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"If You Were Only White"
The Life of Leroy "Satchel" Paige
By Donald Spivey
University of Missouri Copyright © 2012 Donald Spivey
All right reserved.
Chapter One Without a Satchel
Leroy Robert Page (the change in spelling of the last name is a story in itself) was born on the wrong side of the tracks in a hostile South that had long ago defined him and his kind as just another "throwaway nigger." There was little or no real expectation that he could rise much above that, except for the faint hope and prayers of those who loved him. The challenges of his environment and childhood forged in him an inner toughness and resiliency. It was either succumb or survive. He chose the latter, which would characterize his life and career.
Being from the wrong side of the tracks was an ever-present reality for the Page family. For black folk in Alabama's oldest city, Mobile, and throughout America in 1900, "the other side of the tracks" was an apt metaphor of the all too real racial divide that plagued the nation and segregated Greater Mobile's rapidly growing population of 62,740, nearly half of whom were people of African descent. When you are from the wrong side, that side tainted as black, poor, lower class, unwanted, and unwelcome, your world is restricted, relegated, and in so many respects hopeless. The setting was becoming worse in Mobile with the passage of the new State Constitution of Alabama in 1901 that disfranchised the majority of African Americans and mandated the enforcement of the color line. The state capital in Montgomery was awash with Jim Crow legislation that made that city a bastion of segregation. Mobile, once considered more moderate in its race relations, passed new ordinances tightening the color line, as whites' fear of blacks intensified with the increase in the African American population.
This was the world of the Page family, the world that Leroy inherited. They were dirt-poor and, commensurate with their lowly status, lacked every conceivable amenity associated with a good life. The Page family lived at 754 South Franklin Street, down by Mobile Bay. They were on the so-called other side of Government Street, the well-known divide between North and South Mobile and white and black Mobilians. No signs were posted indicating that if your skin color was dark, you were restricted to live south of Government and near the railroad tracks down by Mobile Bay, but everyone knew it from long experience, and painful reminders, if you were caught where you did not belong.
A new slavery of tenant farming, sharecropping, domestic service, convict lease, and common labor defined the role and place of black Mobilians like the Pages. John Page, the family patriarch, was born in 1877 in Albemarle, Virginia. He was the only son of Charles and Julia Page, two lifelong field hands who had both been born in slavery. As a young man John worked his way to Mobile on a tramp steamer, searching for a different and better way of life for himself. There he met Lula Coleman, a hardworking domestic. Lula was three years John's senior, born in 1874 in Choctaw, Alabama. She was the second of three children to Osena Coleman, who had been born into slavery in North Carolina and widowed only a few years after Lula's birth. Lula Coleman and John Page fell in love and were married. The actual date of their nuptials is uncertain. The results of their unison were not debatable. Their first child, Ellen, was born in 1896. They would have Ruth, John Jr., Julia, and Wilson, before their sixth child, Leroy, was born in 1906.
There would be considerable controversy and media speculation years later about the actual date of Leroy Page's birth. Census reports and family memory leave little doubt of the correctness of the year. The precise day and month of his birth remain open to speculation. Leroy was not born in a hospital, where the recording of birth would have been a routine matter. Mobile did have a small hospital facility, but it was a product of its times and the racial restrictions that whites mandated and blacks were obliged to obey. The hospital provided a modicum of service to those blacks so desperate and in need of care that they had no choice but to put up with the indignities of the Negro ward, which consisted of one room off the basement area. For something as "routine" as having babies, the black women of Mobile had them at home.
Leroy, like his brothers and sisters and countless other African Americans in the South, came into this world at the hands of a midwife. Lula Page was a well-experienced hand at having children, as was the midwife who had delivered hundreds of babies previously. Afterward, the name and date of birth of her new arrival were, reportedly, dutifully recorded in the family Bible. Unfortunately, that Bible evidently vanished years later. Since it was fairly common for state authorities in the South to neglect to officially document black births, many went unrecorded or uncertified until employment or other demands necessitated it years after the fact. The document that would authenticate Leroy Page's date of birth was issued as the result of a formal request for proof of birth made in 1954. The Office of Vital Statistics in Mobile, upon receipt of the formal petition, followed its stated procedure in these matters and conducted an investigation, which consisted of asking questions and taking into consideration whatever evidence available, including hearing from surviving family members and other witnesses. The office then issued a certification of birth. It may well be that Leroy Page was born in some month other than July and on some day other than the seventh, perhaps days or months earlier or later, but the year was in all likelihood correct and the date of July 7 at least a close approximation if not the absolute date of his birth. Four more siblings would be added to the Page household after Leroy: Palestine, Clarence, Lula, and Inez, a total of six girls and four boys. There was also a set of twin boys, but they died prematurely.
