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Was pro baseball's first African-American player passing for white?

William Edward White on the 1879 Brown baseball team. White is in the second row, seated and wearing a hat.
William Edward White on the 1879 Brown baseball team. White is in the second row, seated and wearing a hat.
Brown University Archives via Slate

A story about  professional baseball's little-known first black player (well, possible first black player) raises as many questions about racial identity as it does about the official list of African-American sports pioneers.

In a fascinating February 2014 piece for Slate, Peter Morris and Stefan Fatsis explain that William Edward White, who played one game for the National League's Providence Grays in 1879, publicly identified as white but was actually born to a white Georgia man and an enslaved biracial woman.

William Edward White was born in 1860 to a Georgia businessman and one of his slaves, who herself was of mixed race. That made White, legally, black and a slave. But his death certificate and other information indicate that White spent his adult life passing as a white man. Since the 1879 game was unearthed a decade ago, questions about White's race have clouded his legacy.

The laws in most states at the time would have categorized someone like White — who had one black-identified parent and roughly one-quarter African ancestry — black. But he was identified as "white" on his death certificate and several census forms, and according to Slate's reporting, it's unlikely that even his wife knew he was the child of a mixed-race mother.

So should he be considered the first African-American baseball player? Should we start celebrating him among other black trailblazers every February, right along with Jackie Robinson?

Well, if you know anything about race in America, where "passing" has been a phenomenon for as long as anyone can remember, where most of us can trace our heritage to more than one part of the world,  where we still can't even agree on whether Barack Obama should be called "black" or "biracial," and where the choices available on the census are constantly evolving, you know it's never that simple.

If he didn't want other people to think of him as black, did he actually break the sports world's most infamous racial barrier? Or is the reality of his racial heritage, and the difficult personal issues it no doubt forced him to confront, enough to qualify him as a pioneer?

White's story is a rich piece of baseball history that also asks old questions (spoiler: they'll probably never be answered definitively, because racial categories aren't objective and are open to lots of interpretation) about what makes a person black or a member of any other racial or ethnic group for that matter. Is it how you see yourself? How the government would see you if you disclosed your entire family tree? Or who you are to your loved ones and the people with whom you interact every day?

These questions are only slightly trickier than normal in this case, because so much time has passed since White lived (and in the eyes of some, at least, broke racial barriers), and because he's not around to give the final word.

You can read more about his story — and listen to a podcast dedicated to it — at Slate.

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