The African Dodger
For decades, a simple carnival game was a debasing symbol of the most violent and malicious forms of Jim Crow-era racism
Author’s note: I have researched and written about the racial inequities of America’s death penalty, lynching, mass incarceration, the post-Civil War “black codes” and civil rights, but no story saddened and infuriated me more than “The African Dodger.” Thanks especially to my brilliant friend Charles for his assistance with this story. WARNING: racist and bigoted language, racial slurs, race violence prevalent.
On August 31, 2001, Leland’s sports memorabilia auction house sold an “African Dodger” baseball for $349.33, describing it as a “1930s African Dodgers Negro League Baseball.”
But the “African Dodgers” was not a baseball team at all. It was, in fact, a popular carnival midway game, in which white men paid five cents to throw three regulation baseballs at a target.
The target? An unemployed black man (or “boy”) with his head stuck through a hole in a piece of painted canvas stretched between two poles.
The African Dodger — also known by uglier and more racially prejudiced labels as “Kill the Coon,” “Hit the Coon,” “Nigger in the Hole” and “Hit the Nigger” — first showed up on American carnival midways in the early 1880s, just as lynchings and Jim Crow segregation became prevalent. While it may be easy to assume this was a distinctively southern game, it actually had no geographical boundaries, with ads and clippings for it showing up not just in southern newspapers but also those in Boston, New York, Scranton (Pennsylvania), Rutland (Vermont), even Dodge City (Kansas).
The game is an epitome of violence, subjugation and degradation toward blacks, and may be considered today a legitimate, non-lethal form of lynching. As if segregation and such blatantly racist criminal justice inequities as “black codes,” in which black men in many southern states were arrested and imprisoned for sometimes nonsense crimes, were not bad enough, the added indignity of a black man having to support himself and a family by allowing middle-class whites to satisfy blood-lust toward them by hurling baseballs, with the specific intention of injury or even death, is particularly barbaric.
Many sociologists at the time went out of their way to justify the game by reminding the white power structure that blacks really didn’t mind such humiliations. Scientists, religious leaders and politicians all agreed that the African was “less evolved,” and had “heavy and massive craniums” that resisted such punishment. All these fallacies served to dehumanize the black race, to render them unworthy of empathetic or humane treatment and convince whites it was acceptable to pay a nickel to brutalize them.
The Museum of Jim Crow Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, states that “With everyday objects, forms of entertainment, advertising and public policies confirming this [supremacist] hierarchy, it is possible to see how whites came to believe they were superior, and how some blacks could internalize these images, practices, attitudes and policies and come to see themselves as inferior and to accept the role of target.”
“The modus operandi was as follows:” stated an account of the African dodger game in the August 30, 1888 Nebraska State Journal, “The manager would sell the privilege of throwing three balls at the colored gentleman’s cranium for 5 cents, or 6 for 10 cents. When you threw the balls at the darky it was his business to dodge them (which, by the way, he almost always did). The small boy then bought the balls back to the manager.”
“The manager was shouting in a loud voice, ‘Here you are gentlemen; three balls for five or six for ten. Come now, kill the coon; kill him I say! Hit his head once and you get one cigar, twice and you get two cigars, three times and you get half a dollar.”
The unnamed writer related his own unsuccessful efforts before graphically describing how two young men laughingly broke the rules by throwing balls at the same time, to the amusement of the manager and those watching, but with violent and shocking results. “They raised their arms to throw, when whiff!! Bang!! — one ball caught the darky on the ear, and the other on the top of his head … [the darky] became so confused that he didn’t know enough to take his head out of the hole. Each threw their remaining five balls in rapid succession, and while some of them missed the darky’s head, yet enough of them hit him to give him a swelled eye and the claret (blood) began to flow. You should have heard the crowd shout. How they did cheer! And I felt glad, as I had a grudge against that darky.”
What the hell was wrong with us?
The answer as to how torturing and brutalizing a race of people become midway entertainment lies with the propensity of post-Civil War American Caucasians of continuing to relegate blacks to lower-class, even sub-human status, and to display and continue acts of white superiority over them.
And it sometimes got much worse, even in the supposed racially enlightened North. One clipping that appeared in a Bel Air, Maryland paper on October 16, 1885 gleefully recalled that the African dodger at a sideshow “was mistaken by a youthful disciple of Darwin for a big monkey.” Another item from a 1920 Delaware paper even referred to the dodger not as a man, but as an “it” — “Baseball experts will try their best to crack the woolly nut of the famous Black African Dodger as it grins at them through a hole in the canvas …”
Many today may question the willingness of black men to endure such ritual pain and humiliation, but decent employment opportunities for black men between 1880 and the Great Depression of the 1930s were rare, and generally confined to low-paying manual labor, manufacturing and farming jobs. Working as an African dodger — with the prospect of earning $5 per day plus expenses over a two- or three-day period — may have made the admittedly shameful job a risk worth taking.
“First colored gentleman — Mornin’ Mr. Johnsing. What are you doin’ now, whitewashing?
Second colored gentleman — No sah. I’ve left the field of manual labor, sah, and am now earnin’ my living by head work, sah.
F.C.G. — So? Preachin’?
S.C.G. — No; I’ the African dodger at the shootin’ gallery, sah.”
— joke published in the May 21, 1889 Dodge City Journal Democrat.
“Break his black skull!”
Serious injuries in this game were prevalent, especially when a “ringer” — such as a minor league or even pro baseball pitcher, stepped up to try his luck. One incident described in the August 13, 1908 South Dakota Citizen-Republic was how a “crack twirler” of the Norwalk, Connecticut baseball club named Joseph Dest initially chucked two softballs to “throw the dodger [Walter Smith] off guard.” He then intentionally blasted “a terrific drive” straight into the man’s mouth with such force that “several of the dodger’s teeth were knocked out, and the ball locked so securely within the colored man’s mouth it had to be cut to pieces before it could be removed.”
