power hitting and playing widely acclaimed defense at first base. He went on to manage the Washington Senators and New York Mets during the 1960s, transforming perennial losing cultures in both places and unexpectedly winning a World Series with the “Miracle Mets” in 1969. As Zachter notes, “Hodges hit more home runs in his playing career than anyone else who also managed a World Series-winning team,” and this combination of achievements combined with his sustained high level of play seems to legitimize Hodges case for the Hall of Fame. (xiv)

Zachter capably chronicles Hodges’ career achievements, but his argument that the Hall of Fame (or readers) should consider his subject’s character is less persuasive. He invokes the “legend” of Hodges and proclaims him the “conscience” of the Dodgers but never clearly explains these labels. (xiv, 82, 103) Hodges supported Jackie Robinson during the integration process and mentored younger teammates such as Don Drysdale. (62, 174–79) Yet he also occasionally treated rookies such as Dick Williams roughly when they refused to respect off-field privileges of seniority, and he struggled as a manger to relate to young players and writers who challenged his authority. (104, 223)

Such contradictory examples could result in in a well-rounded portrayal of a notable postwar ballplayer, but Zachter lacks an analytical framework that articulates why readers should care about the life of this very good athlete and decent if not clearly exceptional man. Recent biographers of Hank Aaron and Ty Cobb have used their subjects to offer more expansive cultural insights; Howard Bryant explored Aaron’s career in the context of the collapse of the Negro Leagues and the pressures African-American players faced in the immediate aftermath of Robinson’s trailblazing career, and Charles Leerhsen reexamined Cobb’s reputation as a racist in order to prod readers to recognize the influence of public memory on the formation of such legends. Zachter, though, focuses so tightly on Hodges’ life that no broader relevance emerges from his story. For baseball fans, that may be fine. Most historians probably will want to explore elsewhere.

What Makes A World Series Memorable?

This post was originally posted at on November 10, 2015

Last week I wrote a piece on the Royal Rooters and the 1915 World Series . One of the issues I addressed, but didn’t really have space to dig into, was what factors make some World Series linger in public memory while others fade more quickly. More specifically, I was curious about why the 1915 and 1916 World Series victories of the Red Sox are pretty much forgotten while their 1903, 1912 and 1918 wins (along with the Boston Braves win in 1914) remain subjects of contemporary interest.

As I note in the piece, the 1915 World Series was wildly successful at the time; it set new attendance records and marked the first time a sitting U.S. President attended a World Series game. Much like the Royals-Mets series that just ended, it was a closely contested matchup that ended in five games. Four games were decided by one run (Games 2 through 4 with identical 2–1 scores) and the fifth by two runs.

The 1915 Series also had storylines that might interest fans of baseball history. It featured Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander in his prime; he pitched well but was outdone by the dominant Red Sox trio of Ernie Shore, Rube Foster, and Dutch Leonard. These three men pitched theentire Series for Boston, relegating rookie 18-game winner Babe Ruth to one pinch-hitting appearance. Offensively, the star was supposed to be Phillies slugger Gavvy Cravath, whose 24 home runs that year set a new major league record, but the Red Sox held him homerless. Indeed, no home runs were hit in the Series until Game 5, making the games exemplary of the pitching and defense-dominated period of professional baseball between 1900 and 1920 known as the Deadball Era.

The centennial of the 1915 Series passed last month with only my piece and a blog post by MLB historian John Thorn to commemorate it. In contrast to the other Boston-related Series mentioned above, there is (as far as I can discover) no book on the contest. Part of the reason for this disinterest may be its placement in the middle of Boston’s dominant run. 1903 was the first Boston victory (indeed, the first World Series), 1912 is widely regarded as one of the greatest Series ever played, and 1918 was the last Boston win for nearly a century. The Red Sox 1916 victory over Brooklyn, in contrast, has received similarly scant attention.

