What We Can Learn from Effa Manley
What can Effa Manley's life teach us about how we define race and racial identification?
As children my sister Kennedy and I played t-ball in a local league at Shawnee Park in which all of the teams took their names from Negro League baseball teams. I played for the Baltimore Black Sox and she and our cousin Kalea played for the Newark Eagles. One can imagine when doing research on the Negro Leagues recently, when coming across Effa Manley the owner of the Newark Eagles, who won the 1946 Negro League World Series, I immediately was drawn to her. I had always associated the Eagles with my sister so it was thrilling to learn about how towering of a figure that franchise’s owner was in baseball history.
As I delved deeper into Manley and her contributions, the more interesting her story became as a very complex portrait began to emerge. Effa Manley wasn’t the first woman to own a Negro League team. That honor is owed to Olivia Taylor who became the owner of the Indianapolis Clowns after her husband C.I. Taylor passed away in 1922. Minnie Forbes became the youngest woman to run a franchise when she ran the Detroit Stars from 1956 to 1958 at the age of 24. Joan Whitney Payson co-founded and owned the New York Mets and the notoriously racist Marge Schott owned the Cincinnati Reds from 1984 to 1999. But Effa Manley to this day remains the only woman to be inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Manley left a very complex but no less important legacy as an exceptional baseball franchise owner and as a civil rights advocate constantly challenging the status quo of a segregated society that systematically discriminated against black people. But as I learned in my research, she also challenged the status quo of our perception of race and privilege as she would reveal later in life that she was actually not black at all. Born to a mixed race mother as a result of an affair she had with her white boss, Effa Manley would find out from her mother of her true origins as a teenager. According to Manley, she did not know what her mother was actually mixed with. She knew she had German and American Indian ancestry, but that was as far as she knew. Despite this ambiguous racial and ethnic background, Manley existed as a chameleon in society. She was raised in a black community with her black siblings, and never once questioned her position within black culture. But when she would travel away from Harlem into Manhattan, she would for all intents and purposes be white.
Manley was somewhat of a mirror of American racial perception. Black people including all of her descendants considered her black and did not take very seriously her assertions that she was a white woman. They refer to her as a black woman to this day. But to whites, if she wanted to be perceived as such, she would be perceived as white. The one drop rule can’t apply to you if they don’t know about that one drop. Many whites simply assumed she was white. There is an anecdote from her childhood that I found particularly interesting.
When I was very young, in the first grade, the principal sent for me. At that time Negroes and whites just weren’t supposed to mix…And she sent for me to ask me why I was always with these colored children. And when I went back home and told — I didn’t know what to say to her, I went back and told Mother. I’ve always felt how stupidly Mother reacted. I feel she should have made some effort to talk to the principal or something, explain things. But Mother said to me, ‘You go back and tell her you’re just as white as she is.’ Well, that was ridiculous. But I’m saying — telling you this to say I have come up in this entirely Negro atmosphere.
One can gather a few things from this story. One can imagine how her mother felt raising her effectively as a black child with her siblings, that in that time, she would have had the best chance of getting ahead at life as passing for white. She understood that her daughter had white privilege and gave her a rudimentary lesson in how to use it. One can also gather that Manley at the very least considered herself culturally black. These two things are important in viewing her life and accomplishments because Manley took this lesson she learned from her mother and applied it to a life dedicated to civil rights, black baseball, and black people.
Manley never left this “entirely Negro atmosphere” as all of her husbands including Abe Manley, who would buy the Newark Eagles and gift her ownership and management, were all black men. In all of her census reports, she would be listed as “negro”. This presents interesting questions of how race is identified and perceived in the United States and what exactly does it mean to be black.
Throughout my life, I’ve been presented with this conundrum of racial and ethnic perception, especially since I have travelled abroad. As a child when I first moved to New Jersey, I found it rather shocking that my identity as black would constantly be questioned. In Kentucky I was black and that was that. But in New Jersey, Dominicans thought I was Dominican, Puerto Ricans thought I was Puerto Rican, black and white people thought I was biracial. Upon learning of my native Hawaiian paternal grandmother most people would chalk up the ambiguity to this part of my ancestry. But if one knew my grandmother, that notion would only complicate what they were perceiving. My grandmother, who spent her life raising and babysitting black children in a black neighborhood, was darker skinned than I am and used to brag that she passed as black and that even her doctor didn’t know she wasn’t black. On top of that, the feature that made black people consider me mixed race wasn’t my skin but my hair. My hair is actually most similar to my maternal grandfather who would unquestionably be considered as black.
