It was 10 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball and even three years after the breakthrough Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education, but in places like Durham, N.C., that didn't matter much. Segregation was still pretty universal.
Things were starting to shift in the city, albeit slowly. The Civil Rights Movement was picking up steam after Brown vs. Board of Ed with things like the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Durham's African-American community started pushing for change a short while later, staging one of the first sit-ins for civil rights at an ice cream parlor in June of that year.
The Durham Bulls, then in the Carolina League, fit in with the times. Other Minor Leagues and teams across the south had gradually begun to integrate. The Bulls welcomed their first black players -- third baseman Bubba Morton and left-handed pitcher Ted Richardson -- onto the roster. There was only one problem: African-American fans who wanted to cheer these new heroes could watch only from the segregated section of Durham Athletic Park.
"In 1957, Southern society was still very segregated," said Minor League baseball historian Jim Sumner, author of the book "Separating the Men from the Boys: The First Half-Century of the Carolina League."
"The news wouldn't have been that it was segregated, it would've been if it were integrated. Separate seating was the way it was."
A group of Bulls fans felt it was time to change the way it was. According to wire service reports, approximately 150 African-American fans attempted to gain regular admission via the white-only entrance to the ballpark on April 18, 1957, a historic Opening Day in which Morton ended up going hitless and Richardson took the loss. They were offered only segregated seating, which was refused. The protesters were escorted from the premises, though they felt they had a legal leg on which to stand.
"In view of the fact that the Durham Athletic Park is municipally owned," said N.B. White, a civic leader and spokesman for the group, "under no circumstances will we accept segregated seating on account of our race.
"We are fully aware of our legal action taken in the Greensboro (N.C.) golf case and in others, and assure the people of Durham we will pursue these rights."
In that golf case, the judge ruled the city-owned golf course in Greensboro, a city with a very similar population, could not be segregated even though it was operated by private management under a lease. The city owned Durham Athletic Park, but it was leased to Durham Sports Enterprises Inc., the company that operated the Bulls. The city claimed it was up to the company to set ballpark standards.
Just like Greensboro, Durham was an atypical Southern city at the time. With one of the largest black-owned businesses in the world, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, in town, as well as the North Carolina College for Negroes (now known as N.C. Central University), there was an unusually large professional class in the African-American community.
"The people who were protesting segregation weren't sharecroppers or anything, they had some education and some clout," Sumner explained.
Their efforts didn't pay any dividends for several years in terms of integrating Durham Athletic Park for, but there were other instances of leagues across the south where fan efforts led to a more immediate impact. The Piedmont League was downright progressive in this regard.
It started with Newport News, a Dodgers affiliate. Joe Durham, one of the first black players in the Piedmont League, was a Newport News native and remembered sitting in the segregated section to watch future stars like Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo. But War Memorial Stadium ended up having one of the first integrated grandstands in the Southern Minor Leagues.
"That was the law of the land in those days," Durham recalled. "Segregation was part of everything. I was in the Negro American League because I couldn't play in anything else. That's the way things were. If you wanted to be a fan, the right-field bleachers were the only place you could sit.
"I'd seen these things as I grew up. When [integration] came, it was welcome."
It came fast in the Piedmont League. Durham played for York, one of the few integrated towns in the league, and he saw first-hand what was going on. At the All-Star Game in Newport News, it was reported by the Norfolk Journal and Guide that "the overflow crowd completely eliminated the segregation pattern and despite the fact the fans were seated, shoulder-to-shoulder, [Newport News president Jack Lewis] has yet to receive a complaint from any fan."
Norfolk wasn't so quick to embrace integration. Bruce Adelson, author of "Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor League Baseball in the American South," wrote about how Myers Field was one of the most segregated ballparks, with a separate gate and awful seating for African-American fans.
"The Jim Crow entrance forced blacks to wait at their designated gate, sometimes as late as a game's fourth inning, to gain admittance to the ballpark," Adelson wrote.
In 1953, the Norfolk Tars integrated the team but not the grandstand. The appearance of black players, though, helped give fans the confidence to demand change. A boycott was arranged, as reported by the city's black newspaper, the Norfolk Journal and Guide:
"Norfolk's colored baseball fans have been among the league's most faithful home boosters and they deserve better treatment. ... They've endured inferior accommodations for many years in silence and it appears that they have finally decided to quit supporting Norfolk where it hurts the most -- at the box office," the newspaper stated.
Norfolk fans started going to games in Portsmouth, a fully integrated ballpark. The Tars won the league title in 1953, but attendance dropped by more than 10,000. New management made overtures to the black community in 1954, offering discounted tickets and even met with civic leaders. They responded that integration was the only thing that could end the boycott. Ownership acquiesced. The Tars won the pennant again and led the league in attendance.
"A light went on, it was a realization, an empowerment because of what went on on the field," Adelson told MiLB.com. "They saw Joe Durham or Bubba Morton, they saw these black players doing what white players had been doing for 100 years and it empowered them."
In Norfolk, there was success, just like there was in Dallas when the owner listened to his African-American fan base and ended segregation after Dave Hoskins integrated the league in 1952. In New Orleans, ownership ignored the fan boycott and eventually was driven out of business.
"Integration made people think, 'Why do we still have to be treated as second-class citizens?'" Adelson explained. "'Why do we have to go through the back door? Why do we have to sit in the lousy seats in the outfield? Why can't we have a grandstand over our head?' All of this happened directly because of integration on the field.
"Baseball was THE sport in the 1950s. What happened in a baseball stadium had a huge impact on the society. Seeing black and white players together on the field, and black and white fans sitting together, had a significant and decisive role in the larger integration of society. As Hank Aaron told me, 'A black man, crossing home plate and shaking hands with a white teammate in the segregated South in the 1950s had enormous power.'"
And while it might seem like baseball in the South took a long time to integrate, particularly when compared to Jackie Robinson's entrance into the big leagues, it was tremendously ahead of the curve when compared to other institutions. Even other sports in the South lagged far behind the Minor Leagues that largely integrated through the 1950s.
"If you wanted to see blacks and whites compete athletically on the same field, Minor League baseball was the only way it was going to happen," Sumner said. "It certainly wasn't happening in high schools or colleges. The [Atlantic Coast Conference], in basketball, didn't integrate for another decade."
The impact throughout society was indeed powerful. As African-Americans found success on the playing field, they strove for more equality in other walks of life. What used to be accepted with resignation was being protested. Watching Joe Durham navigate through various Minor Leagues in the South undoubtedly inspired many fans to fight for what was fair and just in their everyday lives. While players of that time likely recognized they were pioneers, they may not have truly understood the impact -- from ballparks and beyond -- they had while they played the game.
"I didn't realize it until after I had finished playing," Durham said. "You go back, get invitations to different places, and that's what they talked about, the integration or infiltration of black players in baseball, especially in the South."