Yet the disinterest in the 1915 and 1916 Series may also be part of a broader pattern. An unscientific poll of friends and family members who are diehard baseball fans seems to confirm my suspicions that the World Series we remember most easily are those with clear heroes or goats. Great teams like the 1927 Yankees or surprising ones like the 1914 Braves are remembered for entire seasons. Our lasting Series memories, though, are the dramatic home runs of Bill Mazeroski, Joe Carter, Carlton Fisk and Kirk Gibson, the dominant pitching performances of Don Larsen, Jack Morris and Curt Schilling, the catch by Willie Mays, and the miscues (fairly assessed or not) of Bill Buckner, Fred Snodgrass, and Johnny Pesky.

This pattern of remembering dramatic moments and great individual efforts adheres to the way that most Americans prefer to consume their history. It may even have something to do with our actual processes of remembering. For writers who want to dig beyond these moments to reconstruct a more complex understanding of our past, the trick for getting readers beyond the academy to come along for the ride seems to be hitching that complexity to a fascinating character or storyline (Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City is one example that comes quickly to mind). Colorful figures such as John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, “Nuf Ced” McGreevey, and (hopefully) other yet-to-be fleshed out Rooters should fulfill that requirement, which is why I am optimistic that these Boston fans can make readers remember early World Series and professional baseball in new ways.

Where Have You Gone, Leo Levy?

This post was originally published at on August 28, 2015.

Somewhere in the picture above, there might be a man named Leo Levy. His name appears on a Boston Herald list of “Royal Rooters” traveling to New York for the pivotal final series of the 1904 American League baseball season, and this picture was taken during that trip. No other mention of him appears in either the Herald or the Boston Globe’s coverage of the series, but he does pop up in a Herald article on August 13, 1897, when theHerald singled him out as “one of the old guard on the Boston grounds.” The same article also identifies a man named Sam Levy as both a member of the “cloak brigade” and “one of the good old Boston rooters in the capacious grand stand.” Sam’s presence at games is additionally noted in 1890, 1891, and 1894 articles, but that’s it. No other Globe or Herald articles ever again mention either Levy in connection with Boston baseball.

I’ve been researching Leo and Sam Levy, along with several other Bostonians of the same period, for my new project on the Royal Rooters, a group of baseball fans who became nationally celebrated between 1897 and 1918 for their fervor and their raucous cheering tactics. I’m interested in why this early group of noted sports fans chose to root for the city’s professional baseball teams, but also in the fact that behind the group’s predominantly Irish-American leadership (which has been recognized previously by Ken Burns and other students of the early professional game) lay a diverse group that included old-line Brahmin Protestants, Jews, a few women, and perhaps even African Americans. I’m fascinated by the contrast between this intermingling in the stands and barrooms and the stark divisions between Protestants and Catholics that existed at the time throughout the city and even within the Red Sox clubhouse.

So far, Sam and Leo Levy seem to be the best avenues into the relationship between Boston’s Jewish community and professional baseball during this period, but the clues about their lives remain sparse. I was hoping they might be related, but census research suggests that is not the case. There was a Sam Levy identified as a Boston pinochle champion in 1897, one who served as a groomsman at a wedding in Roxbury (where many of the Rooters worked and lived) in 1901, and one selling cloaks at 564 Washington Street in Roxbury in 1904. A Leo Levy was recognized on the society page of the Globe for stopping in Saratoga in 1901, and presented as an entertainer at a capmakers’ union benefit in 1903. At this point, though, I’m still not even sure whether these are the same men.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that I am having trouble finding information on these men who lived relatively obscure lives over a century ago. Yet this pattern persists even in the lives of celebrated Rooters. Michael T. “Nuf Ced” McGreevey is omnipresent in the city’s newspapers and makes regular appearances in the national sporting press, during the first two decades of the twentieth century but finding additional information about him beyond these sources has proven challenging. Even John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, U.S. Congressman, Mayor of Boston, and grandfather of President John F. Kennedy, thus far appears to have left behind a remarkably small paper trail relative to his political stature.

