The Killing Of Fred Goree: A White Cop, A Buick And Segregation In The Age Of Negro League Baseball
May 31, 2016
This story starts with a question. It comes to Curious City from two sisters who’d asked about their family history, and how Negro League baseball fits in:
We are curious about the history of the Chicago Independent Giants Negro League baseball team. Our grandfather was a manager of the Chicago Independents in the early 1920s.
Their grandfather’s name was Fred Goree, and he was killed in St. Louis on a summer night in 1925. I didn’t know that at the time they asked their question. But the more I learned about him, Chicago baseball, and how the story of his killing intertwines with the present, I decided to veer from our typical format. Often, our stories are bookended by questioners; they provide personal anecdotes about what prompted their curiosity and their takeaways at the end.
This is not the treatment here.
I chose to start with a particular family's story and never lose sight of it because the answer to the questions the sisters have about African-American baseball in Chicago are bound to the death of a particular man. And that death, it turns out, is tied to the inextricable fact that in 1925, African-Americans who loved baseball were forced to run their own separate baseball institutions.
And my takeaway, after interviews with the sisters and historians: You may think you know about African-American baseball if you’ve heard about the Negro Leagues and names like Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell or even Jackie Robinson. But you should know the all-stars owe a lot to people you haven’t heard of, like our questioners’ grandfather, Fred Goree.
February 25, 2016
“Fred was the one,” Rosalind Henderson-Mustafa tells me over the phone. “He was the chosen one. A lot of our family’s future was tied to Fred.”
Kathie Anderson and her sister Rosalind Henderson-Mustafa never knew their grandfather. But sometimes their mother, a one-time Chicago Public Schools gym teacher and world-class potter, would talk about him.
“He was handsome,” Roz tells me. “He was fair-skinned enough that some people didn’t know he was black.”
Fred was the oldest of 12 or 13 siblings, the grandson of a slave-owner who had sold his land to the family and left town after the Civil War. This was Grambling, Louisiana — a place where, even now, it seems like everyone is a Goree, and everyone is a cousin, the sisters tell me. Fred, like many of the men in the family, worked as a brick mason.
“Don’t go down there and claim you’re Fred’s brother,” his mother would tell his siblings while he was at work. “You’re darker. They’ll know he’s black.”
When Goree left Grambling for Chicago in the late 1910s, he found bricklaying work there, too. He made a home in Bronzeville with his wife, Sarah Beth May, and his three kids: LoEsther, Clarence and Eselean, our questioners’ mother.
The sisters tell me their grandfather also managed a baseball team in Chicago. It was called the Chicago Independents, but they say they don’t know much else about it.
“As far as I know the team didn’t play up here, so they’d travel around to play in other places,” Kathie tells me. “He was on his way to Missouri when he was stopped by the police with his team members. And that’s when he was killed.”
“He was killed?” I ask.
“He was murdered,” Roz says.
“He was stopped on the way to a game and beaten up and shot by the police. Twice in the stomach. He was 33.”
“He had a new Buick,” Kathie says. “And, you know, back in the day black folks couldn’t have new cars like that.”
Perhaps even more than information about his team, or league, or about baseball itself, the sisters say they want to know about that trip their grandfather took all those years ago. And that Buick. And those 300 miles driving it from Chicago to St. Charles, Missouri, just west of St. Louis.
That route could be dangerous for a black man in 1925. Goree would have passed dozens of small, nearly all-white towns that were all-white for a reason. He’d pass near places like Lexington, Illinois, where the Ku Klux Klan held fireworks displays and ice cream socials. In Tuscola, Illinois, the town drug store had posted a sign warning black people: “Don’t let the sun set on you here.”
The sisters want to know why would Fred Goree risk the drive for a baseball game.
I’d first thought this was a question about the history of Chicago baseball and I’ve done that kind of story. This is something else entirely. The sisters have high expectations and a long list of questions — about Fred Goree’s place in baseball as well as the circumstances surrounding his death. Among them: Popular media reports from the time suggest Goree was somehow at fault. Are there details that dispute this? If so, why was nobody brought to justice over their grandfather’s death?
