By Fletcher Powell
“Only baseball is on tap at Island Park,” read the Wichita Beacon headline of June 21st, 1925. The article went on to say that, “strangleholds, razors, and horsewhips” would not be allowed, because all that fans would be seeing was a simple baseball game between Wichita’s all-black Monrovians and the local Ku Klux Klan. The newspaper reported the Monrovians were urging as many of their fans to attend as possible. And, just to show there’d be no favoritism, the two teams were hiring Catholics as umpires.
"Well, it would have been perhaps a quarter mile north of us, more or less up where that bridge appears to be," said Wichita baseball historian Bob Rives as he looked up the Arkansas River from the Douglas Street Bridge. The bridge once served as the south entrance to Island Park. The ballfield where the Monrovians played their game against the Klan stood on a huge sandbar in the middle of the river.
"It became the predominant ballpark for a good many years. It was used up until the early 1930s," he said.
That’s when the ballpark burned down. A few years later, the Works Progress Administration removed the sandbar. But, at the time, a game at Island Park was the hottest ticket in town.
"The likelihood is that when the season opened in the middle of April there would have been a parade down Douglas Avenue with the teams," said Rives. "Probably school was let out early so the kids could go. A lot of businesses would have let employees go early so that they could be at the ballpark in time for a 3:00 game."
The Monrovians played in the Colored Western League with cities like Tulsa and Topeka. The league only lasted one year. But, by all accounts, the Monrovians were good. Very good.
"They absolutely dominated the Colored Western. I’ve not ever seen a full year’s results for them, but at one point they'd won something like 52 games while losing just eight," Rives said.
The Monrovians' success made them popular within Wichita's black community. But it wasn’t just good baseball that drew fans to their games. The Monrovians were also a means of financial support for African-Americans, often putting money raised from their games into social projects, like the Phyllis Wheatley Children’s Home. Donna Rae Pearson is with the Kansas State Historical Society:
"They had a real affinity for the community that they were entertaining, but the games also provided some economic benefits for everybody involved," she said. "So, they knew when they were sitting down to attend a game, I know I’m paying for a game, but I also know this money is going to help the children’s home, and if the children’s home is doing good then I’m helping the community.
In fact, the Monrovians made enough money that they even had their own ballpark at the corner of 12th and Mosley in mid-town Wichita, which was almost unheard of for a team at their level. Despite the deep segregation, baseball between black teams and white teams wasn’t that uncommon in the '20s. Some of this could be explained by economics. Teams would usually split the money from attendance, so even whites could see the benefit of playing a popular team like the Monrovians, and the Monrovians would play anyone, black or white. But for historian Jason Pendleton, economics alone don’t explain interracial baseball in Wichita. For him, it might have had something to do with the fact that only 5,000 of Wichita's 70,000 citizens were black.
Pendleton said, "Baseball becomes a safe avenue to allow integration to occur, but without at the same time threatening the existing social order. So, African-Americans could play you in baseball, and they might beat you, but the percentage of African-Americans in general towards the total population in Wichita, for example, wasn’t enough that if a black team beat a white team it was going to upset the social order and maybe somehow spark some sort of social movement or anything like that."
This might also explain why there were no interracial leagues. If a black team beat a white team in a single game, it could be explained away as bad luck, or an off day. But if a black team prevailed over the course of a season, that might mean something entirely different.
Even given all this, it’s still bizarre that a baseball game between the Monrovians and the Klan would ever have taken place. Of course, the Monrovians were willing to play anyone, and as Donna Rae Pearson says, "from a black perspective, it was a way to show that we were equal to you, that we could compete with you at all levels, including this one."
The Klan, on the other hand, was struggling just to stay in Kansas. They were fighting a long legal battle with the State. And Progressive newspaper owner William Allen White was waging a public relations campaign against the Klan.
"They were on their way out," Pearson said. "By that time William Allen White had started his lobbying protests against them to get them ousted out of the state and it was kind of one of those last ditch efforts to say, 'Hey, we’re really not so bad, we’ll play with them, see?'"
The Klan was desperately trying to prove it was a positive influence on society. They had already given thousands of dollars to Wesley Hospital. And a Christmas photo in the Wichita Eagle showed the Klan in full costume with hundreds of baskets of food and clothing for needy families. Klan officials made it a point to say the baskets were for anyone, regardless of race or religious belief.
Even so, in 1925 the Klan lost a court case, and they were officially out of the state by 1927. Bill Sloan has done extensive research on the Klan in Wichita:
"The reason the Klan was ousted from Kansas was because it was a foreign corporation, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, doing business in Kansas. It didn’t have a charter and under state law it had to have a charter. So that’s how we got rid of the Klan," he said.
The game between the Monrovians and the Klan was played that Sunday afternoon, June 21, 1925 at Island Park. The Beacon reported there were no major incidents, just some pretty good baseball. The Monrovians won the game, 10-8, and the crowd was described as large and enthusiastic. The Monrovians faded from public view. A couple of Monrovians went on to play for the Kansas City Monarchs, perhaps the most well-known team in the Negro Leagues. But, otherwise, like the ballpark they once played in, the Monrovians just…disappeared.
This segment aired on May 26, 2012.