Black Women’s Softball, the Dawn of Tomorrow, & the Canadian League for the Advancement of Colored People

By Zahra McDoom

Ball is never just ball, it tells the story of anti-black racism, defiance and community.

The Elite Women’s Baseball Team. Photo courtesy of Lena Ruehle (Ball/Decoursey).

The photograph above is significant. This 1920s image is the only known picture of a Black women’s softball team in Ontario.[1] Showing London’s Elite team, several of these women, played important roles in shaping Ontario’s Black histories over the course of the 1920s.

This digital photograph of the team was shared with me during my research into the late 19th Century Ontario-based Ball Family Jubilee Singers.[2] Using the Dawn of Tomorrow, a Black Canadian newspaper published in London (1923-1971), a pamphlet from The Canadian League of the Advancement of Colored People (CLACP, 1927), and interviews with older Black Londoners Barry Howson and Gerry Anderson, I was able to attach a name to the team, identify players, and begin to tell their story.

Much of Black history, and Black women’s history is erased, undocumented, or misconstrued through dominant white claims, but through these Black produced creations – the photo, the Dawn, CLACP, Black oral histories – we learn that the player’s ancestors self-emancipated, the women were politically active, their men worked as railway porters, and that Black people in Canada needed to possess a newspaper to stir up change. From the photograph we gather that Black women came together, sometimes in pearls, to play ball.

Through my research in The Dawn, the first person I could identify was Helen Ball, sitting front row centre with the bats and ball. A photo in The Dawn captured four generations of the Ball family, including Helen.

Helen Ball was the granddaughter of Reverend Richard Amos Ball. The elder Ball was a respected pastor of the British Methodist Episcopal Church (BME) and head of the Jubilee singers. When Richard Ball died, The Dawn claimed “no one person in all of Canada [h]as done so much as he did to raise the status of the [Black People] of the country.”

Helen Ball’s father, Fred Ball continued this legacy. He was an active member of CLACP and spoke out when Canadian National Railway replaced Black dining car waiters with white waiters in 1926.[3]

Helen followed suit, challenging White constructed norms by playing on a de facto segregated Black women’s team challenging the exclusion of Black women from sport.

1923 was a busy year for Helen and the other women on the Elite team. The first mention of the team can be found in the London Evening Free Press on June 5, 1923:

“The Elites, a colored girls’ baseball team, will meet the London Lamp Repair baseball nine in an exhibition game at the East London Ball Diamond this evening.”[4]

The next day, the Free Press reported:

“The Elite team of colored girls, baseball players, defeated the Service Lamp Co. girls last evening by 10 to 5, at Trafalgar Park. Batteries: Elite – Edna Duncan and C. Smith, Service – F. Smith and A. Clayton, Umpire – Johnston.”[5]

These games were all held in East London.

This part of the city housed many Black families descended from ancestors who freed themselves from their enslavement. It was a working class place. It was home to factories like McCormicks Co., a manufacturer of biscuits and confectioneries, and Silverwoods, a producer of ice cream and creamery butter.

The Elite team played against White women’s teams from these factories. Dr. Carly Adams wrote about the popularity of [white] women’s industrial softball in London from 1923-1935:

“By the mid 1920s, company-sponsored sport leagues for women were well established in Canadian cities such as London, Ontario. As both an act of welfarism and convenient brand-identification advertising, London companies such as Kellogg’s, Silverwood Dairy, Smallman & Ingram, and Gorman Eckerts sponsored, and in some cases organized, women’s industrial softball teams for workers from 1923 until 1935.” [6]

Informal segregation, like the exclusion of Black women from “good jobs” in the growing clerical job market, kept Black women off of company teams.

On July 20, 1923 the Elite team played the Spark Plugs, a White women’s company team from London. Using the 1921 census, I traced two of the women noted by the newspaper. Vera Sumner, a Spark Plug, was 18 years old, born in Ontario, of “English” ethnicity, and she worked as a “stenographer”. Myrtle Gales, an Elite, was listed as “Negro,” and worked as a “packer;” her mother was a British home child, while her teamster father was recorded also as “Negro.” Black women were excluded from company teams, but the Black women of London formed their own team, symbolic of this important moment in southwestern Ontario’s Black history.

1923 was an important year for London’s Black community.

That year saw the first issue of the Dawn of Tomorrow, published. As Dr. Cheryl Thompson noted on this site on Monday, The Dawn was a unique publication. Not only did the newspaper fight against antiblack racism, but it also featured the vibrant lives of Black communities in Ontario and places like Montreal and Halifax. A year later, Jenkins was part of a group that helped found the Canadian League for the Advancement of Colored People (CLACP). The rationale for the group was similar to what guided Jenkins and The Dawn. According to the newspaper, the group positioned itself in this way:

“Since it is generally conceded that the Colored Man is one of Canada’s most loyal citizens, is he being given equal opportunities with other races; if not, whyh not? …Do our boys and girls, who specially prepare themselves for service, find positions; if not, why not?”. [7]

By 1927, when the organization held its first convention, CLACP had branches throughout southwestern Ontario in places such as Windsor, Chatham, Dresden, and London as well as Toronto.

London’s Elite team played an important role in contributing to the culture that led to the CLACP’s creation.