For the sisters — and for the rest of us, really — this history isn’t necessarily the past. The sisters remind me their grandfather was killed just 12 miles from Ferguson, Missouri.
Before we end the interview, the sisters suggest I call Jeremy Krock, an anesthesiologist from Peoria, Illinois. As an amateur historian, he’s dedicated years to researching the lives of Negro Leagues baseball players. He also runs the Negro League Grave Marker Project, and he connected with Roz over Facebook in 2012. Years earlier, he had encountered a newspaper headline about Goree’s death that caught his eye. Ever since, Roz says, he’d been handing over details about the incident.
“He’s been very selfless and very gracious and very humble about this whole thing,” Roz says. “If not for him and his quest, this conversation today wouldn’t have happened.”
It’s after 10 p.m. on a Saturday and Fred Goree drives his sport model Buick east towards St. Louis. He’s got two other people in the car, both black. They cross the bridge over the Missouri River.
February 26, 2016
Krock gets me started with articles from the St. Charles Banner, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis Star and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Each has a front-page story about Fred Goree’s death. And while they’re a useful start, there’s no consensus on Goree’s age, and even how to spell his name.
The name of his baseball team is puzzling, too. The sisters say it’s the Chicago Independents, but some newspaper accounts associate Goree with the Chicago Giants. Other times, with the Independent Giants.
What does come through, though, is that these papers — all mainstream outlets written by and mostly for white people in the St. Louis area — are clear about the roles played by constable Clarence Patrick Bennett and Goree:
Patrick Bennett Wins Struggle for Pistol When Chicago Baseball Team Manager Resists Arrest.
Owner of Auto Starts Trouble …
And there’s more. Bennett was “exonerated by a County Coroner’s jury of any blame in connection with the death of Fred Goree” less than 36 hours after he killed him.
Kathie had passed along Goree’s death certificate. The cause of death was listed as “Justifiable Homicide by a gunshot wound.”
Fred Goree drives over the bridge and hits heavy traffic. He’s gone about 50 yards on St. Charles Rock Road when the lights from a police car flick on.
The white deputy orders Fred Goree out of the car. He searches him, his friends, and the Buick.
The deputy finds nothing. Turns out the Buick isn’t stolen like he thought it was.
There’s been a surge of interest in the Negro Leagues in the past few decades; entire committees have formed to research it, writers have blogged about it, archivists have collected material surrounding it, and a museum has been formed. Despite the inconsistencies I see in Krock’s newspaper accounts about the name of Fred Goree’s team, I’m still feeling pretty confident something will turn up.
But when I search for the Chicago Independent Giants in Chicago baseball schedules from the 1910s to 1920s my jaw drops.
There are more teams named something Giants, or someone’s Giants, or someone’s something Giants than I can count. Amid a slew of teams with names like the Ciceros, the Laundry Drivers, the Romeos, the Logan Squares, the Duffy Florals, the Lake View Indians, the Rogers Parks, the Chicago Blues are the Chicago Giants, the Leland Giants, the Union Giants, the Chicago American Giants … The list goes on.
But I do begin to rule something very important out of the picture. Our questioners’ grandfather definitely was not the manager of the Chicago American Giants. That title belonged to Andrew “Rube” Foster, a man who first made a name for himself in Chicago while playing for an African-American team called the Leland Giants. His story’s complicated, but what sticks with me is that he ended up playing on, managing and owning a team he founded on his own: the Chicago American Giants.
In April of 1910, Foster penned an editorial in the Indianapolis Freeman, the premier African-American national newspaper at the time. It’s a plea for support to start an organized, black national baseball league. In “Success of the Negro as a Ball Player” he argues that baseball could be a way for black people to prove they were equal to whites.
Considering the fact that the Negro has no league, it might appear that he does not study baseball … But I want to say right here that such ideas are mistaken ones. I doubt if any race playing the game studies it more closely than the colored man … There is not a play in the game today that is foreign to the Negro player, and many plays which are receiving two-column write-ups in the daily papers are being pulled off regularly by the colored boys. These are not receiving a great amount of attention because the best we can do is to mingle with the Semi-pros …
Black baseball players, Foster wrote, are already as good, if not better, than white baseball players on professional teams in national leagues. And it’s time people take notice.
