My brother and I grew up in a small town in the East Arkansas Delta in the ’40s and ’50s.
We lived on Division Street. It was a great place to live if you were white. Our small frame rent house was in the last block of South Division before it passed under the railroad tracks and entered the African-American community.
Bub and I and three white friends from that tiny one block area loved to play baseball. There was no organized ball back then and no good location to play.
However, just beyond the tracks and across Division, was a field covered with weeds knee high to a grown man. Our dad asked the owners of the field to mow it for us.
I was 11 in that spring of ’53. It was a time when kids could “just be” and adults did not micromanage every move.
After school that first day, the five of us grabbed our gloves, bats and a ball and headed down to our new field, pulling a red wagon filled with dirt from our back yard for an official pitcher’s mound.
The freshly mown grass smelled wonderful. The field was huge – room to run, throw and hit as hard as you could without any worry about breaking a window. It was pretty much heaven.
Soon, some black kids about our age drifted in and watched us from the sidelines. After a time, the older one came over to me and asked if they could join us.
“Of course not,” I said. “This is our field, and besides, you don’t have any gloves or bats.” You just did not do things like that back then in the Delta.
We returned the next afternoon and our pitcher’s mound was kicked to smithereens. The black kids were sitting quietly on the sideline. Immediately, we went back home, refilled the wagon, headed back, rebuilt the mound and played ball the rest of the day.
The next afternoon, our mound was flattened again. This destroy-and-rebuild malarkey went on for more than a week. We started bringing a load of dirt on the way down. It was a lot of work and something did not feel right.
One afternoon after rebuilding the mound, I simply walked up to the kid who had asked about playing. I told him my name and he told me his. When I handed him my glove, he took it, smiled and said, “Thanks.”
We shared equipment and players doubled. Ten kids had a blast that evening until dark. We could hit to all fields. Before, it was an out if you hit to right field. The phrase “our field” forever took on new meaning.
After school the next day, the pitcher’s mound was not disturbed. Also, someone had chalked baselines from home to first and third. Burlap bags with sawdust had replaced our flimsy pieces of cardboard at each base.
The field had become a very special place for some lucky kids from both sides of the tracks.
Four years later in Little Rock, grown-ups politicked to fears, activated troops, closed schools, embarrassed the state forever and took years to accomplish far less than a few kids did in a little over a week at the field.
We soon did away with the built-up pitcher’s mound. The center of so much conflict in the beginning was not even needed when we started playing together.
On blazing hot summer days, the whole crew would come to our house and play a creative version of “small ball” in the shade of the huge walnut tree in our back yard.
Over a three-year period, we wore the grass down to bare dirt. The ball bounced true like on a gym floor. Mom would furnish Kool-Aid.
It did not last forever. By junior high we each had other interests at different schools and drifted apart.
The grass regrew in our back yard, and I played organized baseball through four years of college, followed by more than 20 years of adult league softball. I never again played a single game with a black teammate. Never.
In 1969, dangerous racial tensions were crackling in our small Delta town. Mom and Dad still lived in the old house on Division. My brother and I were very concerned.
We were in our 20s, married and with jobs in other cities. We were back home for a brief visit that summer and sitting on the front porch when a huge African-American male walked into our yard and approached us.
It was one of our friends from the field. The three of us talked, laughed and shared great stories about beautiful times together years before.
Eventually, the conversation changed to ugly times happening right then in the town we loved.
As our friend started to leave, he said, “Don’t worry about your parents. They will be safe.”
The field has become one of the driving narratives of my life. The small rent house is gone, but the field still exists, literally in dirt and grass, and powerfully in metaphor.
I can still return to my hometown, walk to the center of the field and “just be.”
I remember the sweet smell of fresh-cut grass from decades before, the surprise of sawdust bags and chalked baselines, the way black and white hands looked together “climbing the bat” for first pick when choosing sides, the reverence our new friends displayed the first time they held a Jackie Robinson bat.
I will never forget the deep emotions stirred when our friend assured us of our parents’ safety.
My life has been filled with tremendous blessings. Without question, one was being part of a small group of black and white kids, just being kids, years ago in the East Arkansas Delta, playing ball past sundown – on the same side of Division.
It was pretty much heaven.
J.V. McKinney, retired from a 38-year career with the YMCA of Little Rock, Arkansas, and Bristol, Tennessee, now enjoys taking photos for free for organizations that really make a difference.