GARNER — Black History Month in Garner has become as much a celebration as it is a tool to remember history.
On Saturday, the town kicked off the month with an event honoring players from the Negro Leagues, a group of all-black baseball teams formed in the early 20th century.
After a performance of “A Game Apart,” a one-man show telling the story of Jackie Robinson, three players from the Negro Leagues were available for a meet and greet.
Ken Free of Greensboro played for the Raleigh Tigers. Carl Long, who was born in South Carolina but now lives in Kinston, played for the Birmingham Black Barons in Alabama. Hubert Wooten, called Big Daddy, lives in Goldsboro and played for the Indianapolis Clowns.
“Garner is a huge baseball community,” said Parks and Recreation Director Sonya Shaw. “We thought it’d be a good idea to bring (the players and Black History Month) together.”
The players shared stories of how they played and worked alongside historic figures such as Robinson and how they had to finish games before it got dark because they couldn’t afford to use the field’s lights.
“Negro Leagues taught a lot of how to overcome adversity,” Free said. “I don’t believe in excuses. Build monuments out of nothing.”
Outside of the Negro Leagues, players such as Free were lucky if they were able to interact with all-white teams. In his case, he was able to travel with the New York Mets for five years to help with the team, but never played.
Eventually, Free left the game and went back to school. He coached, and in 1978, became the first commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, where he stayed until 1996.
And although he is far removed from his baseball-playing days, Free remembers one of the most important lessons he learned from the league.
“You determine your destiny,” he said. “That’s what (the league) taught me.”
A display featuring other players in the Negro League in the lobby of the Garner Performing Arts Center described Saturday’s event as a celebration “exploring segregation by discussing and honoring black baseball.”
The idea of mixing history with everyday activities started with Garner’s parks and recreation administrative specialist, Marcelle Williams.
“(We discussed) what are uplifting things we can offer the community,” said Debbie Dunn, the town’s auditorium manager. From there, she said, Williams became key in orchestrating the town’s Black History Month events since last year.
Williams, who is originally from Goldsboro like Wooten, said he had some personal connections that made it easy for him to make contact with the players. He also spent time doing his own research, an undertaking usually reserved for directors or committees.
“(It’s important) to recognize history, and that’s what we have here,” Williams said. “Usually you recognize history after that fact, but people can interact with history.”
The town has made a habit of tying Black History Month to activities such as movies or welcoming special guests. Last year, with the help of Williams, the town was able to feature family members and members of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-Americans who served in the Army Air Corps, flying and maintaining combat aircraft during World War II.
The town also held a viewing of the movie “Red Tails,” which told the story of the servicemen.
Williams said being able to meet the people who made history can make it more real for those who participate in the activities.
“People can interact with history. It’s more hands-on,” he said. “They can say they met this person.”
Garner will continue with several Black History Month events, including a performance by Norm Lewis on Feb. 8 and another by jazz musician Cool John Ferguson.
All events will be at the Garner Performing Arts Center.
Hankerson: 919-829-4826; Twitter: @easternwakenews