Players have, through all sorts of adverse conditions, been able to bring our race to the thousands who are interested in the game. Now will our businessmen and friends of the profession make an effort to help us to reach the coveted goal of complete success, or will they stand by and see us fail? Which shall it be?
I learn that in 1920, Foster makes good on his own declaration by gathering Midwestern black baseball team owners at a Kansas City YMCA. They sign papers and the first National Negro League is born.
The teams include: St Louis Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, Indianapolis ABC’s, Detroit Stars, Dayton Marcos, Cuban Stars, the Chicago Giants, and … the Chicago American Giants, Foster’s own team.
Not only did a man from Chicago form the first successful national black baseball league, Chicago was the only city that had two teams in it.
Still, no mention of Fred Goree or the Chicago Independents in 1920s game schedules.
But on the other front — learning more about his death — I hit something.
I find an article published in the St. Louis Argus, a weekly African-American newspaper, on August 7, 1925. The headlines grab me:
Deputy Slays Colored Baseball Manager … Daily Papers’ Story Misleading … Aid Offered By Whites …
The reports of several eye witnesses of the slaying of Fred Goree, colored baseball manager, by Deputy Constable Clarence P. Bennett on St. Charles Rock Road last Saturday night, have given plain evidence of a case of cold-blooded murder, although Bennett was exonerated last Monday, and local white dailies failed to present facts to show that he was in the wrong.
It describes the killing, the events leading up to it, and the public reaction to the jury’s decision — all in great detail.
And while it doesn’t necessarily nail down where Fred Goree’s team fits in the world of 1920s black baseball, it answers so many of Rosalind Henderson-Mustafa and Kathie Anderson’s questions about their grandfather. I know I have to show it to them.
But first, I have to call Krock.
Goree asks the deputy what this is all about. Speeding, the deputy tells him. Speeding? Goree says. That’s impossible; he couldn’t have been going over 25 miles per hour in that kind of traffic.
Deputy Clarence P. Bennett is a veteran of the first world war. He hasn’t been back long. He’s got two other guys with him when he pulls Goree over — one’s another officer, last name Schuchman, and another, younger guy who’s not on the force.
Bennett says something to Goree about telling it to the judge, and threatens Goree with arrest. He says he’s going to lock Goree up at Clayton for 20 hours. Goree pleads: Can he at least make arrangements for someone to get his men? They’ve got a game to play.
“I was really over my head last week with archives and I found it,” I tell Krock, almost sputtering into the phone as I pull up the Argus article. “I hadn’t seen anything that detailed, and I was going to ask you if you had seen it.”
“The Argus? I found that … 10 years ago,” he says.
“Oh wow. Wow.” I can’t help but think: Why hadn’t he shown the sisters? He’d already given them so much.
“It was in such detail that I really didn’t feel like sharing it with the family,” he says. That had been the case since he found the article in 2007. Even if he’d reconsidered, the recent spotlight on police violence against African-Americans would have made the timing worse.
Just last year, Krock had raised money to place a custom plaque atop Fred Goree’s grave. Until then, his grave in Lincoln Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois, had been unmarked. The new plaque read: “A respected brick mason and manager of the Chicago Independent Giants baseball team. A life stolen too soon.”
The marker proved an emotional victory for the sisters and their family. “In knowledge there is peace. Fred is now alive with us,” Rosalind had told him. Krock says he feared additional details might ruin the sisters’ moment of closure, especially when you consider there was ongoing debate and fallout from Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. There were parallels between the Goree and Brown’s stories and, again, Goree had been killed just 12 miles from Ferguson.
In a way, I can understand this rationale, but I’m in a different business: If this article helps answer the sisters’ question about their grandfather’s connection with baseball, and what happened that night he was killed in 1925, I don’t see a choice in withholding it from them.
“Do you think they should know?” I ask Krock.
“Oh. Ah. Yeah. I mean, yeah,” he says, adding “I sent you articles from the mainstream, or, white newspapers. ... They gave me a little peace because the story [of Goree’s killing] made front page headlines in the next day’s newspapers. But the Argus in the African-American newspapers tells a totally different story. It tells of a murder. An assassination, almost.”
