May 26th, 2014
I concluded an earlier column in this space, about the dedication of Sol White’s grave marker, with: “While no family came to Sol’s aid in his last years, his burial record listed his marital state as “separated” … so further research may yet reveal whether he was survived at death by his wife or any children.” Talking about this state of affairs on that day with baseball historian Jim Overmyer, I was hoping that he would pick up the baton, and he has done so, splendidly, in the article below. This was preceded by his haring some of his genealogical finds with me via email. Jim is the author of two books and a contributor to several others on Negro League baseball. He was a member of the special committee which elected Sol White and 16 other black baseball players and executives to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. He is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and its Negro League and Nineteenth Century committees.
Sol White, the nineteenth century black player who became a manager and front office executive in the Negro Leagues, received a long overdue honor on May 10 when a headstone on his previously unmarked grave was dedicated in an African-American cemetery in New York City. White, the last deceased member of the Baseball Hall of Fame to have a gravestone, was remembered for his exploits on the playing field and the dugout, but also for his writing. He was black baseball’s first historian. Sol White’s History of Colored Baseball, published in 1907, is the starting point for black baseball scholars following his path.
Later a baseball columnist for African-American newspapers, White’s body of work tells much about the black part of professional baseball. Despite all his writing, he left precious little behind when he died in 1955 about his 86-year personal life. The praise he received on May 10 was almost completely about his baseball career. He somehow managed to avoid being enumerated in the U.S. Census between 1900 and 1930, although he may have been counted in 1920, and family information was mostly limited to the scraps in his obituary and what has been discovered about his early years in his hometown of Bellaire, Ohio.
But hardly anyone remains anonymous in the Internet age, even if he has been dead for almost 59 years. King Solomon White (he always seems to have gone by his middle name) left a clue behind: his death certificate states that, although “separated,” he had a wife, Florence Fields. Running that clue through genealogical websites and online historical African-American newspapers has turned up the outlines of White’s domestic life, although in truth it doesn’t seem to have been very domestic, and had its unhappy episodes.
White was 37 and managing the Philadelphia Giants, a premier black team in the era before the Negro Leagues were founded, when he and Florence went the short distance from Philadelphia to Delaware, probably Wilmington, to get married on Thursday, March 15, 1906. Florence was 19 and a Philadelphia native (she lived with her parents, George and Joanna). It’s not clear why Sol and Florence would have gone to Delaware to get married, but she was three months pregnant at the time with their first child, and it’s possible, though speculative, that relations with George and Joanna might not have been completely cordial. The Fields residence at 854 Watt Street was where the family lived in April 1908, however, when the child, Paran Walter White (named after one of Sol’s brothers), died of kidney disease, at the age of a year and a half. His death followed the passing in August 1907 of a baby boy who had only lived two days.
A daughter, Marion, was born in 1909 and survived to adulthood, outliving her father. She and her mother were still living with the Fields family in April 1910 when that census was taken. Sol might well have been residing in New York City at point, having been hired to manage the Brooklyn Royal Giants that season. But Florence and Marion are counted again with Mr. and Mrs. Fields in the 1920 census, and then with Mr. Fields in 1930 (his wife having died). Sol never appears in the household, and in 1930 Florence is identified as a “widow,” although her husband would live for 25 years more. White by then had spent several summers in the baseball business, from the Eastern Seaboard to Ohio, and Florence White was pretty likely a “baseball widow,” a spouse given short shrift by her husband in favor of his occupation. But informing a census taker is like filing an official report. Possibly Florence’s attitude was that her wandering husband was “dead to me.”
There is little information about even White’s professional whereabouts between 1912, when he left his last Eastern team, and 1921, when he successfully lobbied for a Negro National League team in Columbus, Ohio. While the accuracy of census and other information about him is not as definitive as the Philadelphia information about his family, it appears that White was living in Columbus at least a few years earlier than the creation of his Columbus Buckeyes in 1921. As early as February 1918 the black newspaper the Chicago Defender wrote about Sol’s desire to run a team in Columbus. In 1919 he was writing a regular baseball column for the black Cleveland Advocate, openly pushing for a major black team in Columbus and writing about a game there on July 4 between a visiting black team and a local white squad in such detail that it seemed that he must have been there.
