Excavating American soccer fields, uncovering buried layers of sport

On my favorite route, I pass several new soccer fields, even whole soccer complexes that have sprouted near Allen Pond, a longtime recreation area with an artificial pond as its centerpiece. My former team’s home field, Blacksox, closer to my parent’s home, however, has returned to its former use—baseball—with five groomed ball fields, a small central kiosk/restroom, a big parking lot and a tree-covered running path leading out the back of it and looping through new neighborhoods. I remember it being surrounded by what seemed an impenetrable scrub forest that always threatened to reclaim the open, flat space of dust and grass.

Unbeknownst to my teenage self, Blacksox Field had been the home of two Black sandlot teams, the Mitchellville Tigers and, later, the Washington Blacksox.[1] A vital part of the local African American community, these sandlot teams also sent players to the Negro baseball leagues.[2] When I read the newly posted historical sign on a run a few years ago, a lot of things clicked. Nearby on Route 301, I had noticed that Mills, a roadside bar, frequented mainly by African Americans and gutted several times by flames, had this time been resuscitated with a Negro League memorabilia shop. That is now gone and the building is a church, but the sediments of the past open up on each visit home even as its remnants continue to be consumed by frantic urban/suburban development and my own hazy forgetfulness.

I began to play soccer because my father was one of the founders of the local Boys and Girls Club. It was not a sport that my family or I otherwise knew, although one of our German cousins apparently had played on the national team before he emigrated to the United States. Our neighborhood was new, a Levitt-constructed “community” in the middle of a largely Black farming community that was rapidly disappearing. The older Levitt development to the north, built on a former plantation, already had a Boys Club, but the distance was far enough that parents like mine felt another should be established to the south.

Having six daughters and one son, my father also insisted it should be a “Boys and Girls Club,” now the standard moniker, but not so at the time. The first sport we played was softball. I remember losing 18–0 in one game, and I don’t remember wondering why I didn’t play another season. Then fall came. Our club, our parents, eschewed American football, the staple fall sport of many Boys Clubs at the time. Too expensive, too dangerous and not friendly to girls. Instead, they embraced the “new” sport of soccer, and for the next five years I played on the South Bowie Boys and Girls Club team. My younger siblings followed suit as my father worked with the SBBGC for seven years.

We were too new to be very good. The club was just beginning, searching for fields, for coaches, trying to find its place. Youth soccer in the early 1970s was also just beginning, and the now stereotypical American suburban soccer scene had not yet reached into our neighborhood. And our neighborhood was a bit different. When our family moved to Maryland in 1969 from New Jersey, we were typical New Yorkers who lived in Jersey and were hyper-aware that we had gone below the Mason-Dixon Line. People said “y’all” and we heard “pin” instead of “pen.” Blue laws still applied—no stores were open on Sundays. At eight, I learned what the word miscegenation meant and that some people were really opposed to it.

Prince George’s County was still predominantly white at that time but had a significant African American population, especially closer to the D.C. line. And the scars of the riots in Washington in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination were still fresh and very visible as we drove down East Capitol Street to the Mall for our regular Smithsonian visits.

Race and racism were palpable, but puzzling, with my family’s own mixture (Peruvian, German, Canadian/Irish/English) not quite fitting anywhere—except in our enclave. The northern part of our town was reserved for whites. Segregation was officially over, but not that long gone. While our new development was predominantly white, if Blacks, Asians or Latinos (and my family was the only one vaguely Latino at the time) wanted to buy into this housing stock, the development real-estate agents ever so gently (or maybe not) directed them to this new development in what had been Mitchellville, the mostly Black farming community. Some of the adults came from farming backgrounds (my mother, my Girl Scout leader); some came from the cities (my dad, my soccer coach). But all the families were now solidly middle-class, mostly drawing paychecks from government jobs.

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