Durham Bulls pay tribute to North Carolina’s Negro League baseball history

At the bottom of the third inning, Durham Bulls’ second baseman Ronny Simon hits a home run, putting the Bulls ahead of the Gwinnett Stripers, 1-0.

The crowd goes wild as he rounds the bases. But when he runs into home, he’s not doing it in a typical white Bulls jersey.

A crowd of fans cheers as Bulls second baseman Ronny Simon arrives at home plate after hitting a home run. He is wearing a black and white Black Sox jersey. Reporter Olivia Haynie is in the foreground of the photo, watching.

Sofia Basurto

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for WUNC

Youth Reporter Olivia Haynie watches as Bulls second baseman Ronny Simon, wearing a Black Sox replica jersey, arrives at home plate after hitting a home run on Aug. 19, 2023.
Bulls players warm up on the field while wearing black and white Black Sox replica jerseys. The screen behind them displays

Sofia Basurto

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for WUNC

Durham Bulls players warm up before the African-American Heritage Night game while wearing black and white Black Sox replica jerseys.

On this day, Aug. 19, the Bulls are wearing the uniforms of the Durham Black Sox, one of the Negro Minor League teams that used to exist in North Carolina. This game marks the Bulls’ Second Annual African-American Heritage Night. It’s also part of The Nine, a Minor League Baseball (MiLB) initiative launched in 2022 that aims to bring more attention to the history of Black players in baseball and increase diversity in the future of the sport.

In February, I got an email from the Bulls advertising the game. My first thought was, “Durham used to have Negro League teams?”

As a Black baseball fan myself, I am fairly invested in the history of Black presence in baseball. So how did I not know my hometown’s own Negro League History?

On the Durham Bulls’ website, I found a picture of the Black Sox from 1938. A Facebook post from the G.C. Frances and the Hawley Museum listed the players’ last names which had been written on the back of the photo. This was virtually all I could find online about the Black Sox.

I tried every combination of search words I could think of. I scoured digitized archives of Black Newspapers dating back to the 1870’s. Sometimes, I would come up with the full name of a player. But when I went to look for that player’s obituary or a list of surviving relatives, I came up empty-handed.

I did find the name of sports historian, Bijan Bayne, who had done research on Negro Minor League teams in the South. When I interviewed him, he told me some interesting facts about the Black Sox and one of their more notable players.

“They were a very, very high-level, Black semipro team, like just a smidge below the Negro National League and Negro American League,” said Bayne. “It would be like being a Triple-A player, nowadays — a step away from the major leagues. So that’s what they were, and they pretty much only played cities, major-sized cities in North Carolina.”

This included teams like the Charlotte Black Hornets, the Charlotte Silk Sox and the Raleigh Tigers. The Black Sox would travel all over the state to play other Negro League teams.

Bayne also told me about a prominent player from the Black Sox, John Quincy Barbee, better known as “Bud” Barbee. Bud and his brother William Barbee were both players for the Black Sox, but Bud was exceptional.

Bud Barbee

R. Kelly Bryant Papers and Obituary Collection.

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A photo of John Quincy “Bud” Barbee included in his funeral program.

“[He] was so good that he was picked up by stronger teams and better-known teams like the New York Black Yankees,” Bayne said. “He pitched in Mexico, he pitched in Canada; he probably would have been in the major leagues if integration had taken place when he was in his prime.”

I was eventually able to discover that the brothers were buried in Glennview Memorial Cemetery in Durham. One rainy afternoon, I attempted to find their exact plots.

I parked my car on the gravel pathway of the cemetery and walked around for half-an-hour, umbrella in one hand, recorder in the other.

I knew Bud Barbee had served in the military during World War II, so I prioritized plaques that had American flags next to them. I immediately found one that read “Barbee,” but it was not the Barbee I was looking for.

In an INDY article about Bud Barbee’s life, I discovered his grave was unmarked. This took me by surprise. He had been a great player and well-known throughout the Negro League. But he, like the Black Sox, felt lost to history. I wanted to know much more about the Black Sox and about Bud Barbee. What had their record been like? How long did they exist? Who played for them? What happened to the players after the Black Sox ended?

However, where the history is documented for white teams, there’s a gap in the Negro League archives.

Dr. Bruce Adelson, a sports historian and author of “Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor League Baseball in the American South,” encountered this problem in his own research.

“The records aren’t as complete as I think you would like or I would like so it’s tough to research them,” Adelson explained.

A part of the reason is a lack of mainstream press coverage. Although the Black press covered Negro League baseball, with less funding and worse archives compared to white papers, the surviving coverage is scarce.

“Negro League baseball was covered by the Black press, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender,” Dr. Adelson said. “In fact, that was a real eye-opener for me in comparing the sports page from the New York Times in 1952 and the Chicago Defender’s sports page. They talked about very different things, not surprisingly.”

Bayne also found this lack of coverage frustrating.

“You knew these teams existed,” Bayne said. “But you couldn’t trace them over a whole [season] to see like, who else are they playing? How far are they traveling? How many games is this person winning? Did they describe crowd size or attendance in any of the articles? Are there pictures? What did the guys look like?”

 Bulls General Manager Tyler Parsons shows Youth Reporter Olivia Haynie the Durham Black Sox replica jersey.

Allison Swaim

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for WUNC

Durham Bulls general manager Tyler Parsons shows Youth Reporter Olivia Haynie the Durham Black Sox replica jersey.

Another reason coverage was poor is that Negro League baseball eventually came obsolete. According to Bayne, as Major League teams began to integrate in the late 1940’s, Black fans no longer had to rely on Negro League games to see Black players.

“It’s not the novelty that it was when it was a monopoly. It wasn’t as appealing to go watch a Durham team in person,” Mayne explained. “When you could just sit at home in front of your television set by the mid 1950s and watch somebody like Roy Campanella, Don Newcomb play for the actual Brooklyn Dodgers, which the whole country had sanctioned.”

After the Durham Bulls integrated in 1957, and as the team became more and more of a minor league icon, the Negro Leagues that had once played in Durham were forgotten. Current Bulls’ general manager Tyler Parsons told me that through their African-American Heritage Night, the Bulls are hoping to change that.

“Everything we do that night is themed not only towards the Durham Black Sox, but obviously our Black community here. The graphics, the video boards in-game promotions, activities around the ballpark, some of our vendors that we bring out here, it’s all done to kind of shine the spotlight on that,” Parsons said. “And to really tell the story of not only […] their own Black Sox, but our proud historic Black community around here. This is the home of Black Wall Street. So, it was a lot of great history to tell people about.”

At the game, the Bulls played songs that are often heard at African American Family Reunions: “Just Fine” by Mary J. Blige, “Poison” by Bell Bil DeVoe, and “Hey Ya” by OutKast among them. Local Black businesses were given tables at the stadium. The big screen on the field advertised other Black-owned businesses in Durham in between innings.

Parsons told me the Bulls plan to hold more African American heritage nights in the future and want to pay tribute to Durham’s other Negro League teams, the Rams and the Eagles, as well.

By continuing to uplift this history, Durham can honor the legacy of these pioneers in America’s favorite pastime, the way they should have been honored all along.

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