He probably was. The 1920 Columbus census has only one White named Sol, or Solomon, for that matter, living in the city. This man was a light-skinned Negro (Mulatto was the census-taking term, and that was a good physical description for Sol) employed as a house servant in a well-off white household. This would seem to be quite a comedown for a leading black baseball figure, but remember that White had been out of that business for awhile and undoubtedly wasn’t making much money writing a sports column for an African-American weekly. The Sol White in the census was 49 when the headcount was taken in January, while the baseball Sol would have been 51, but genealogists who use census reports know that through reporting or recording errors, small discrepancies over facts such as age aren’t unusual. The Columbus Sol White lists his parents as having been born in West Virginia, though, while the 1870 census of the White family taken when Sol was only two says his mother, the head of the family then, was born in Virginia. This seeming discrepancy might not be one, however. The Whites lived on the Ohio side of the Ohio River, across from Wheeling, West Virginia. Wheeling, of course, was in Virginia when Julia White was born in 1838, but changed states, without moving an inch, when the western half of the state split off to remain in the Union at the time of the Civil War.
The William D. Brickell in whose house the Columbus Sol lived was owner of a brick-making company, but this was his second career. He had been a newspaperman, owner of the Columbus daily paper, the Dispatch, until 1910. There he was credited with launching the career of Ralph W. Tyler, an aspiring reporter who became one of the leading black journalists in the Midwest in the years before and after World War I. Tyler was the editor of the Cleveland Advocate, the paper that published White’s baseball columns in 1919. It’s not too much of a stretch to conceive of a relationship among the three men, most likely centering on Tyler’s friendship with both, that could lead to Sol living in the Brickell household.
There is at least a possibility that White and Tyler traveled together to Chicago in June 1920 to attend the Republican national convention at which Ohio favorite son Warren G. Harding was nominated for the Presidency. It’s clear they both attended. Tyler was there to cover the events. And the Defender’s Cleveland correspondent noted in his June 12 report that “Sol White of Columbus passed through the city Friday en route to the convention in Chicago.” The facts supporting the Columbus information on White don’t come as neatly wrapped up as those from Philadelphia that document the life of Florence Fields. But the circumstantial evidence, as it accumulates, is strong.
This is also the case with the later threads of the Philadelphia portion of the story, which continues on at the same time. In the 1940 census Florence White, her father now also apparently passed on, (and still calling herself a widow) is a lodger in someone else’s house in Philadelphia, working as a “tassel maker” in a factory that makes decorative fringe. Another lodger there is a black restaurant worker named Charles Ewell. Ewell, at 32, is 21 years younger than Florence, and presumably of no particular interest to her. But, she’s still got a daughter, now 31. Marion isn’t with her mother in 1940, and doesn’t show up in the Philadelphia census. But, over in Harrisburg resides a Marian White, of the correct race and age, working as a government stenographer. This might not be Sol’s daughter, but it’s certainly possible that she might have adopted the more usual feminine form of her first name. And she is the only female African-American Marian (or Marion) White of approximately the correct age recorded in Pennsylvania in this census who isn’t either a wife of a man named White or the daughter of different parents.
Wherever she was in 1940, by 1955 Sol White’s daughter may well have been married to Florence’s fellow lodger. Sol’s obituary in the New York Amsterdam News listed a daughter, “Mrs. Charles Ewell,” among the survivors. A Charles Ewell served in the military during World War II, making him eligible for a postwar bonus from the State of Pennsylvania. His 1950 application for the money identifies his beneficiary as “Marian V. Ewell” of 1603 Oxford Street in Philadelphia. Subsequent phone and city directories have the couple at the same address into the 1990s. Then, the Social Security Death Index, which records the particulars of recipients who have received their last monthly government check (when they died, in other words), notes the passing of a Marian V. Ewell, born in 1909, in Pittsburgh in September 1992.
Is this the same Marian Ewell? Who knows, at this point. And if it is, what’s she doing in Pittsburgh, rather than Philadelphia? That’s another good question. The resolution of these points are important, because when Sol White was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, he had no known descendants. Commissioner Selig accepted the plaque on the family’s behalf. If the group of researchers working to uncover White’s genealogical details find that the Pittsburgh Marian Ewell is, in fact, his daughter (or that there was a different Marian Ewell who may have never left Philadelphia), there is a chance that grandchildren or great-grandchildren may be located. Already Ralph Carhart, a Society for American Baseball Research member from New York who spoke about White’s baseball accomplishments at the cemetery, has been on the telephone contacting people named Ewell in the Pittsburgh phonebook, and recruiting a few to do some further digging for him there. Stay tuned.