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"Diamonds in Iowa: Blacks, Buxton, and Baseball," by Janice A. Beran

Beran, Janice A. "Diamonds in Iowa: Blacks, Buxton, and Baseball." The Journal of African American History 87 (2002): 56-69. Accessed May 7, 2021.

Beran's article takes us just south of the Des Moines River to Monroe County, former home of the mining town of Buxton and their marvelous baseball team The Wonders. After building the necessary historical context surrounding the town of Buxton itself as a racially diverse and relatively harmonious coal mining town in the early 20th century, Beran focused her article on the role of athletics and recreation in providing opportunities for people of all backgrounds to find common ground.

Included in the article are descriptions of the founding of Buxton's YMCA, descriptions of various recreational activities popular in the community, and an in-depth discussion of the Buxton Wonders baseball team.

"Between the years 1900 and 1926 in the unlikely state of Iowa, there was a coal mining town, Buxton, where a type of racial equality existed. Blacks and whites worked, played and studied side by side. During a time and in a region where racial diversity was a rarity and integration an uncommon practice, Buxton was unusual. Buxton was a relatively prosperous coal mining community. There was a quantum difference between the life-style and opportunities for Buxton Negroes and blacks who lived in other Iowa towns, in neighboring states, and the South. Because the Buxton Negroes had adequate earnings with some disposable income they participated in social and civic activities. Many of those activities, particularly sports and entertainment, were provided through the Buxton YMCA. Sports and other leisure activities were sometimes segregated but more often bridged cultural and racial differences. So it was that while the attainment of equality and provision of opportunity was often an illusive dream for people of color in the United States in the early 1900s, it was more nearly a reality for Negroes who lived in Buxton the first quarter of the twentieth century." (56)

"The Consolidated Coal Company [CCC] and the town of Buxton were located in Monroe County, Iowa. Residents in that county had been part of the underground transportation system wherein former slaves were transported north to start a new life in the 1860s. By 1892 the Iowa legislature had passed a law stating that all persons could vote and were entitled to the use of public amenities. That legislation brought a degree of equity to Negroes living in Iowa." (56)

"The coal industry-euphemistically called black diamonds-provided full-time employment and resulted in the settlement of a black population never before or afterwards paralleled percentage-wise in Iowa history. While previous Buxton studies have been principally archeological and descriptive within the historical framework, none has examined the role of sport and recreation in that community. It is the intent of this study to describe the community, recreational opportunities, CCC's involvement, and to analyze the rationale for such extensive provision of sports and recreation." (56)

"Buxton came into existence when the CCC located its mining camp on 30,000 acres of rich coal land in southern Iowa. In 1900 Iowa was ranked fifteenth among the states in coal production and the CCC was the largest and most influential mining company in Iowa. Coal production in Iowa, closely tied to the railroad industry, had been expanding since 1870 as railroad mileage increased. CCC, organized in 1873, was one of several companies that capitalized on this rapid growth and established coal mines in the most productive areas." (57)

"As early as 1875, J. E. Buxton, the general superintendent of CCC, had recruited 3,000 men from Southern states to work in the several mines operated by the company in Mahaska County. While initially hired as strike breakers, the blacks among the recruits proved to be good workers." (57)

"The "imported," untrained laborers were paid $20.00 a week while being trained. This policy was not practiced by other mining companies. It might be surmised that CCC gained an economic advantage by employing blacks. This was not the case in Buxton as the CCC Buxton mine was unionized from the beginning." (57)

"There were standardized wages for all employees. The company treated all employees alike. In fact Superintendent Ben Buxton, son of J. E. Buxton, would not tolerate anyone who treated blacks unfairly and was known to have gotten rid of those white employees who treated blacks unfairly or unkindly. The policy practiced by other companies of paying black miners less was never practiced by Ben Buxton and the CCC." (57)

"By 1905 fifty-five percent of the almost 5,000 Buxton inhabitants were Negroes and until 1910 the blacks had the best developed ethnic community." (58)

"As Buxton grew, it came to be a bustling, sizable and prosperous town of 9,000, of whom at least 50% were black. Although the first blacks who had come were miners, later arrivals included attorneys, physicians, dentists, businessmen, ministers, teachers, and pharmacists (one of whom was a woman). The company store employed as many as one hundred workers and a full-time buyer in Chicago. Many blacks also owned shops. The Justice of the Peace was black and two of the sheriffs deputies were black. As the CCC sold all its coal to the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, hundreds of men were also employed in machine shops.12 Blacks had socio-economic mobility, and there was no rigid philosophy that dictated blacks should always be coal miners." (58)

"There is not much evidence, however, that blacks and whites mixed socially. Former white residents did not assess Buxton as being totally integrated. The more than seventy former Buxton residents who were interviewed between 1940 and 1963 for the oral history of Buxton were in agreement that there was little racial strife. That was a striking contrast to other places in Iowa where blacks were second class citizens. One area in which there was social interaction was at sporting and leisure activities." (58)

"While living in the Mahaska county seat, Oskaloosa, Ben Buxton had earlier been favorably impressed with "the practical nature of the YMCA."16 He encouraged the founding of a YMCA and eventually supported the building of two YMCA buildings and another YMCA facility located on the floor above the Buxton post office. The YMCA was organized in Buxton in 1903, and the structure built in 1904 was recognized as the first and largest Negro miners' or industrial YMCA to exist in the United States. This well- outfitted, three-story facility cost $20,000, a princely sum during that era. CCC paid $12,000 of the cost, Ben Buxton, the company store owner, Mr. H. A. Wells and his wife, and a Mrs. Henderson of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad Company, also each contributed $2,000.17." (59)

