By Mark Rutledge
Appalachian Places staff
Editor’s note: While Jackie Robinson famously broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, it was 12 more years before professional baseball began to be fully integrated. During those years, and for decades before, talented Black athletes played in what was then called the Negro Leagues. This story is about one such team that was rediscovered by a group of local historians more than a half century after the team disbanded.
ELIZABETHTON, Tennessee — Members of the Elizabethton Blue Grays, a semi-professional barnstorming African American baseball team that last took the field in 1955, would be surprised by the local and statewide recognition their team has gained in recent years. Their story and the way it came to light reflects the importance and prevalence of oral history among efforts to research and preserve the African American experience in Appalachia.
The largely undocumented histories of African American communities can be difficult to trace. It’s a challenge addressed by efforts such as the Civil Rights History Project Act of 2009. That legislation directs the Library of Congress to conduct a national survey of oral history collections, as well as new interviews, involving people who participated in the civil rights movement.
More than a decade before the Library of Congress began its project, a grassroots oral-history effort to uncover and document the history of the Douglas Community, Elizabethton’s predominately African American neighborhood, was started from within. An Elizabethton native, who grew up in the neighborhood before pursuing a career in radio broadcasting in North Carolina, had come home with a renewed interest in learning more about the people and place that had shaped her life.
Jacey Augustus returned to Elizabethton during the 1990s and became inspired by old stories of family history told by her mother and grandmother. She started the Cedar Grove Foundation, a title that honors the original name of the Douglas Community. Dedicated to preserving the history of the Cedar Grove Community, the group of volunteers began a door-to-door project to collect stories and information from fellow residents. After receiving several recognitions for significant contributions to historical preservation, the project knocked one out of the park with the unexpected discovery of the Elizabethton Blue Grays.
Situated in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Elizabethton is the county seat of Carter County. The county borders North Carolina at Roan Mountain, which is crossed by the Appalachian Trail. Elizabethton is the site of Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, where the first independent American government, the Watauga Association, was established in 1772. Sycamore Shoals was an important Native American site before European settlement and several events took place there that were important contributors to defeating the British during the American Revolutionary War. In 1780, the Overmountain Men mustered at Sycamore Shoals before helping to defeat British loyalists in both the Battle of Musgrove Mill and the Battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina. Those events are among many points of important local history that are well known and celebrated in Upper East Tennessee. Less known about are the lives and contributions of African Americans who have been part of the Elizabethton community since colonial times as well. For example, historians estimate that as many as 12 African Americans participated in the Battle of Kings Mountain and five have been identified by name.
Before the Cedar Grove Foundation began working to uncover the history of the Blue Grays, most of Elizabethton’s roughly 14,000 residents were unaware that their city had ever hosted a semiprofessional African American baseball team — including Augustus and most of her neighbors in the Douglas community. The team might have remained covered by the dust of time were it not for two former players, now deceased, who relayed that bit of Elizabethton’s sports history to Augustus in pictures and from treasured memories. The telling of their story resulted in the placement of a Tennessee historical marker at Douglas Field, where the Blue Grays practiced and hosted visiting teams for decades. The story became the centerpiece of the Cedar Grove Foundation’s long effort to collect oral histories, but it did not come to light until near the end of the group’s initial door-to-door interviewing process.
Augustus and her foundation volunteers were featured in a Sept. 3, 2000, story in the Johnson City Press, which highlighted the group’s first step in uncovering their community’s history — uncovering a graveyard.
“My interest in learning about this community started with my mom talking about our family history,” Augustus said. “She was telling me about my great-grandmother, who came to Tennessee from the Carolinas and settled in Crab Orchard, which was a little community in the Shell Creek area of Roan Mountain. My mother was actually born in Shell Creek through a midwife in 1935.”
There were stories about Josephine Taylor, Carter County’s last known African American resident to have been enslaved, and about David Brooks, an enslaved Carter County man known to have served during the Civil War. The stories led Augustus to a neglected Cedar Grove Cemetery, where both Taylor and Brooks are buried along with many early residents of the Cedar Grove Community.
“My great-grandmother, Margaret Suzanna Tinner Avery, told my mom about Mr. Brooks,” Augustus said. “We researched his history with the National Archives. They told me what I needed to do to get his military history. From the information that we have, he was born in Elizabethton. Part of his family was enslaved in Elizabethton.”
Augustus and her mother, the late Ruth Bowers, enlisted the aid of then Carter County Sheriff John Hensley, who employed jail inmates to clear brush from the cemetery. Brooks’ tombstone was among the first to be uncovered. Names on other gravestones were familiar to Augustus.
“Walking over the cemetery, one thing that really piqued my interest was that I started to remember some of the names,” she told the Johnson City Press for the 2000 story. “Some just looked familiar, and I started going to the community and getting the history of the people buried out there.”
The African American population in Elizabethton, mostly concentrated in the Douglas Community, totaled 355 in the 2000 census. After Augustus began interviewing residents during the late ’90s, she realized she would need help. She enlisted seven volunteers, including her mother. Together they established the Cedar Grove Foundation. Among the group’s early accomplishments was executing a successful application with the Tennessee Historical Commission to place a historical marker near the Cedar Grove Cemetery. Another marker was later won by the group to commemorate the Blue Grays at Douglas Field.
“We realized that Elizabethton’s earliest African American settlers and African residents responsible for the establishment of the Cedar Grove Community — early businesses, schools, churches, and benevolent organizations — had been lost, unheard of and unspoken,” Augustus said. “We felt a sense of responsibility for others to know their stories. This is the spirit, guiding light and pride that led to the founding of the Cedar Grove Foundation. We decided our mission and purpose had to be about preservation, collecting and teaching about the amazing stories that were about to be uncovered or rediscovered. More importantly, there had to be a very prominent and visible way to solidify that for which we stood. What better way than securing Tennessee Historical Markers for various important sites around the Cedar Grove Community, and consistently uncovering historical gems that no one knew ever existed.”