A family of twelve was large but not uncommon for the rural South or an emerging southern city such as Mobile. Neither would be the toil and sacrifice needed for the Page family to survive. They, like so many others, lived in a small shotgun house. One could have literally stood at the front door of the house and fired a shotgun from front to back without hitting much of anything. The four rooms were set two to each side in a simple A-frame box construction.
This, nevertheless, was home, and John and Lula tried their best to make it work. The place, as they say, kept the rain off their heads—for the most part—and, despite the sweltering heat in summer and cold in winter, the family was together and doing their best to eke out an existence.
Young Leroy and the rest of the children saw little of their father. Leroy later recounted that he never knew his father well and could "only remember pieces and snatches about him. He wasn't hardly a part of my life." It is not that John Page was a bad man. He would be defined as a poor father in large part because he was never around to share time and experiences with his children.
John worked at least two jobs and picked up other work whenever and wherever he could find it. Work on the docks at the Mobile Shipyard was something that black men could often count on, as did John. Ships needed to be loaded and unloaded. A good, strong back and willingness to work for long stretches at a time were the only requirements.
The problem was that laboring on the docks kept you away from home for days on end, as was the case for James Radcliffe, the father of Mobile-born and future Negro Leagues legendary player Theodore "Double Duty" Radcliffe, who worked long hours and days at the shipyard and did construction work to support a family, also of twelve. The requirements would be no different thirty years later when Herbert Aaron worked the same docks for long periods of time away from his wife, Estella, and their eight children, including a young son named Henry. Yet when Herbert Aaron was home he gave time and attention to his family and even taught his young son how to play baseball. When that young son later became the legendary Hank Aaron, the home run king of Major League Baseball, he credited his father for having taught him the game.
When John Page was home he was usually too tired to spend much time with Leroy and his siblings. There would be no family fishing expeditions or leisurely talks between a father and his children or backyard lessons from him on how to play baseball. Thus, young Leroy had no adult male role model to properly tutor and nurture him on becoming a man.
Mother Lula was the pillar of the family. In Leroy's own words, his mother was "the real boss of our house, not dad." A part-time domestic and full-time washerwoman, she was often found at the side of the house laboring over a steaming cauldron full of white folks' dirty sheets, spreads, undergarments, dresses and trousers, shirts and blouses. But she was at home and available to the children.
Leroy remembered how his mother ran the show like a military operation, with her primary attention on feeding the family. Food was always an issue and in short supply. To mother Lula's credit, diligence, and ability to stretch resources, the Page children always received something to eat. Some meals were extremely sparse, at times just biscuits and gravy, but at least it was there, and the children gobbled it down without complaints. Leroy and the family were fortunate that Lula Page was a superb cook. She could make the most meager of meals taste delightful.
Lula Page cooked the food, but everyone contributed, even Leroy when he was old enough. Mother Page's earnings and those of her husband were nowhere near enough to keep a family of twelve afloat. All of the Page children were expected to pitch in. "We all gave our money to mom so she could get food. She took real pains with what she bought," Leroy reminisced. "That was why I can't remember us ever missing a meal. We didn't always have a belly-busting dish full, but we had something. Mom made sure everybody got their share. She'd stand at the table and ladle out the food, looking real close at each spoonful."
In Leroy's household and throughout the black South, if you were big enough to walk, you were big enough to do some kind of work and in short order to find a way to earn whatever you could on the outside to contribute to the family coffers. From the age of seven, Leroy Page had settled into a routine of hustling around town to make money—pennies and nickels and an occasional dime or two—venturing along roadsides to retrieve discarded bottles, hopefully Fosko or Dr. Pepper soda pop bottles that fetched a penny each, or less desirable beer bottles that took two or three or more to garner a penny. Fosko empties were preferred because the company was headquartered in Mobile, just across the divide from the Page family and the black community, at 9 North Franklin Street, in the low-rent commercial district. Some of the favorite fishing spots down by the Bay were always good for a few discarded moneymakers. The folks fishing relished an occasional soda pop or beer and might on chance or on purpose discard an empty bottle or two.
The daily toll of survival for Leroy and his brothers and sisters made play a rarity. The Page children never had many toys. The six girls shared two dolls. Other than that, there were no dollhouses, train sets, BB guns, cap pistols, or toy soldiers. Leroy would forever regret having missed out on a real childhood free of adult-size worries. When he did play, it was often nothing more than to run around outside in a game of tag or frolic in the dirt or explore the fields. The children often engaged in wrestling and games of marksmanship, throwing pebbles at tin cans and sometimes at one another, which Leroy loved to do and at which he was extremely good.
