William H. Binga’s place in the historical baseball firmament has been nebulous, even lost. Especially in death. The African-American Detroit native played America’s pastime during the first few decades of the 20th century at a time when the sport was rigidly segregated. Black players were forced to compete on independent, barnstorming teams and, eventually, organized circuits — the Negro Leagues — that paralleled those of so-called “organized baseball.”
Binga’s fate was made even more tragic by the fact that he was buried in an unmarked Minnesota grave for more than six decades, a forgotten hardball star who fell victim to both institutionalized bigotry and a hand-to-mouth existence that left him mired in poverty at the time of his death in 1950.
But Binga’s legacy is being resurrected by a group of dedicated, passionate devotees of the Negro Leagues and other pre-integration, African-American teams. Their efforts take on extra significance April 15, when the nation celebrates Jackie Robinson Day.
As part of the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project (NLBGMP), Detroit native Binga will finally receive a simple marker at his burial site. Leading the way has been NLBGMP member Peter Gorton, who says that with the placement of the gravestone, Binga the baseball player will now be remembered, at least in some small way.
“Segregated blackball talent was stripped of the opportunity to develop a lasting legacy,” Gorton says. “It is important today that we not apply the same standard to how these players are remembered. We must not take part in robbing them of their legacy again.”
But baseball isn’t the only cultural sphere in which William H. Binga plays a part. He’s also a member of an extended family tree that has had an enormous impact not only in Detroit antiquity, but also in the rich tradition of African-American dissent, resistance, and self-reliance.
That genealogy includes a father and son, both abolitionists and ministers, who fled slavery in antebellum Kentucky, traveled north to Michigan via the Underground Railroad, and initially laid roots in Detroit. In addition, the family tree includes Jesse Binga, one of the first successful, self-made black bankers in the country, as well as H. Binga Dismond, a record-breaking track star-turned groundbreaking physician.
Also part of the Binga legacy is current Detroit native C. Rae White, a living Binga descendant and a distant relative of Negro Leagues star William Binga. White, an educator and blogger who has done extensive research into her ancestors, has also diligently worked to place the talented baseball player into the context of her influential family.
“I’m totally proud and happy that William H. Binga followed his dreams, becoming a noted player in the Negro Leagues,” she says. “The black athletes who pioneered and persevered within the segregated sport of baseball are to be revered and honored, and I am so proud to have an ancestor who fought for his right to play ball.
The story of the Binga family begins in late September 1836, when Anthony Binga Sr. and his siblings — all first cousins to C. Rae White’s third great-grandfather — escaped from slavery in Campbell County, Ky. and headed north to freedom.
Many of those freedom seekers, including Anthony Binga Sr. and Jr., relocated to Amherstburg, Ontario. In Detroit, other branches of the Binga family were busy establishing self-contained communities. One of those locales was Binga Row, a group of tenement apartments near Ohio and Hastings streets owned by William W. Binga and C. Rae White’s third great-grandfather, and administered by his wife, Adelphia.
Binga Row was populated largely by escaped slaves who did their best to acclimate to their new surroundings and earn a living. While the conditions in Binga Row were hardscrabble, the apartments were also some of the few housings options open to former slaves in Detroit. In addition, Adelphia Binga was a very generous woman who reportedly never evicted poor tenants and always made sure that her renters had enough food to live on.
William H. Binga was born in 1869 to Joshua and Lucy Binga in Detroit. The family moved to Howell in Livingston County; the 1880 federal Census lists 10-year-old “Willie” living with Joshua and Lucy (“misnamed “Lizzie” in the document) in an otherwise all-white neighborhood there. (Both parents, according to the Census, were born in Kentucky and likely came north as part of the Binga family’s escape from slavery.)
Binga’s prolific baseball career brought him to several famous teams in Chicago, Philadelphia, and eventually, Minneapolis. The Indianapolis Freeman once called Binga “the only third sacker and surest hitter in the country,” while in March 1896, the Jackson (Mich.) Daily Citizen tabbed him “the colored phenomenon of baseball” after he signed with the influential Page Fence Giants of Adrian, Mich.
Binga became a slick-fielding jack-of-all-positions on defense and a dependable swatter at the bat. Binga arrived in Minneapolis in 1908, playing for the Keystones. Much like he had in Michigan, he quickly established his hardball prowess.
But for all his athletic success and reputation, when he died on Oct. 14, 1950, Binga and those close to him lacked sufficient funds to place any sort of marker on his grave at Crystal Lake Cemetery in Minneapolis.
For more than 60 years, Binga rested forgotten and forsaken. But that changed in 2008, when the NLBGMP stepped in.
“Once Binga’s information started to become known, his significance started to become more clear,” Gorton says. “With the assistance of many people both associated with the NLGPM and otherwise, I believe we have just begun to shed light on Binga both as a player and as a man.
“Binga, and ballplayers like him, represented the outsiders of organized baseball,” Gorton adds. “Binga belonged in the major leagues and would have played in the majors if the times would have been different.”
However, Gorton notes that William H. Binga’s early life in Detroit and southern Michigan remains cloudy. That leaves it up to distant relatives like White to uncover Binga’s role in history.
It’s a puzzle White continues to piece together, and says she’s grateful to the people who have worked to honor and preserve his legacy. “I am very appreciative of and grateful for those who have done the research and have brought attention to these great athletes, found the gravesites, raised money, and made the effort to place gravestones for these unsung stars of the great sport of baseball.”
Ryan Whirty is an award-winning journalist and researcher who specializes in the Negro Leagues. He is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research. This August, the society will hold its annual Negro Leagues conference in Detroit.