I think about history, and who’s had the privilege to perpetuate what stories get told.
When it’s come to Fred Goree, if anyone’s bothered to look, the story was mostly told by white newspapers in St Louis, writing for a community that did not entirely embrace him. And if we’re to do Fred Goree’s story justice to his family, the sisters should see the Argus’ side, too.
“I’d like to show it to them,” I tell Krock. He agrees it’s time to pass the article along.
I write the sisters: We’ve got some things to share with you. When can you meet me and Jeremy Krock?
The deputy calls out “Damn n-----” and shoves Goree with his left hand. He reaches for his gun with his right. Goree grabs the barrel. The men grapple with each other, and roll into a six-foot bank.
A shot is fired from the deputy’s revolver. He calls to the other officer, Schuchman, for help. The unidentified white man covers Goree’s friends in the car, and Schuchman beats Goree over the head with a black jack.
Three minutes pass.
Goree’s skull is crushed. He cries for mercy. His friends in the car are held at gunpoint by the other, unidentified white man. One tries to leave the car to help Goree, but the man thrusts the pistol in his back, and threatens to shoot.
Goree is down, barely conscious.
The deputy calls to Schuchman: I can handle him now. I’m going to shoot him.
The deputy fires, and the bullets enter Goree’s stomach.
I’m still struggling to piece together why the sisters’ grandfather risk traveling 300 miles for a baseball game. As a black man in 1925. In a new Buick. There’s no way to get into his head. No diary. No living confidants.
So I take another approach: What was it about baseball that might have been worth the risk? What did baseball mean to Chicago’s black community in 1925?
I call Leslie Heaphy, a history professor at Kent State University and the editor of Black Baseball and Chicago.
“If I time traveled back to Chicago in 1925 and I was into baseball,” I ask, “what would my options be?”
Heaphy starts with the premier options, the two big white teams: the White Sox and the Cubs. “You’ve got that on the major league level,” she says.
As for the African-American side of things? She says the best option was the Chicago American Giants, “the professional black team in Chicago at the time.”
But the picture’s broader than that. She describes an ecosystem of industrial, amateur, and semi-professional baseball teams operating alongside the white major leagues and the new Negro League teams. These lower-tier guys would play against each other on weekends and could earn a little cash from ticket sales.
Heaphy tells me the teams were segregated, but black teams would play white teams all the time.
I tell her a little bit about our Fred Goree and ask her if she’s heard of either the Chicago Independents or the Independent Giants.
She almost laughs. No, she says. “But just because we haven’t found it doesn’t mean it’s not out there to be found.”
I entertain the idea of asking for even more leads but then I remember my deadline, and get to the heart of it.
“Why would a guy like Fred Goree risk traveling 300 miles for a baseball game?” I ask her.
She says many black players laid it out in written and oral histories.
“They’re going to tell you they love the game that much, and that it’s worth it if they get the chance to play.”
“Really?” I ask. “It just seems like really high stakes.”
“Well, we’re talking about a time period when the black community is stepping up and doing for themselves and no longer waiting for the white community to let them do things,” she says. “So, ‘We’re going to form our own league, we’re going to take care of ourselves, we’re going to be proud of who we are and what we do and we’re not going to sit back and wait. And, yes, there is risk involved but that’s the only way that things are going to improve.’”
The Harlem Renaissance. Red Summer. The Great Migration. Fred Goree played a small part in a monumental era.
Heaphy says Goree’s team may not have been listed in the papers, but he was still important. She says the National Negro League would never have survived if it weren’t for teams like his. The Chicago American Giants, for example, played about 100 games within the official league per year. That, she says, is only about half as many games as Negro Leagues players needed to actually make a living playing baseball. In other words, the league players had every incentive to play any team they could — even if just to make ends meet.
“So that’s a team like the Chicago Independents,” Heaphy says, “still playing and still being important and probably playing against these guys because they’re filling in their schedule.”
