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Dave Johnston, Miriam Wright and Heidi Jacobs were awarded with the Lieutenant Governor's Ontario Heritage Award for Excellence in Conservation for their project Breaking the Colour Barrier: Wilfred "Boomer" Harding and the Chatham Coloured All-Stars (193Dave Johnston, Miriam Wright and Heidi Jacobs were awarded with the Lieutenant Governor's Ontario Heritage Award for Excellence in Conservation for their project Breaking the Colour Barrier: Wilfred "Boomer" Harding and the Chatham Coloured All-Stars (1932-1939).

UWindsor history project earns Ontario Heritage Award

There were no easy games for the Chatham Coloured All-Stars.

It's what Wilfred "Boomer" Harding recalled decades after his team was forced to overcome adversity both on and off the baseball diamond to become champions of the Ontario Baseball Amateur Association's Intermediate B-1 class in 1934.

That road to the championship game was onerous.

The Black baseball team travelled across the province to compete in games, often being denied accommodations and forced to continue driving in precarious conditions before eventually reaching a welcome refuge.

Baseball was a more physical game in the 30s too, and the Chatham Coloured All Stars experienced threats of violence for competing against white players.

Up until recently, those extraordinary accomplishments were only known to a small part of the population.

"There's a rich and important history here," said University of Windsor associate professor of history Miriam Wright.

"This story offers us a window into both the achievements of this team and how they had to fight every step of the way."

The Chatham Coloured All-Stars are pictured in their 1934 Championship photo.

The Chatham Coloured All-Stars are pictured in their 1934 Championship photo.

Dr. Wright, Heidi Jacobs and Dave Johnston make up the team from the University of Windsor that brought this story back to the forefront through the project Breaking the Colour Barrier: Wilfred "Boomer" Harding and the Chatham Coloured All-Stars (1932-1939).

The project started as a digitization of scrapbooks and grew to include photographs, newspaper clippings, oral histories, interviews and curricular resources.

The research now lives online, through a permanent exhibit at the Chatham Sports Hall of Fame and visiting exhibits currently at the Chimczuk Museum and Chatham-Kent Public Library.

On Friday, Wright, Jacobs and Johnston were presented with the Lieutenant Governor's Excellence in Conservation Award from the Ontario Heritage Trust for the public history website and exhibition.

"I actually get goosebumps thinking about it," Jacobs said, who's the co-director of the Centre for Digital Scholarship at Leddy Library with Johnston.

"What we thought would be a summer project has grown into this and we're still here two and a half years later."

The trio was first made aware of the Chatham Coloured All-Stars through a chance encounter with Harding's daughter-in-law, Pat Harding.

Harding approached Wright at an event in Chatham and asked her if she could help digitize three meticulous scrapbooks she had compiled from documents Boomer's mom had collected on the Chatham Coloured All-Stars.

For help with that, Wright turned to Jacobs and Johnston who had worked with the History Department on other digital projects through the Centre for Digital Scholarship. With the Hardings, they agreed to look for funding for the website, and also to do oral history interviews with family members of the Chatham Coloured All-Stars. They partnered with the Chatham Sports Hall of Fame and secured a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

Chatham Coloured All-Stars Fergie Jenkins Sr., Andy Harding and Ross Talbot are pictured in CYO and Crystal uniforms in this undated file photo.

Chatham Coloured All-Stars Fergie Jenkins Sr., Andy Harding and Ross Talbot are pictured in CYO and Crystal uniforms in this undated file photo.

Wright said those scrapbooks and oral history interviews painted a picture not only of the baseball team's incredible achievements but of a vital chapter of African-Canadian history.

"There was a larger connection to family, community and church which created the environment for this team to form," Wright said.

In one of the interviews on the website, John Olby, whose older brother Clifford played on the team, recalled how the Chatham-Coloured All-Stars' championship brought the whole community together.

"He watched the parade and talked about how everybody was jammed on the bridge, yelling and how there were Black fans and white fans," Wright said.

"He said no one had ever seen anything like that before."

Not only is the full story available online at cdigs.uwindsor.ca/BreakingColourBarrier, but a curriculum has been developed by Greater Essex County District School Board teacher Shantelle Browning-Morgan to bring it to students in Grade 1 through 12.

“We want to create a larger awareness of the history of the African Canadian community in this region,” Wright said.

“It’s important for us to recognize the kind of inequality that existed not just in sports but in society and the economy as well.”

The exhibit will be on display at Windsor's Chimczuk Museum until March 31.


Dylan Kristy