Exploring how sports, racial history intertwine in an Ontario community

Black Lives Matter was not the catalyst for 'On Account of Darkness' but author Ian 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.

'On Account of Darkness' examines sports, race, and history of Chatham-Kent

(Kelsey Vermeersch, Tidewater Press)

On Account of Darkness: Shining Light on Race and Sport

Ian Kennedy

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."

ON ACCOUNT OF DARKNESS Shining Light on Race and Sport, Tidewater Press, 254 pages, Paperback $21.95  E-Book $14.95

From On Account of Darkness 

Travelling from town to town, barnstorming promoted one of the earliest forms of integrated sport. Black teams primarily faced white opponents, earning respect in at least some circles. Dizzy Dean, the National League MVP who led his St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series title in 1934, was outspoken in his praise of Black baseball players. He maintained that if "big leaguers believed that they were better than the best Negro players they had another thought coming."

During the Depression, barnstorming allowed professional players to make extra money. Future Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige, then playing for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, was a noted barnstormer, jumping from team to team, often as the main attraction drawing crowds and opponents.

In 1932, the Chatham Coloured All-Stars, successors to the Chatham Coloured Giants, began their inaugural season of play by barnstorming through towns and across borders, both real and imagined. Crowds of up to 4,000 people would surround the diamond to see them play, many taking the day off work to be part of the event. For some it was sport; for others it was a minstrel show, Black performers providing entertainment that reinforced white superiority.

"They were coming to see us get beat and they also wanted to clown about it," said Wilfred "Boomer" Harding, Chatham-born star of both baseball and hockey, in a 1977 interview archived within the University of Windsor's Breaking the Colour Barrier research project. "When we went to Strathroy they used to write on the sidewalks that we was coming to town. But I guess, and everything else they were out to beat us."

 In an interview in Chatham-Kent This Week (June 10, 2017), Boomer's daughter-in-law Pat Harding said, "There was prejudice . . . back then when they played in different towns they wouldn't let [the players] sleep in town."

Blake Harding, Boomer's son told me the hostility, as the team travelled from town to town, extended to the stands. "Before I was born, my mother Joy Harding, she would go with her sister and sister-in-law to all these games, and they would have to sit on the stands and listen to all this garbage. The boys would be playing ball, they'd be doing what they had to do on the field between the lines. And they'd be sitting up on the bench and they'd be getting into it, they had to fight just as much as the boys, and they would fight. She took it harder than my dad, and I remember her just sitting there and saying, 'Boomer, you be careful out there'."

Boomer's sister, Beulah Cuzzens, recalled one particular game. "The Stars were treated just like Jackie Robinson. I went into Blenheim one day to watch the Stars play ball. I taught down in Shrewsbury, so I got there a little early and the kids along the road said, 'Well, I see the darkies are arrivin'. That was me. And a little later, our team came along, and we were called all the names that they called people in those days."

Leaving town following a game, the All-Stars would often literally fight their way out, standing back-to-back and shoving through hostile mobs, throwing punches where necessary. Gradually, however, crowds that came to jeer left with respect, recognizing that many of the players on this team were professional caliber. Earl "Flat" Chase was a major league talent in the eyes of everyone who saw him. Following one stellar performance, the Chatham Daily News dubbed Chase the "Kolored King of the Klout," recognizing his achievement even as it invoked the Ku Klux Klan. In an interview with The London Free Press published on September 7, 1978, Boomer Harding said, "There's no question in anybody's mind who ever saw him [Chase] that he would have been a major leaguer had it not been for the colour barrier."

Ferguson Jenkins Sr. was another talented player for the All-Stars who would only see Major League Baseball through the eyes of his son, Fergie Jenkins Jr. After spending the 1932 season exclusively barnstorming, the 1933 Chatham Coloured All-Stars were admitted into Chatham's City League with the help of white business owner and local Ontario Baseball Amateur Association representative Archie Stirling. The following season, 1934, the Coloured All-Stars defeated the C.C.

Braggs Insurance team three games to none to win the Chatham City League. Stirling continued his support of the team after they captured the city league title, setting his sights on the provincially sanctioned playoffs. In addition to owning a variety store in Chatham's East End, and founding the city's first playground and pool, Archie Stirling would spend a lifetime building baseball and hockey teams that became ongoing sources of civic pride. As the sponsor of the team, Stirling offered free ice cream to any youth bringing back a home-run ball from an All-Stars game.