In plain sight
Toward the end of the Cedar Grove Foundation’s project to knock on every door in the community, Augustus agreed to complete resident interviews along the final street on the list — which happened to be South Lynn Avenue, the street she grew up on. She would learn about the Blue Grays while interviewing her next-door neighbors, Doris and James “Chick” Forney, a couple she had known all of her life. The revelation came in the answer to a simple question for Chick Forney: “What did you do for fun growing up?”
“He said ‘Girl, I played baseball, that’s what I did,’” Augustus said. “I was like, ‘You played baseball? Where?’ He said, ‘We played everywhere. We played here. We’d go to North Carolina. We played in Kentucky and Virginia. We traveled all over.”
Doris Forney produced a shoebox with photographs from her husband’s playing days. Thus began a 15-year effort by the Cedar Grove Foundation to uncover as much information as possible about the Blue Grays, and to have the historical marker placed memorializing the team. Augustus said it was decided that the marker would honor the team’s period from 1935-1955 because no names or documentation from earlier versions of the team could be found. They know there were earlier Blue Grays teams, however, from the two surviving players at that time, and from another South Lynn Avenue resident, Ophelia Dixon, who died in 2006 at age 98. Mrs. Dixon remembered stories about her father having played for the Blue Grays.
Forney put the group in touch with the other surviving Blue Grays player, Columbus “Ted” Hartsaw, who was living a few miles away in Johnson City. The two men gave the group as much information as they could about the history of their team.
“We were trying to find out who actually decided to call them the Blue Grays,” Augustus said. “From speaking with Mr. Hartsaw and Mr. Forney, we learned that it was a play on the Civil War.”
The group was not able to pinpoint when the first Blue Grays team was organized, but the two former players said they had always understood that the original team actually included some Black veterans of the Civil War.
During a recorded interview with Augustus, Hartsaw said he had played for other baseball teams, some white, before joining the Blue Grays.
“I played Chuckey, Limestone, Washington College,” Hartsaw said. “That’s the white team. I integrated way before integration. …Gray Station. I played Dante, Cresco, Chilhowie, then in Kentucky I played, too. …See the coalfields they want a good team. They always had a good team. Then when I quit traveling with them, I started playing with Elizabethton. We went everywhere. We went over to Asheville. Asheville Blues were the leading Black team around — close around — and we ran them like something else. We had Stompin’ Joe pitch for us there.”
Stompin Joe is among 34 names of Blue Grays players engraved on the historical marker placed at Douglas Field in 2006. Including a list of names on Tennesse historical markers is unusual, but Augustus and her group lobbied for including them as a way of more permanently memorializing and documenting the team’s history. The list includes every name the group was able to verify as a former player.
Forney and Hartsaw told Augustus that traveling to games during segregation usually meant staying with other African Americans who were friends or church members. They often took extra precautions in order to travel safely.
“Our last two Blue Grays players said it was safer for them to drive at night given the state of mind of the country during this time,” Augustus said. “About finding food on the road, Forney said, ‘I never ate at those places for them to spit in my food or worse. I always brought mine.’ Hartsaw said plainly, ‘You better not!’ And that was the end of our conversation on that topic.”
Since the historical marker was placed at Douglas Field in 2016, the story of the Blue Grays has been warmly embraced throughout Elizabethton and the surrounding area. Schools, museums and municipalities have hosted displays honoring the team’s history. A local coach has been using the story as a way to honor the team while teaching his young players how the game can bring people together.
Ryan Presnell, head coach of the Elizabethton High School Baseball team, opened the 2021 season by having his team wear throwback uniforms honoring the Blue Grays. “I felt it important to recognize the Blue Grays because of their contribution to our game and the history of our little town,” Presnell said.
Reading news stories about how the Cedar Grove Foundation had unearthed the team’s story convinced Presnell that he should help spread the word.
“I realized that we had a hidden gem of Negro League baseball during a really dark time in our country’s history,” he said. “It really encouraged me to memorialize their efforts with this younger generation to show how folks had worked together to overcome severe adversity using the game of baseball. Not only did the town provide them a place to practice, several local businesses helped provide for the team’s needs. I was also impressed at how brave the players were to hit the road to play the game they loved during a time when that could be incredibly dangerous.”
Presnell said that when citizens packed the stadium to watch relatives of Blue Grays players throw out the first pitch for that “throwback” game, he knew that telling the former team’s story was something he would continue to do.
“We have now made the uniforms a regular part of our rotation and it’s always a great conversation starter wherever we travel wearing them,” he said. “And it’s a huge reminder to our players about the role they play as servant leaders to their community and those around them. The game of baseball has always been at the forefront of American pop culture and societal change. Even our little team can have a positive impact on those around us by just playing the game the right way. The way the Blue Grays guys would have wanted us to play — hardnosed and unified.”
Just as Presnell’s high school players rely on spoken words and images to tell the story of the Blue Grays, Augustus notes that without the stories and pictures of a few residents in her community, those memories and that history might never have come back into the light.
“This is oral history,” she said. “I always tell people that when we’re dealing with African American history, one thing that is very important and that you have to respect is the oral history. Because, you know we even came across some older people in our community who could not read and write, but they knew their family history. They were among a generation from when you were punished or hurt if someone knew that you could read or write. We talked to people that had to know their family history and hand that down to their descendants because maybe they couldn’t write it down.
“A lot of people are like, ‘well, it’s Black history. It’s oral history.’ That’s what we had to get us through, so a lot of it is oral tradition. Some of it is actually recorded. And that’s how we got the information.”
Jacey Augustus contributed in the writing of this article.