‘I was there to teach children’ – black teacher, baseball manager L.C. Barber dies

07/22/2014 4:51 PM

07/22/2014 5:00 PM

In tiny Edgemoor, a town in northeastern Chester County of a few hundred people that butts right up against York County, word got around quickly that the legend was gone.

Cars crunched onto the gravel road that, in the old days, led to the famous baseball field for ballplayers called “Between the Tracks.”

Where the grass was green and the players were black.

Lewis Calvin “L.C.” Barber – believed to be the first black teacher to integrate Rock Hill schools in 1970 – lived a long home run from that ballfield, where he managed teams for six decades. He died Monday. He was 92.

This is a man who grew up in segregation and served in an all-black unit during World War II. He was in charge of payroll and correspondence because he could write and type so well. He later went off to college, the first in his family, at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte.

Barber taught elementary and middle school for four decades, first in segregated all-black schools, in Kingstree, Sharon and York, then Rock Hill.

He finished a master’s degree at S.C. State University, so he could teach kids of all colors for another 14 years at Sullivan Middle School after breaking the color line for teachers when the schools fully integrated in 1970.

“My father made a difference in the lives of thousands of children,” said Stacey Barber, L.C.’s youngest daughter and an educator herself. “He was the first black teacher in Rock Hill (after integration) and he was proud of it. Our family was always proud of it. We still are proud of it.”

On L.C. Barber’s first day as a black teacher in an integrated school, he had to use the back door and couldn’t use the bathroom that white teachers used. He wasn’t allowed in the teacher’s lounge. This was a tense time of different racial views – when integration was forced by judges and courts, not good common sense.

Barber was shunned by many – teachers, students and parents alike.

“Didn’t make a difference to me, I was there to teach children,” Barber once told me as he stood watching a baseball game through a chain link backstop.

His office for baseball and life was always a rickety bleacher or bench behind a backstop. In that office, Barber would put in a plug of Days Work chewing tobacco and teach.

He’d spit the tobacco juice, to make a point. Then teach again.

“I always believed one of my jobs was to show young people that they could be the best at anything,” Barber once told me while watching one of a hundred Harmony Aces baseball games from his spot behind the home plate screen. He sometimes wore an old sports jacket, like old-time managers in baseball who wore suits, not uniforms.

Barber wasn’t talking about sports. He was talking about life. And life meant baseball for Southern blacks.

“The Edgemoor Hornets,” said a son, Calvin. “We had black and gold uniforms. The Edgemoor Hornets baseball team, my father loved that team.”

L.C. Barber managed the Hornets and other black teams in the old black leagues before integration for more than 60 years – even though he never played baseball himself.

Barber was a teacher, so he was the coach, the manager. He was the guy who bought the uniforms, kept the scorebook and carried on the tradition of baseball that unified tiny communities. He bought the baseballs, paid the umpires and made sure the field was marked. He drove people to the games who had no cars, in an era when few had money for cars.

Grandson Mike Barber was a star football player at Clemson in the 1980s, and then in the NFL. But L.C. Barber used to brag about his grandson’s grades, and the achievements of his family and students in classrooms – not tackles on a football field.

Barber was not the mayor of Edgemoor. He was never elected to anything except at his church, Foundation AME Zion, where his devotion was also legend. But so many people came around to the house on the crushed gravel road where Barber lived for so many decades as word spread that he was gone. Students came. Friends came. People who played baseball for the Edgemoor Hornets and the nearby Harmony Aces – rivals until the teams merged and Barber managed the combined team – came.

These are proud black men who told tales of fastballs and curves, games on Saturday evenings when the crowd was so big “Between the Tracks” that the trains had to stop and wait to get through.

Teams came from Rock Hill and Catawba in York County and Van Wyck in Lancaster County and other places in Chester County. Although the league came about because of segregation, there never was a rule that the teams had to be all-black. Segregation was not a two-way street.

“We played on our teams because at that time there was white leagues that didn’t allow black players,” said Calvin Barber. “But there was no rule that the players had to be black. We always allowed anyone. My father always believed in a fair shake in life for all people. The team was black because it just was.”

The leagues were loosely organized and competitive to the point of cheers and friendly wagers that could be heard for miles. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of people would show up for rivalry games. And through all the decades of ball games, until well into his 80s, Barber took care of the team. He drove an old Chevy Caprice forever until his driving – parades moved faster that L.C. Barber behind the wheel – became too dangerous and he had to ride shotgun.

He still went to games of newer teams, right up to last summer.

But in recent years, baseball has started to die off for the black leagues. Far fewer black kids are playing baseball. Some area teams had to recruit white players to fill rosters in the past years. Other teams, including the Harmony Aces and Edgemoor Hornets and even the legendary Rock Hill O’s, morphed into new teams and faded into memory.

But Barber’s influence on the people he taught in school and coached in baseball never faded. There are doctors and lawyers and teachers who were in his classes and played on his teams. His players went on to become preachers and scientists and computer programmers.

Those Edgemoor Hornets players will come to Foundation AME Zion Church at 3 p.m. Friday to carry his casket. Those with jerseys 30, 40, 50 years old or more, numbers faded, will wear them one last time to properly send the old teacher and coach home.

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