As I lived abroad though, I began to realize that my race and ethnicity perception were contingent upon who I was speaking to. People from places in East Africa such as Ethiopia thought I was Ethiopian. In France, I was seen as black French, with Algerian coming as the top guess. I have had many people randomly speak French to me in places such as London under such assumptions. In Portugal where I currently live, people ask me if I am Cape Verdean most often, which in a funny irony isn’t fully incorrect as my Hawaiian grandmother had Cape Verdean ancestry, which we in the family had referred to as “Portuguese”. A funny wrinkle indicating how my Cape Verdean ancestor José da Silva probably identified. Even deeper down this rabbit hole is that he was considered “white” on his census reports despite him being from an island off the coast of West Africa and despite the few pictures I have of him appearing somewhat similar to how my family looks today. Because Cape Verde was part of the Portuguese empire and therefore considered part of Portugal proper, in the United States he was considered “Portuguese” which in those times seemed to be one of the few Southern European countries considered white by the Anglo-Saxon dominated consensus of whiteness.
Like Effa Manley my race was determined by who was perceiving me. What I realized tied me to blackness was not my features but rather the black culture my parents very consciously raised me in. Because of my upbringing, there was no question despite my lighter complexion, I was black. This rings especially true when I am in black areas of Lisbon and many of the people look like me, but yet I still feel like a foreigner. In these contexts my Americanness feels especially strong, but my black Americanness feels the strongest despite me not having lived in the United States since 2014. These questions of perception tend to dissipate once people have a conversation with me and see these cultural aspects come through. This is what Effa Manley meant by “this entirely Negro atmosphere”.
Regarding Manley though, this racial ambiguity and complication of self-identification is especially important to how her legacy understood. She was a staunch advocate for civil rights. In 1935 she launched a campaign aimed at businesses in New York that refused to hire black employees called “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work”. This kind of action is reminiscent of the actions that Dr. King and the Souther Christian Leadership Conference would take as part of Operation Breadbasket in Chicago some 3 decades later. She was an active part in fighting for the rights of Negro League teams during integration of the MLB confronting the Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey in person over his attempt to steal her best players out from under her. He famously called the integration of the Major Leagues as “emancipation” while she referred to it as thievery. “He didn’t give us five cents or say thank you.” She is also one of the main reasons we have the statistics we have of the Negro Leagues. She insisted that black newspapers record the statistics from each game. This alone is an invaluable contribution to the history of baseball. Many names may have been lost to history if it were not for this.
Think of how different this legacy comes across one her race is changed. The question many people would ask is why a white woman would involve herself so much with the plight of black people. Her identification with black culture could be perceived by some as akin to Rachel Dolezal, being some form of objectification and appropriation. Imagine the optics of her as a white woman calling all the Negro League owners “a bunch of handkerchief heads”, a term akin to “Uncle Tom” for their refusal to hire a black agent to book games at Yankees Stadium. Most importantly, black people cannot completely claim her for their own historical purposes. Her legacy is bolstered by the idea of her as a black woman achieving all of these things in a time where she would have dealt with both racial discrimination and sexism. In fact she did deal with sexist discrimination from the other black owners at the beginning of her ownership of the Eagles. Her husband Abe was told by Grays owner Cumberland Posey to keep his wife at home. She wasn’t take seriously until her proactive day-to-day ownership style translated to a winning team. She did all the player contracts and negotiations, ordered team equipment and managed the team’s finances. On top of that she spent time as the league treasurer. She forced the other owners to deal with the fact that a woman was indeed running a top baseball franchise. All of this from a woman with a high school education and a background in women’s hat making. She could be used as an inspiration for young black girls all throughout the country. “If she could have done this in the 1930s there’s nothing stopping you from doing this today.” But that simply cannot be asserted sincerely.
But the true question that this begs is how much this all actually matters. Effa Manley was raised in a black community, in black culture and dedicated her life to black causes and civil rights. Much of this was made possible by her racial and ethnic ambiguity. In parts of life and business where she was afforded white privilege she used it, not simply for her own advancement, but to further her agenda of advancing black causes and black people. For Manley, race in general was an intricate and strategic performance. She was very aware of where the color line existed and how to navigate it throughout her life. This ambiguity is what has come to define her racial identity as no one side can fully claim her as their own.
This issue of what defines blackness and what it means to identify as black will only become more complicated over time as we gain distance from the end of legally mandated segregation and legal discrimination. There will come a point where this legacy of slavery and discrimination will not be enough to bind the idea of black people together. Black culture is as mainstream as it has ever been, and black slang becomes predominant in youth of all races and ethnicities. In a world where black culture is integrated into and commodified by the capitalist American cultural paradigm, our diversity in terms of skin color and ethnicity only grows, what will it mean to be black? The complex legacy of someone like Effa Manley might help us begin to answer this question.