Academic journal article Nine

Syncopated Hits: The Clef Club Negro Baseball Team in Jazz-Age Paris

Academic journal article Nine

Syncopated Hits: The Clef Club Negro Baseball Team in Jazz-Age Paris

Article excerpt

In February and March 1940, the New York Amsterdam News ran a five-part story, "12,000 Nights of Entertainment," on the exciting rise and fall of Louis Mitchell's career as a jazz musician and club owner in Paris. To illustrate the third installment of the story, the newspaper published a 1924 photograph of eleven African American ballplayers, one of whom was Mitchell, all resplendent in their new spring uniforms. (1) The team's young mascot, Jackie, sat in front of the players sporting a uniform and holding some equipment. Two overlapping Cs were prominent on the upper left side of the uniforms, signifying the team's name: the Clef Club, named for James Reese Europe's New York music space and booking agency for African American musicians. But this ball team did not play in New York--or in the United States for that matter; rather, it was an all--African American team that played in Paris in 1924 and 1925. Its players, with the notable exception of Rayford Logan, who would become a prominent civil rights activist and professor at Howard University, were musicians who worked the jazz clubs of Montmartre. (2)

A great many African Americans served in France during World War I. The American military was segregated and largely distrusted black soldiers. The French, by contrast, warmly received these soldiers, displaying little to no racism, even when the black soldiers socialized with French women. (3) Moreover, when James Reese Europe joined the New York 369th Infantry Regiment, more affectionately called the Harlem Hellfighters, he was specifically tasked with forming the hottest band possible, and he did. Although the 369th fought bravely and was rightfully decorated by France for their valor, their greater cultural impact was introducing jazz music to the French during the war. (4) After the war, the French celebrated life, and jazz became the soundtrack to les annies folles, the crazy years, the roaring twenties. Given the harsh racial climate in the United States after the war and the opportunities for work and racial equality in France, a number of African Americans traveled to France during the 1920S. In Paris Noir, Tyler Stovall argues, "the African American community in Paris symbolizes the potential of African American life in general once it is fully liberated from the shackles of racism. (5) Many African Americans flourished in Paris, and we rightly celebrate their cultural contributions to music, art, literature, and social thought. (6) The Clef Club baseball team and the Paris Baseball League, also known as the Paris International League, ostensibly left racism off the field, thus foreshadowing the potential African Americans would have in post--World War II amateur and professional sports--and in America.

In early summer 1914, Louis Mitchell arrived in London to play the drums with his Southern Symphony Quintette in a Piccadilly restaurant. He immediately made a splash, but the gig lasted only a few weeks--when World War I broke out, Mitchell and his band evacuated home to New York. But Mitchell did not stay stateside long; he was back in London in spring 1915 playing the drums at Ciro's, a celebrated club. (7) Soon Mitchell was touring Britain with his band, the Seven Spades, just as Americans began flowing into Europe to join the war effort. Of course where Americans went, baseball followed--as did American racism. Recreational baseball leagues were quickly established, such as the Military Hospital Baseball League, which sponsored a game between America and Canada on October 31, 1917, in Belfast. Mitchell, an avid ballplayer, tried to play with the American team, only to be refused by a southerner who exclaimed, "I won't play with that nigger. (8) Indeed he didn't--for a while. On game day, Mitchell sat in the stands, merely a spectator, but in the seventh inning the American pitcher was injured. The manager had to choose either to forfeit the game or, ad hoc, to integrate the team; he wasted no time putting Mitchell on the mound. …

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