"The YMCA also organized a boys baseball team, and in one season the team lost only one game. The basketball teams played high schools in the vicinity. In contrast to that experienced by the men's basketball team, the boys played against black teams but the majority of their competition was against white ones. The team "was a credit to any race" and engendered a great deal of pride when, in 1907, it was defeated only once by other white and black teams. In later years the basketball teams were integrated. The teams were products of the YMCA's leader's class wherein before one could be accepted the individual's character was investigated and only those of good moral character could become members of the 35 member class." (61)

"Residents of Buxton were often in Oskaloosa and nearby Muchakinock. The latter had a three day fair which was planned and organized by blacks but also attended by white citizens. Attractions at the fair included a one-third mile horse race managed by a black Buxton businessman, Hobe Armstrong. The jockeys were reportedly cagey and were even known to have fixed races by feeding whiskey to a horse or two. The horse races, which drew strong contenders, had a good purse and betters placed one to five dollar bets at the betting booths outside the grounds. In addition to the horse races, the fairs included "boxing, wrestling, concession stands, novelty antics, jigging, fancy steps and didoes." The activities of the YMCA, the fairs and festivals, the clubs and lodges, churches and charitable organizations indicate an identifiable black culture. As in a study made of Negroes in Buffalo, New York, the blacks in Buxton had a myriad of choices and were "not a group of desperate souls driven into the church" to escape the harshness of their existence. A former resident reflected on this as she stated, "Buxton was a good place to live. We had our doctors, dentists, lawyers. They were good times. And then we moved to Des Moines and stepped back a hundred years." (63)

"The most popular sports activity was baseball. Most mining communities had a baseball team, and some had as many as three. Soon after its founding, Buxton had a baseball team. CCC donated five acres of land for the ball park and two tennis courts, built a grandstand, and at least part of the time bought uniforms and allowed players to occasionally miss work if a road game involved travel on a workday. A local pharmacist named Cooper, owner of a large drugstore in Coopertown, organized the first Buxton Wonders team and managed it from 1900 to 1914. Drawing upon his earlier experience as manager of the Muchakinook Unions at the Mahaska County CCC mine, Cooper soon fielded a team that was highly respected. For Buxton residents baseball was the "big thing in our lives." (63-64)

"By 1903, a newspaper correspondent observed, "one thing Buxton has this season... that she can boast and that is a fine baseball team, the Wonders." The team members on that first team were all blacks and usually played all black teams. Regular opponents included the St. Joseph, Missouri All Stars, the Omaha Green Globins, St. Louis Browns (a white team), Tennessee Rats and teams from Chicago, Kansas City, and Birmingham, Alabama as well as other Iowa teams." (64)

"The Buxton team was initially all black, and even though by 1914 the team had three white members, they were still regarded as a black team. The reply to a request to play the all-white team in nearby Albia, the county seat, illustrates the situation. Upon receipt of a letter asking for a game, the Albia team replied "... your communication received... we will not play against a colored team, any time you can bring us a white team [we] will play you." (64)

"The impression gained from eyewitnesses of the Buxton baseball games was that baseball was an activity that provided an expressive and creative outlet as well as physical exercise and enjoyment. The games were not played just to prove the superiority of one team over another. For the miners who worked long hours underground in rather isolated and extremely confining dark quarters, baseball must have provided a marvelous change. Baseball, with its after work practice and weekend games in wide open spaces with fresh air and abundant sunshine, must have added variety and excitement to their often mundane lives. Although both baseball and mining were highly organized collective activities, the comparison for Buxton miner players ends there. Baseball allowed for freedom and expression. Mining required very careful attention to procedures and no opportunity for expression. In mining the emphasis was on the amount of coal mined and marketed, in baseball the end product (win-loss) was important but the process, the sheer pleasure it brought to both players and viewers, seemingly, superseded the win-loss record." (65)

"During the early 1900s CCC was spared the problems found in other mines. During that period there was turmoil in the mining areas due to irregular work, lay-offs, low wages and outrageous prices charged by company stores. There were strikes and subsequent tragedies such as killings of miners and family members, fires, acts of terrorism and mining camp evictions. Because CCC miners were unionized and miners of Iowa had long been led by respected mining superintendents and union men including John L. Lewis, a native of Iowa, unrest was minimal. CCC workers were paid reasonable wages. In 1914 miners received annual wages comparable to teachers, $499.00 as compared to $490.00 for teachers. Often times, there would be several males in one family working in the mines, so a family might have an annual income reaching $2,000.00. Other mine workers such as the mule drivers earned $900.00 and engineers $960.00. Railroad workers earned $1,162.00, the YMCA secretary $1,100.00, ministers, $980.00 and physicians, $3,000.00 per year. The pay, in addition to the fact that each family had enough space to raise a garden and chickens, meant that even miners were reasonably well off. The early unionization of the Buxton miners and the relatively high pay coupled with the fair and even treatment by the company served as mitigating factors to worker dissatisfaction." (66)

"By 1925 the coal supply was almost exhausted. There had been several bad fires in the major stores. There was less demand for coal; Americans were using natural gas, electricity and petroleum for their heating and manufacturing purposes. CCC moved its operation to nearby Haydock and again employed black and white workers. Many of the CCC workers went there but others dispersed to other Iowa towns. There they experienced lower wages and their first racial prejudice. Former residents (blacks and whites) and the descendants even now have yearly reunions of the Buxton Iowa Club, Inc., reliving and recalling those halcyon days of 1900-1925 in Buxton." (66-67)


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