Negro League pioneer’s short Stillwater stay had big impact

The Bud Fowler exhibit at WCHS
Photo by Cole Miska

Exhibit tells his story

The Washington County Historical Society (WCHS) is hosting an exhibit on Bud Fowler, the earliest known Black professional baseball player, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame this year. 

The exhibit, which features the history of several early Black baseball players and teams, will run through the end of the year at the Washington County Heritage Center in Stillwater.

Fowler, whose father escaped slavery and moved to New York, was born in 1858. He lived in Stillwater for part of 1884 and played on an otherwise all-White team in the Northwestern League, which would be the equivalent of a Minor League today.

WCHS Executive Director Brent Peterson said Fowler’s story was what originally got him interested in history. “A lot of people come in, they read those panels and they can’t believe that this history was here,” Peterson said.

Fowler lived in Stillwater for about six months before the league folded due to financial issues. He then joined a new team in Keokuk, Iowa. During this time, Fowler worked as a barber with prominent local Black barber Sam Hadley.

“There’s just a lot of history people don’t know about. And it’s great to be able to showcase this,” Peterson said.

Peterson noted that White baseball teams were no longer accepting Black players by the early 1890s. In 1894, Fowler decided to start the Page Fence Giants, an all-Black barnstorming team that traveled around the country playing exhibition matches. 

These barnstorming teams played against many different types of teams, including White teams. But Black barnstorming teams were sometimes chased out of town if they began to take the lead in games against local White teams. 

“[Black barnstorming teams] would play themselves, but they’d also play anybody they could get,” Peterson said.

The Page Fence Giants even faced off against the Cincinnati Reds. While Fowler and his team lost against the Reds, their first season was still commonly considered a success. 

Peterson said Fowler retired from playing in 1904 to focus on founding an all-Black baseball league. “He was trying to start a league just of Negro teams,” Peterson said. “[Fowler] never could get the financing and he died in 1913. 

“Then in 1920, the Negro Leagues started. Basically, he helped push that idea forward. Even though he never saw it come about, it was really Fowler that helped bring the Negro Leagues to light.”

Peterson said he believes Fowler helped bring about acceptance of BIPOC families in Stillwater towards the end of the 19th century. “He was only here for six months, but he left an impact of integration, diversity and acceptance,” Peterson said. 

“Fowler’s presence here, just for those six months being in the public eye like he was, in the newspapers every week, I think it gave people time to think about it and brought diversity to the forefront.”

The Minnesota Twins gave $5,000 to WCHS to pay for the exhibit. Frank White Jr., who played for the Kansas City Royals, also loaned jerseys from his personal collection for the exhibit.

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