How I Identified The Earliest Surviving Film Footage of African American Baseball Players

Clip from a home movie of a baseball game between African American employees of the Pebble Hill and Chinquapin Plantations, Georgia, 1919?” Pebble Hill Plantation Collection, Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection, University of Georgia Libraries, Athens, Georgia

In 2011, we received a donation of films from Pebble Hill Plantation in Thomasville, Georgia, spanning from 1916 into the 1970s. Pebble Hill was the winter hunting retreat for the Hanna family of Cleveland, Ohio, prominent industrialists and politicians. 

One of the most important segments of all the films in the collection was 26 seconds of 28mm film showing Pebble Hill’s black baseball team playing Chinquapin Plantation’s black baseball team sometime in the 1910s or 1920s. We knew right away that this was unique footage and would be of interest to many people, so once the collection was more fully processed and the film preserved to a new substrate and digitized, we began to publicize it. An article in the New York Times on April 30, 2013, gave us worldwide publicity. 

The head of the Negro Leagues Museum then speculated that this might be the earliest footage of African Americans playing baseball. I presented the footage and spoke at the 2014 Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. My co-presenter on the panel was professor Leslie Heaphy of Kent State University, the editor of the journal Black Ball: New Research in African American Baseball History. She encouraged me to write up the story of the film and my research into dating it more precisely (to find out if it really was the earliest surviving black baseball footage) for her journal, which I was finally able to do in 2018, and volume 10 of that journal is now out with my article.

Describing my research into the film involved more than just telling my general knowledge about film after 20 years of working in a film archives. I had to document how and where I learned about the history of 28mm film, Pathéscope cameras and projectors, home movies, Pebble Hill, the baseball team, and South Georgia baseball in general. I combed Pebble Hill’s private archives, browsed books on the local history of the county, contacted colleagues at the Jack Hadley Black History Museum and the Thomasville History Center, looked into the accounts of other South Georgia plantations, explored Hanna family history in Ohio, and peppered the staff of Pebble Hill with many questions. 

Very helpfully, the Pebble Hill archives also contain Pansy Hanna Ireland Poe’s diary covering the years in question, 1915-1925, though the handwriting is challenging to read. I even needed weather reports from newspapers and climatological websites that could tell me what the weather was like at certain times of the year. Finally, I required obituaries, mentions of the hospital, and social event data.

Thankfully, the Digital Library of Georgia had already digitized many newspapers from the region (full-text searchable!). This work saved me many hours of peering at and being made dizzy and cross-eyed from reading small-print newspapers of the nineteen-teens on microfilm readers. 

The newspapers gave me a sense of what was important in the area between 1915 and 1925, visitors to the town, what the weather was like, what townsfolk were doing. To provide context to the story of this film, I was looking for any mention of regional hunting plantations, baseball teams, or games, a general sense of baseball in the area, what other teams existed, and mentions of African American ballplayers. 

One of my favorite issues of the digitized Thomasville Daily Times-Enterprise is from May 1, 1913, several days ahead of the town’s opening day of the baseball season. Almost every page in that issue contains notices from businesses in town letting everyone know that on May 5, opening day, they’d be “Closed. Gone to baseball game. Will open immediately after game.” 

The Daily times-enterprise. (Thomasville, Ga.) 1889-1925, May 01, 1913, Page 1, courtesy of Georgia Historic Newspapers

As William Warren Rogers stated in his books on Thomas County, baseball was an obsession in Thomasville. I could see that it really was a baseball-mad town. This helps explain why local plantations had baseball teams, though I have also been disappointed to see that black plantation team results of those years are rarely mentioned. Some non-plantation black team games are mentioned, though not nearly as much detail as white town teams.

I will always be looking for more information from South Georgia that will illuminate stories from Pebble Hill, and the DLG is one of my best sources.

Margaret Compton
Film Archivist
Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection

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Digitizing and Describing Moving Image Content Reaches New Users

I honestly don’t know how many times I’ve heard or read the phrase “I saw it in the Civil Rights Digital Library and I’m wondering if…” all I know is it has been a lot. The Civil Rights Digital Library (CRDL) is a digital portal that is part of a partnership between the Digital Library of Georgia (DLG) and my department, the Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection (BMA) at the University of Georgia Libraries that has lasted for over 10 years now. About 30 hours worth of content from the BMA’s WSB and WALB Newsfilm collections were digitized and described for that project.

The impact to BMA of having digital content out there via the DLG has been profound. I believe it has truly changed one of the ways people find us. To have our content go out through the DLG and then through the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) which launched in 2013 can be seen in our use statistics. I know not every request for content comes to us at BMA, because content is discovered through these portals, but I’m guessing some do– having items in DLG and DPLA just makes people aware that we exist and might have content they are interested in. We have continued to digitize newsfilm content over the years, so now there are over 12,000 clips available to view online and share through the DLG.

In 2009, we had 152 requests for content from BMA to be digitized or used for viewing by students, faculty, general researchers, and producers. In 2017, that number grew to 1173 items, an increase of 671%. Ten years ago, getting the content together for digitization was challenging, now, it is something we do every day because we have the equipment and tools to do the work in-house. In the age of YouTube and Netflix, most users expect online access to audiovisual content and that is what we aim to provide.

Working with the DLG has been incredibly beneficial. We’ve had content digitized, but we’ve also had content described, and to me that has been a huge value to us. In some ways the digitization is the easier part because it can be outsourced to a vendor or we can digitize for ourselves, but because we are small department the need for describing the content is where we need the most help. Most recently we have been working with the DLG on home movie and town film collections from Georgia through one of their subgrant awards. This labor intensive, crucially important work to provide description is the only way to be able to find the content accurately. Describing content requires analysis, some historical perspective, and an eye for detail, and the DLG does that very well. For the Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection, collaborating with the Digital Library of Georgia has always been a win-win.

–Ruta Abolins, Director,  Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection

Featured image: Still image from WSB-TV newsfilm clip of mayor Ivan Allen, Jr. escorting Coretta Scott King away from Hartsfield International Airport immediately after learning about the death of her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Atlanta, Georgia, 1968 April 4 http://dlg.galileo.usg.edu/crdl/do:ugabma_wsbn_53565

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