This scarcity of evidence is a new experience for me; in my last project, one of my primary challenges was whittling down the overwhelming collection of available resources into a manageable set of data. Thus it’s possible that I need to develop more effective research strategies, or that the information I am seeking is in the large collections of materials that remain on my to-do list. Yet I am starting to wonder whether there is a broader issue at play here. Why was it easier to find information about relatively obscure editors and ministers who lived over two hundred years ago than about relatively famous men who lived into the mid-twentieth century?

One archivist has suggested that local politicians such as McGreevey or Fitzgerald may have been reluctant to commit their ideas or practices to paper, and I think he may be on target. With the rapidly expanding world of digitized historical collections of printed material, the possibilities for finding information are exponentially greater than they were even a dozen years ago when I was researching my dissertation. This wealth of information sometimes makes us believe that we can recover the stories of anyone who lived within communities where printed materials were omnipresent. But for individuals such as the Levys, who may not have been fully engaged with these print-centered cultures, or those such as McGreevey and Fitzgerald who may have chosen to keep parts of their lives hidden from those cultures, that recovery process may be much more challenging. It’s important to remember that even as we dig deeper into the past through more creative practices and more accessible information, we’re still only scratching the surface of those worlds that can seem so deceptively close to our own.

The Royal Rooters picture above is printed courtesy of theMichael T. “Nuf Ced” McGreevey Collection of the Boston Public Library, which is available online at

Why I’m Writing Here

This post was originally published at on August 10, 2015

My plan for writing on Medium is that most of my posts will be about historical actors. I’ll be exploring the lives of children’s magazine editors of the 1800s, baseball fans of the early 1900s, and black high school students in Jim Crow North Carolina of the 1950s and 1960s. Today’s post is different, though; it’s about me.

When I posted my last Medium piece on Facebook, I mentioned that I didn’t necessarily want to call the writings I’m doing here a blog. A number of readers offered comments and questions about that statement, and one fellow writer suggested that an articulation of my motivations and goals for this writing space might be interesting. The positive response to recent blog posts by other historians reinforced this idea that fellow scholars and writers often welcome such writings about process, so I’ll offer my perspective here and welcome any feedback.

It took me twelve years to write my first book. A number of factors contributed to that interminable slog, including transplanting my family from Massachusetts to North Carolina, the birth of our two children, and the demands of a job that required me to teach (initially) four classes a semester. Another major cause of the delay, though, was my writing process.

I am not a facile writer. I do exactly what I tell my students to avoid; I obsess over every word, and rewrite sentences as I go rather than forging ahead with rough drafts and editing only in the revision process. I think the end product is good, but the endeavor is agonizing for me, and for my family and friends. I also suffered through a period of crippling self-doubt as I transformed my dissertation into a book. During this stage, which lasted nearly two years, I essentially wrote in circles, revising over and over again without making any substantial changes.

As I launch my new project, I am taking steps to improve my approach to writing. I have new software to help keep me organized. I have new confidence based on the positive response to my manuscript. What I also need is a new process, and these writings are part of that change.

One of the other principles I try to impress upon my students, many of whom come into my class saying “I’m not a good writer,” is that writing is a craft that improves with practice. So they need to write- a lot. The corollary to that principle for me is that I need to publish my writings more frequently in order to learn to manage both my own expectations and reader feedback. This space seems well suited to meeting those needs.

So I view these writings as a testing ground, both for my ideas and my nerve. I’m going to try to publish fairly often, but I’m not going to commit to a schedule because that just replaces one form of writing agony with another. Also, at this point I plan to limit my posts to essays. I’ll keep my attempts at pithy commentary on other people’s writings to Facebook and Twitter.

This endeavor is part of my larger ongoing experiment in maximizing the value of social media, and I would love to forge ahead in conversation rather than in monologue. If you’re grappling with some of the same issues or have ideas for me, please reach out here, on Twitter (@PaulRingel), or by email (