The creamed-colored walls inside the Negro League Café located on the South Side are covered with the images of players from an all-to-forgotten era.
Photographs, murals and plaques serve to conjure the spirit of the African-American players of the old Negro baseball Leagues from the 1920s. Team names such as “The Seattle Steelheads,” and “The Argyle Hotel Athletics” is listed on the walls directly above the café’s bar.
Even the bathrooms stalls are decorated with vintage newspaper clippings of Negro League box scores and interviews with players. However, those visiting should not confuse the cafe with a museum. The establishment has few precious artifacts or historical information about the Negro Leagues. But what it does have is a sense of, and appreciation for that period and the athletes who played during it.
Destined to become a legendary hot spot for soul food dining and entertainment for many years to come, The Negro League Cafe at 301 E. 43rd St. is reviving the history and pride of the Bronzeville community while paying homage to a bygone era.
The café’s serves up some of the best soul food on the South East Side, with some of the great, yet little known players of the 1920s through the1960s looking on.
Some of those players, like Rube Foster, Buck Leonard and Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe are featured in the artwork. More notable players such as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson are also featured.
The lighting is a soft golden glow, allowing patrons to fully relax in café’s mood. And by displaying team photos, game night marquee posters and an inspired cafe logo above the entrance, (made by connecting baseball bats to form the café’s name) it hopes to influence patrons to search for the history behind the league themselves.
The cafe became owner Donald Curry’s dream after he attended a White Sox game back in 1996. It was “Negro League Hat Day” at the park. Curry noticed that many fans in attendance that day shared his interest in the sacred league as lines stretched for blocks to meet the classic players who were at old Comiskey Park that day.
“I knew that if there were that many people who shared my interest in the players of the Negro League, opening up a cafe in their honor would be the perfect jesture,” he said.
His dreamed came closer to realty later on after a chance encounter with Buck O’Neil, Board chairman of the Negro League Museum in Kansas City, during a plane trip.
The cafe opened on July 29, 2004. Along with being one of the few authentic soul food restaurants in the Bronzeville neighborhood, it also offers the community a variety of theme nights to appeal to every age bracket.
“Thursday night is Jazz night so there are many more older patrons,” said Debria Seals, executive chef of the café, “then we have ‘Steppers Night’ on Friday which caters to the baby boomers, and there’s poetry night on Sunday which caters to the younger patrons.”
However, all of the various theme nights do not distract patrons from café’s purpose, Seals noted.
“We hear all the time from customers how great and inspiring it is to have a cafe that really acknowledges the forgotten Negro League Players who really opened the doors for the athletes that followed them,” she said.
The Negro National League was established in 1920 by Hall of Famer Andrew “Rube” Foster, a former player, manager and owner for the Chicago American Giants.
In a meeting held at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City, Mo., Foster and a few other midwestern team owners joined to form the league. Eventually, rival leagues formed in several Eastern and Southern states, bringing the thrills and innovative play of black baseball to major urban centers and rural countrysides in the U.S., Canada and Latin America.
It was the only venue for African-American baseball players until 1945, when Major League Baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers recruited Jackie Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs. Robinson would become the first African-American to break the color barrier on a Major League Baseball team by 1947.
However, a number of Black players played for teams in various earlier baseball leagues during the late 1800s; players such as “Moses” Fleetwood Walker a catcher for a Toledo, Ohio club in the American Association in 1884. And John W. “Bud” Fowler, a second baseman for a Minnesota club in a Northwestern league, who also signed in 1884.
The National Negro League and others began to decline by the 1940s as more and more Black players were signed to major league rosters. Interest in players like Robinson soon drew African-American fans away from the Negro Leagues, resulting in dwindling attendance for its games. Most of the league’s teams soon collapsed because of financial pressure.
But at its peak, the league maintained a high level of professional skill and became centerpieces for economic development in many black communities. Today, the café inspired by that history is seeking to do the same for the Bronzeville community.
Several athletes whose photographs and murals adorn the cafe walls have made appearances at the South Side eatery, such as Henry “Hank” Presswood, who played for the 1936-37 Mill City Jitterbugs.
Curry said he hopes that the success of the café will inspire more commercial and residential development in an area whose rich history deserves to be reawakened.
So what’s next for Curry?
“I am looking to open a new Negro League Cafe in Dolton soon,” he said.
And for a White Sox World Series championship, will there be a special tribute night dedicated to classic Black players of the Sox?
“That’s a good idea,” Curry said. “I hadn’t thought about it but that would certainly be considered.”
For more information or to make restaurant reservations call the Negro League Cafe at 773.536.7000, or visit its website at www.thenegroleaguecafe.info. For more information about the Negro Leagues and its players visit the Negro League Baseball Players Association website at www.nlbpa.com.