Peter Clark: the Father of Black Baseball in Cincinnati

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Peter Humphries Clark was the Father of Black Baseball in Cincinnati. He is better known for other reasons: he shaped the Black Community in Cincinnati during the 1850s, ‘60s and 70s more than any other individual. In Walnut Hills we know that Clark lived on what was called Kemper Street – now Yale – for a time before the Civil War, and that Brown Temple AME Church was founded in his house. He became the first teacher in the Cincinnati Colored Schools – segregated Black public schools – in 1849. He had many positions in the system: most notably, for nearly 20 after the Civil War he served as principal of Gaines High School, the great West End training ground for the African American elite in the City. A giant in the Republican party, he dared to support both Socialist and Democratic candidates in an effort to improve the leverage of his people in electoral politics. But Peter Clark was also the Father of Black Base Ball (as he spelled it) in Cincinnati.

Baseball emerged as a national sport during the Civil War. Soldiers from the North – especially New York – brought the game to the fight. It spread through the Union Army, and as early as 1862 (via Yankee prisoners of war) to the Confederates as well. The integration of the Union Army may be best illustrated by the way the Black community in Cincinnati adopted baseball as a sport and a pastime. A pioneer history of baseball in Cincinnati looked back no further than the early 1860s for any glimmer of the amateur game. By 1868 Peter Clark was associated with the Cincinnati Creoles, a team of mostly Cincinnati barbers – among the wealthiest professions in the Black community. Concerned about the team’s recruitment of light-skinned players, Clark became the founding president of a new team, the Western Unions, in 1869. (The Cincinnati Red Stockings started openly paying the players that same year, although the Reds played against amateur teams.)

Peter Clark had begun teaching in the Colored Public Schools in before the Civil War; in 1866 he became the founding principal of Gaines High School, a segregated institution. Within a few years Clark requested a teacher of calisthenics for his growing school. In the late 1860s he introduced baseball to the students. Many of Clark’s players went on to join another Black Baseball club, the Cincinnati Vigilants (sometimes spelled Vigilance), which began to play in 1871. The rosters for 1875 and 1876 included Gaines graduates Andrew DeHart, Samuel Lewis and Miles Handy. Significantly, the first two became teachers in the Colored Public School system. Phillip Ferguson, most likely Phillip J. Ferguson, was another Gaines graduate. (Phillip B. Ferguson, listed in the roster, was on the Colored School Board in 1860; it’s unlikely he was still in baseball prime in the mid ‘70’s.) Nearly half the nine were trained by Peter Clark!

Clark, perhaps too active in Cincinnati politics, lost his job at Gaines after 1886. With the integration of Cincinnati’s high schools in 1887 Gaines High School would close. Peter Clark moved on to the segregated Sumner High School in St. Louis in 1888. He would teach there for another 20 years. It’s worth noting that Sumner, too, fielded a great baseball team, and many of its players went on to play for the St. Louis Eclipse Black Baseball Club.

– Geoff Sutton