In July 1923, London’s BME Church held their annual picnic in the beach town of Port Stanley. Port Stanley was a hotspot for summer excursions hosting picnics, athletics, and big bands. As part of this picnic, the Elites played the team from the London Service Lamp Company. Near the field where they played, former London Mayor and MPP, Sir Adam Beck, hosted a picnic for his employees at the Beck Manufacturing Company. Beck, who would shortly join the CLACP’s interracial board, pitched several rounds for the Elites. Drawing a crowd, an Elite member passed around a hat collecting funds for the team uniforms. The black women of the Elite team fundraised for uniforms to insert and assert themselves into the world of regional women’s softball.[8]

Three of the Elite team were involved in organizing the CLACP’s first convention. Miss. Pearl Brown was listed as “secretary”. You can find her in the second row to the left of Helen Ball in the photo at the top of this post. Mrs. S.W. Cromwell stands in the back row second from the left. A third woman, Christina Jenkins, was also involved in the CLACP, serving as the CLACP’s corporate secretary.

Christina was the wife of James Jenkins, editor of The Dawn. When James died, in 1931, Christina took over. She kept the paper alive until her death in 1967; the paper continued until 1971. It remains an important source for 20th century Black Canadian histories.

In 2023 I met Christina’s son, Barry Howson. Following in his mother’s footsteps, Barry was a member of the 1964 Canadian Olympic Basketball team and the first Black player on a Canadian National Basketball team. Barry easily recognized his mother in the team photo above and remembered the family’s work with The Dawn of Tomorrow. As a child in the 1940s, Barry folded and delivered The Dawn to neighbourhood porches; his older brothers drove kids out to locations to deliver the paper and his sisters typed on the single typewriter at home.[9]

Roy Anderson is the only man in the Elite team photo. He is in the back row centre (standing), wearing a suit jacket. He lived on the same street as Barry (Glenwood Ave), and they all knew each other. Roy played “shortstop” for the Colored Stars. He was likely the coach for the Elite team.

In the summer of 1923, the Elites gave two choir concerts giving us a glance into the range of these women’s talents. On Emancipation Day, the Elite team accompanied the men’s Colored Star baseball team to Arkona (about 60 km from London). According to The Dawn, the team was their to sing, rather than play ball:

“In the evening, the team [the Colored Stars], assisted by the Elite team (girls), rendered a concert which was attended by 500 people.”[10]

A few weeks later, the women performed another concert. According to The Dawn:

“The Elite Girls Baseball Team will give a grand concert … in the Ulster Hall. All friends kindly come and help the girls out.” [11]

The purpose of these concerts were to raise funds of the team.

In Canada during the early 20th century, Black women in sports went unnoticed. White women were gaining the opportunity to play softball on industrial teams, while Black people resisted this type of segregated anti-black racism. Dr. Cheryl Thompson writes of the effects of their resistance:

“Between 1900 and 1930, black people across the continent [North America] began to venture into new spaces and places … black communities went from being defined by and through the dominant cultural lens – an envisioning of black bodies as subservient and docile … like Mammy … Aunt Jemima – to acquiring unprecedented levels of agency via self-representation in pictures, newspapers, and magazines.” [12]

The picture of the Elite team is an act of self-representation that speaks to the agency of Black women, not just in softball, but also in politics and journalism. The Dawn of Tomorrow was not just produced by the Jenkins family for political purposes. Rather, the newspaper embodies the heart of a community in which Black women played an important and pivotal role in shaping the society in which they, and their children, lived.

Zahra McDoom is a Public History Student at Western University working on her cognate paper on Afro-Canadian tap dancer Joey Hollingsworth. She is conducting oral interviews with mid-20th Century Black Londoners.

This is the second of three posts we are running this week to mark the 100th anniversary of the Dawn of Tomorrow.

[1] Thank you to local historian, and baseball specialist, Stephen Harding, for baseball history support. All newspaper articles refer to the Elites as a baseball team, but the bats and ball are from softball. Most women played softball at the time.

[2] Western University Public History students Zahra McDoom and Sarah Pointer (2022-2023) researched local Black history for the SoHo Vision Alliance Project.

[3] “The Government Owned [Rail] Road Displaces its Colored Waiters” Dawn of Tomorrow. July 10, 1926, p.2

[4] “Colored Girls Team” London Evening Free Press, June 5, 1923, p. 16

[5] “Colored Elite Girls Win” London Evening Free Press June 27, 1923, p. 12

[6] Adams, Carly. “‘I Just Felt Like I Belonged to Them’: Women’s Industrial Softball, London, Ontario, 1923-1935.” Journal of Sport History 38, no. 1 (2011): 75–94.

[7] “Important Announcement.” The Dawn of Tomorrow., Aug 2, 1924, p.1

[8] “Beck Pitches for Girls Baseball Team,” London Evening Free Press, July 16, 1923, p.3

[9] Howson, Barry (Dawn of Tomorrow family member, Canadian Olympic Basketball Player). Interview with Zahra McDoom. October 14, 2023. To be archived at Archives and Special Collections, Western University.

[10] London Notes.” Dawn of Tomorrow, August 11, 1923, p.5

[11] London Notes.” Dawn of Tomorrow, August 25, 1923, p.5

[12] Cheryl Thompson. Beauty in a Box Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture. (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2019), pp. 36-37.

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