Fred Goree’s team, the Chicago Independents or Independent Giants, might have never made a headline. But they helped form a backbone that allowed the National Negro League to succeed — in the eyes of both blacks and whites.
May 10, 2016
I’m sitting next to Jeremy Krock in a WBEZ studio. The sisters are here, and producer Jesse Dukes has set up the microphones in front of us. We’re recording, and I’ve been telling the sisters and Krock what I’ve learned about Chicago baseball; about Rube Foster, all those Giants, and about my search for their grandfather’s team.
It’s time to show them the last piece.
“So, Jeremy and I had independently found an article. ... Can I read it out loud?”
“Goree was shot returning from St. Charles to Effingham, Illinois to get several of his ball players who were held there when their car broke down on the way from Chicago ….”
It takes the coroner’s jury just three minutes to decide Constable Deputy Bennett is not accountable for the killing of Fred Goree.
The coroner writes ‘Justifiable Homicide’ on the death report. The outcome doesn’t sit well with people in and around St. Louis.
The Argus reports: “Both colored and white citizens … have been stirred by the brutal outrage and the freeing of [the] perpetrator, and have launched a bitter fight to cause the slayer to stand fair trial. ... White citizens of St. Charles, several of whom witnessed the shooting, have offered to aid in the prosecution of Bennett, while the colored citizens are organizing to fight to bring the slayer to justice … It is expected the N.A.A.C.P will enter the case.”
May 10, 2016
The sisters shift in their chairs a bit. Kathie starts.
“This article is good because there were so many articles written in white newspapers talking about how the constable was found not guilty and it was the guy in the car who was responsible,” she says.
“There’s some vindication here!” the sisters laugh, together. “It was not justifiable homicide.”
“It reflects an attitude on the part of the police. It reflects an indignation. It’s a story that resonates,” Roz says.
They think about their grandfather’s death certificate, as well as Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald and the long, painful story of black men and women and their encounters with white police.
“It shows you not much has changed,” Kathie says. “That’s what it shows you.”
Jeremy Krock comes in, confessing this was the first article he had ever seen about Fred Goree. “This is what led me to the story and led me to you,” he says.
“Then you’re still holding back,” Roz laughs. “Send some more articles, huh?”
But she thanks him. She says the article is gruesome, but it’s comforting that it confirms much of the story her mother had told her.
Krock nods in agreement.
“Everything she said was true,” he says. “When the constable reaches for the gun the stories started going every which way. And I have a tendency to believe the Argus was much more believable.”
At the end of all of this, the sisters learn their grandfather wasn’t up in the ranks with Rube Foster and the National Negro League. And that’s okay with them. They say they see him as a family-man first, then a brick mason, and then a baseball team manager. And even though we couldn’t find his team’s name in the papers, they say the fact that he was invited to play a game from all those miles away — from Chicago to St. Louis — and that he risked the drive at all, is enough to feel proud.
“Every group in this country has been faced with barriers at some point. And African Americans and black people had been faced with inordinate barriers,” Roz says. “In spite of that, to see that a group of people had created something to replace what they were forbidden to do … to create a world that you can transcend the barriers … it just inspires me.”
But still, Roz says, her grandfather’s story isn’t just a distant, family memory.
“We have seen over the years the impact his death has had on our entire family,” she says, referring to the loss of a son, sibling, husband and father. The consequences cascaded for generations.
Fred’s wife, Sarah Beth May, died of tuberculosis 5 years after the killing. That left Roz and Kathie’s mother without parents during the Great Depression. Their mother was the first in the family to finish college, but the sisters still wonder what she could have been if her father had lived.
“We’re looking at it now as a broader picture without a key family member, with no fair outcome and no punishment for the person who actually did it,” Roz says. “And we’re living with that in our DNA.”
Note: Accounts of August 1925 are culled from several sources, but principally from the article "Deputy Slays Colored Baseball Manager" published by the St. Louis Argus on August 7, 1925.
Images: Courtesy Rosalind Henderson-Mustafa, Kathie Anderson and Jeremy Krock. Graphics by Logan Jaffe.
Logan Jaffe is Curious City's multimedia producer. Follow her @loganjaffe.