Saturday, November 14, 2009

Black Orioles of '37

It seemed as if I had just posted my comment about 1937 being a year in which men’s and women’s roles were traditional, well defined and unquestioned when the movie ‘Amelia’ opened. If you haven’t seen it, it is well worth the $5.00 ticket, (cheap Tuesday price). It didn’t get great reviews but nothing short of total earthly destruction seems to excite the critics these days. Anyway, I take back my words. I wasn’t there and I don’t know what undercurrents were flowing through society that year.

And Rosie the Riveter was about to take her place on the assembly line! Shame on me!

Yesterday at the Museum I finished cataloguing the well known, (to most people), photo of the St. Catharines Orioles who played in the Niagara District Hockey League, 1937. They were the first all black hockey team in Canada. I say well known ‘to most people’, because their picture has appeared in McLeans Magazine as well as the Standard and a Toronto paper. A copy of the photo also hangs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. I seem to be the only person who didn’t know about this team.

I rushed into the archives section of the museum library and began working through the file drawers that hold the local sports history. My initial enthusiasm about an unusual story began to falter when I didn’t find anything. I began to worry that a) no one had bothered to collect anything about the team or b) if I did find something, I might not like what I found. I was wrong on both counts. There was a folder with newspaper clippings, and a copy of McLean’s. The stories were upbeat, with just a passing reference to the difficulties the team must have faced.

I learned that the team members all belonged to the BME Church on Geneva Street. At least one family could trace its roots back to the Underground Railroad and the escape to Canada from slavery. Two local businesses, (a trucking and a florist business) had not only sponsored them; they had bought all of the equipment including the skates! The Garden City Arena didn’t open until the following year and the Xerox copy of the only article that mentioned home ice was not readable so I’m not sure where the home games were played. I did learn that the Orioles traveled to Kitchener, Hamilton, Brantford and a few other cities in southern Ontario on the back of a flatbed truck supplied by their sponsor.

One of the articles mentioned that some teams refused to play against them.

The Orioles did it though; they played through the whole season. The opening of the new Garden City Arena was given as the reason why the team was disbanded the following year. The fellows evidently went on to play for various other teams in the league.

I am so impressed by their courage and I’m glad they ‘stepped up to the plate’ at a time when photographic and written records were kept. But now I’m beginning to wonder if the names of the free black men who fought along side the Canadian Militia in the War of 1812 were recorded.

It’s back to Mayholme tomorrow and maybe an answer. I’ll keep you posted.

Till later, Franciel

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