In most leagues of the time, including Major League Baseball and the Ontario Baseball Amateur Association (OBAA), the colour line was well defended but unwritten. Stirling made sure his team got a chance to compete for a provincial title by removing "Coloured" from the team's name as it appeared on the entry form. "They worried that they may not be accepted because of their colour, but we got around that," said Stirling, who would later be nicknamed Mr. Baseball in Chatham. "We just signed the certificates and mentioned nothing of the Coloured All-Stars. They were entered as the Chatham All-Stars."

Allowed into the competition, Chatham was not to be defeated, first ousting the Sarnia Red Sox, then the Welland Terriers. As the team continued winning, the tone of the local media started to change. By the time the All-Stars faced Milton in the semi-finals, the newspapers considered the team as a representative of Chatham and a source of civic pride. The crowds grew larger, with a number of genuine white baseball fans dotting the fences and stands.

The team beat Milton and advanced to the Ontario championship representing the Western Counties. No Chatham team had ever won an Ontario baseball title, and no all-Black team had won a Canadian provincial championship. Once the Ontario title was in sight, the Chatham All-Stars became even more determined. In the first game of the OBAA final, the All-Stars defeated Penetang in extra innings in front of throngs of hometown supporters. After they lost the next game in a hotly disputed one-run contest, thestage was set for a third and deciding game, scheduled to take place on neutral ground in Guelph.

In his interview with the University of Windsor's research team, Boomer Harding described that final game. "They wouldn't have us in Penetang, they were very prejudiced, that was the only trouble. In Guelph on that day, we moved into the same hotel they were, and they moved out as soon as they found out we moved in."

On a sunny afternoon in mid-October, the teams took to the field, neither willing to concede. Tied 2–2 in the top of the eleventh inning, the Chatham All-Stars came to bat and scored a run, edging ahead 3-2. The players and crowd could feel victory approaching. Flat Chase had already struck out twelve batters; now he had a chance to close out the series.

Penetang came to bat and Chase threw a dagger. Strike one. A few pitches later, Chase had struck out the first Penetang batter. The All-Stars' dugout hummed with nervous excitement; a celebration was only minutes away. Victory seemed imminent until the home plate umpire and the umpire standing behind second base simultaneously raised their arms, stopping the game. They called the game "on account of darkness," inexplicably reverted the score to a 2–2 tie, and hurriedly left the field.

"It's hard to believe but I can still see the two guys throwing up their arms in the air, they must have had a pre-arranged signal because they just took out running. There was no talking to them, they just jumped in their cars and were gone. There was no way we were going to win that game," Harding recalled.

As Harding's son Blake explained to me, "The Penetanguishene series. Why'd they call the game on account of darkness? Well, it was on account of darkness, dark because there were nine Black players out there, that's why it was too dark."

With a fourth and deciding game now slated for the next day, Archie Stirling had a new umpire and officiating crew brought in from Hamilton. This time, the Chatham All-Stars overwhelmed their opponent, winning 13–7 and capturing the provincial title.

On the mound, Flat Chase bested Penetang's Phil Marchildon, who would go on to play seven seasons of Major League Baseball in the 1940s. Flat Chase—widely recognized as a Major League-quality talent—went back to driving a garbage truck and playing as an amateur. Later, he'd become the first Black player in team history to win a Canadian title with the renowned London Majors.

Every town loves a winner, even if they don't love the players on the team, and 2,000 people greeted the champions when they returned to Chatham. "When they won the series and they came into town they were riding on the sides of the cars and everything and the whole town was jammed at King and Fifth Street to meet them. And they just hollered and cheered them because nothing like that had ever happened in Chatham before and they had all kinds of white fans, coloured fans . . . They were all-Ontario winners and everybody jumped on the bandwagon," said John Olbey, the younger brother of All-Stars member Cliff Olbey during a 2016 interview for Breaking the Colour Barrier.

Mayor Isaac Davis opined that, "Chatham will win other ball championships, but we'll always remember it was the coloured boys who led the way." In nearby Buxton, where several members of the All-Stars were born, the win was celebrated with equal zeal. The Black community was not only visible, it mattered. "We won!" said Pauline Williams, whose uncles, Hyle and Stanton Robbins, were members of the 1934 team. "It was a happy time—a big, big, big thing. Buxton won."

In Legacy to Buxton, Arlie Robbins writes, "The winning of this Championship brought a great boost to the morale of the coloured people of southwestern Ontario whose spirits were at a low ebb because of the discouraging effects of the Depression and local prejudices."

Excerpted with permission,Tidewater Press, from Ian Kennedy's "On Account of Darkness - Shining Light on Race and Sport" Chapter 5 'The Home Team wears White." 



David Giddens produces and writes and edits for CBC Sports. POV writing and podcast are his main areas of attention.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?