His typical clothing during the early years of childhood left him with many bitter memories. His wardrobe ranged from soiled diapers to raggedy shirts that came down to his knees. He, like most poor children in the South, black and white, went shoeless most of the time. Leroy received his first pair of shoes at age nine, hand-me-downs from John Jr., to Wilson, to him. Shoes were, if you were lucky enough to have any, saved for Sundays and church and other special occasions. As a middle child with two older brothers, Leroy's entire meager wardrobe consisted exclusively of hand-me-downs. When he grew taller than his older brothers, secondhand clothes were still the rule, and a source of great personal embarrassment for him. He often had on shirts and pants that were much too short for him. He was a funny-looking sight to the other children, tall and lanky with desperately undersized clothing that made him look even taller, a clothing dilemma that rapidly escalated because of the quick pace he grew. He never forgot how it hurt when his playmates teased him for looking like a scarecrow in his desperately too short pants and shirts.
Leroy was often the brunt of jokes owing to his clothing, but he quickly learned to give as well as he got. He excelled at the art of "playing the dozens," the old West African game of signifying and a fixture of African American cultural life, the art of the game being to top your opponent's verbal jousts with superior comebacks. That skill would remain with him all through his life, and he well applied it. The playmate who said, "You need to tell your folks to buy you some clothes!" was likely to hear from Leroy in reply something along the lines of "That's okay. You need to tell your folks to buy you a new face!" The whooping and laughter of the other playmates would designate the victor. The signifying might go on for several rounds or more. To say something about someone else's mother, however, was strictly taboo and could turn the verbal jousts from words to fisticuffs, with someone likely going home with a bloody nose.
Name calling occurred all the time in Leroy's world. Playmates and friends routinely gave each other a pet name. In African American culture a nickname was virtually mandatory. If playmates and friends knew that one among their ranks had a particular love for eating pork chops or neck bones or chitlins, for example, that individual ran the risk of forever being known as Pork Chops or Neck Bone or Chitlins. A friend who had an addiction for cornbread found himself soon being called Cornbread. A playmate slow at becoming toilet trained might well find himself addressed among old friends for the rest of his life as Stinky. One of Leroy's playmates he dubbed "Two Fingers," although he had all of his fingers, "but he never could count past the second." To be given a nickname was also a badge of honor. It meant that you had endeared yourself to others or at least distinguished yourself as an individual. In a sense it was a right of passage, a childhood thing that might very well follow you into adulthood and to the grave.
What Leroy loved to do as a child was to go fishing. A good cane pole or just some fishing line and a hook, a can of worms—preferably red worms but night crawlers would suffice—and Leroy and friends were set to catch fish. The entire black community of Mobile loved fishing, young and old, men and women, boys and girls alike. Next to fishing, Leroy enjoyed throwing at things. As he got older he became better and better at it. A discarded tin can was a favorite target, and he loved to set them up and knock them down. In a makeshift game of baseball, played at first with a stick and rock in lieu of a bat and a baseball, Leroy's playmates took turns trying their best to hit his pitched rock ball with rarely any success unless he slowed it down on purpose. After a while, none of the other kids wanted to engage Leroy in a rock contest and certainly not in a rock battle. He would literally spend hours each day just throwing at things. One of his childhood friends later swore that Leroy, at eight or nine years of age, "could hit a fly in flight with a rock."
Pebbles and rocks came in very handy for Leroy on more than one occasion. The Pages had their own chicken coop out in back of the house. Mother Lula would send one of the boys to fetch her one or two of the birds for supper on special occasions. Young Leroy did not like the idea of hacking off the chicken's head and certainly not the common practice of taking the bird by the neck and popping it like a whip. He watched his older brothers inflict that lethal practice on many a chicken. John Jr. sometimes popped the chicken's neck and then dropped the bird on the ground to the entertainment of the other boys and to the horror of their sisters, as the chicken, with its head dangling, ran about for a few seconds before finally succumbing to the injury.
Leroy's rock marksmanship was put to use when the command came from mother Lula for him to go and fetch a chicken. With rock in hand, he would open the coop and then move off to a quiet distance of thirty feet or more to allow the unsuspecting birds to strut about freely. He then took aim with his rock at the plumpest of the fowl and let rip with precise and instantaneous results.
He engaged in rock hunts that contributed to the family table. Mother Lula accepted his offerings with gratitude and made squirrel and rabbit stews or fried them up just right. There were countless occasions in the Page household that the results of Leroy's hunt helped make the meal for that evening or at least added meat to the pot. Young Leroy varied his hunts. Some days he went out specifically after birds. He occasionally might spot a duck or two on the shore down by the Bay. They made easy targets for him and a very tasty main attraction at dinner.
Excerpted from "If You Were Only White" by Donald Spivey Copyright © 2012 by Donald Spivey. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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