In 1898 the Waterbury (Connecticut) Journal reported that a dodger named William Kelley was so gravely injured by numerous curve balls thrown by Chicago pro ball players at the Chutes at Hartford that he had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. “Other professional players practiced throwing at him, and as a consequence he has been out of the business for a week or more … it was said at the hospital that his face was like a puff ball and that his eyes were badly swollen.”
On January 26, 1896, the New York Tribune reported that a local baseball pitcher on the first shot drilled a dodger named Harry Jackson “right between the eyes,” knocking him unconscious and leaving him “badly injured.”
Two policemen who witnessed “were in awe of the remarkable shot,” and congratulated the pitcher on his aim.
“There were no arrests.”
Two dodgers were reported to be killed by strikes in New Jersey in 1924, but full documentation is lacking. One Boston dodger named Benjamin Atler was found dead floating in the harbor. It was not known if his death was an accident, a suicide or the result of working as a dodger.
In 1881 an enterprising carnival promoter in Indiana got the idea to use not a black man with his head through a hole in a canvas, but a monkey chained to a table for the game. While there were a few insensitive brutes who paid to strike the monkey, the game was a failure, as there seemed to be almost universal indignation at the use of “an innocent creature” for such blood-sport.
“For any man to put an animal in this position, it is a shame and an outrage,” howled the September 23 Indiana Herald. “It is nothing less than a severe case of cruelty to animals, and as such should be prohibited by the management of the grounds.”
While most saw nothing wrong with black men instead of monkeys working as dodgers, there were still smatterings of protest toward the game throughout its heyday. A 1913 editorial in the Joliet, Indiana Evening News spoke out against it, albeit in a backhanded, condescending manner by stating “There is little to say in favor of it. One can scarcely defend the encouragement it gives to the human mind to ‘soak’ a few balls at that ebony head … Probably the African dodger himself has little feeling in the matter. The distance is deceiving; the average aim is not over accurate; he has some inches to dodge and he is seldom hit. And when he is it doesn’t appear that the balls inflict any hurt or injury on the proverbial solid negro skull.”
The editorial went on to correctly state that the game was more of a statement against the throwers than the dodgers. “The impulse to hit the darky is akin to that which that creates the blood lust in the mob. It is a dormant savage instinct — the same which causes a boy to torture a cat or an Indian to grill his prisoner at the stake. It is altogether unworthy of civilization.”
That blood-lust became more apparent when managers encouraged their dodgers to trash-talk the throwers. Being catcalled by a black man at that time was the ultimate insult to a white, and in his anger he tended to purchase more and more balls as his throws got more and more errant. The July 3, 1895 New York Sun reported that a “stolid-looking German was throwing himself red in the face in his vain efforts to hit” the fast-talking “coon dodger” at a local fair.
“Why, yo’ ole fahmer,’ commented the target, ‘yo’ ain’t no good. Too high there, hi-yi-yi! Yo’ clo’s don’t fit yo’. I know yo’re tailor in Hoboken. That’s the ideah! Hit me in the head! Hit me! Yo’ can’t do it, yo’ Hoboken farmer!’”
“The man who was throwing the balls didn’t like the guying and he got angry. That was what the negro wanted. His throwing became wilder, and he finally gave it up after offering to punch the negro’s head.”
But revenge was served by some who had failed to clobber the fast-talking black man with baseballs. Records indicate some were so angered they threw rocks, even a hammer at the dodger after their turns.
At a 1908 Elks Lodge Jubilee in Washington D.C., the “visiting Elks were royally entertained as ‘nigger babies’ were hit with baseballs until they were unable to maintain their upright position …” This racial violence occurred just 16 miles from the Theodore Roosevelt-occupied White House.
By the mid-1920s the game began falling out of favor in the North, yet remained wildly popular in the South. A particularly cruel and racist article in the August 21, 1923 Miami News described how the game — called “Nigger-in-the-hole” — was to be one of the main features at the Redland Fair that year. Organizer J. M. Bauer and his partner H. E Schumaker, said that this attraction, “is time-worn … but never fails to draw a crowd.”
“We are importing a real live nigger from Liber-hot-tot, where the natives are skilled in the art of dodging coconuts thrown at them by monkeys who sit in the trees and aim at them as they pass,” said Bauer. His stated goal was to “reduce to a minimum the number of cigars and sticks of chewing gum that he will have to hand out to the ones making the lucky hits.”
As early as 1911 a new game was introduced called the “African Dips” that eliminated throwing baseballs at black men’s heads, and instead invited paying customers to strike a target and dunk the man in a tub of water. This game went on to evolve into today’s dunking booths — sometimes featuring a wise-cracking clown — at neighborhood fairs and carnivals. Also, a few years earlier a table-top “African Dodger” game was sold at Bloomingdale’s that featured a grinning “darky” with the words “Hit the Dodger! Knock Him Out! Every Time You Hit Sambo the Bell Rings.”
In another attempt to soften the game, a manager in Scranton in 1923 replaced baseballs with rotten eggs.
By the late 1940s white people were pining for the good old days of whizzing baseballs at black mens’ heads, making it impossible for many to see the negative impact of such racist activities, like minstrel shows, when playing them was associated with a nostalgia for the past. A 1947 article in the Longview, Texas News-Journal reported that “The fun loving spirit of the American people shows up in scenes along the midways and side shows. One familiar example has been the African Dodger, the colored gentleman who thrusts his head through a hole in the curtain and challenges the crowd to hit him with a baseball. So with its showing of high achievement, its pleasant social meetings, and its fun and frolic, the county fair tells a lot about American character.”
Indeed, it does.