McDonald Williams was 93 years old in 2011 when he applied for a historical marker at the Hill District site where his father, Alexander McDonald Williams, built the Central Amusement Park, the nation’s first Black-owned and operated professional sports stadium.
But Williams’ request for recognition for his father’s contributions to Pittsburgh and American history was answered with a form letter rejection from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Williams died in 2019 at age 101, his mission unfulfilled.
The Williams family story is not an isolated incident in Pittsburgh or the nation. Black history and its landmarks have been forgotten and erased by urban renewal, gentrification and highway construction.
Writing on the disappearing number of sites associated with playwright August Wilson, University of Pittsburgh professor Laurence Glasco observes that the city “should be alarmed by the impending loss of the few remaining physical reminders of Wilson’s legacy.”
Wilson’s legacy is the story of the Black experience in Pittsburgh. The story of Alexander Williams’ ballpark and its erasure are also part of that legacy.
A new generation of Williams relatives and baseball historians are working to correct the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s mistake made more than a decade ago.
Three brothers from Barbados
Alexander McDonald Williams, the father of McDonald Williams, was 20 years old when he came to the U.S. in 1903 from Barbados in what was then the British West Indies. Like other many other Black migrants to the city, he settled in the Hill District. By 1910, his two younger brothers, Charles and Stanley, had joined him.
The brothers worked as Pullman porters and waiters. Alexander also worked as a photo engraver. The trio pooled their resources in the mid-teens to open a billiards and pool hall. They rented the basement beneath the newly built Burke’s Theatre at 53 Fullerton St., two doors up from Wylie Avenue.
Built in 1914, the Burke’s Theatre was a two-story entertainment emporium built by Thomas Burke Jr., a bootlegger and former city council member who lost his seat amid a 1910 bribery scandal. The Williams brothers’ basement pool hall was one of the new brick building’s first tenants. The upper floors included Burke’s theater and a second story dance hall.
Setting up the pool hall in the basement of the theater was a fortuitous move for the Williams brothers. Within two decades, the intersection of Wylie and Fullerton had become an entertainment center with nightclubs, restaurants and pool halls where patrons enjoyed a diverse array of legal and illegal goods and services: jazz music, fine cooking, bootleg liquor and prostitution.
After World War II, the intersection gave the Hill an enduring nickname: the Crossroads of the World. The Williams brothers were there at the beginning and Stanley Williams’ eponymous nightclub, Stanley’s, which opened in the 1930s and had entrances on both streets, was ground zero for much of the activity.
Alexander McDonald Williams married Margaret Bailey in 1914, the same year he went into the pool hall business. Margaret had grown up in Ohio and was one of several siblings who had moved to Pittsburgh. Her brother Arlis had moved here by 1900, according to the U.S. Census, and was working Downtown as a janitor in the Frick Building.
In 1906, Frick Building janitors organized the Frick Building Athletic Club and Bailey became the baseball team’s manager. The sandlot team played in the Hill District.
What began as a potential ticket to upward mobility ended up becoming a pathway to destitution.
“My grandmother called it ‘The baseball,’” recalls Donna Williams, McDonald Williams’ daughter, who lives in Atlanta. “I think [it was] his decision to go into baseball and I don’t think my grandmother questioned what he was doing until it failed.”
Whatever the sequence of events between 1914 and 1920 that propelled him into professional sports, Alexander Williams rented two Hill District lots at the corner of Chauncey Street and Humber Way.
In the summer of 1920, he hired Pittsburgh’s only licensed Black architect, Louis A.S. Bellinger, to design and build a baseball stadium.
Bellinger practiced in Pittsburgh between 1919 and his death at 54 in 1946. He later designed the Knights of Pythias Hall (later known as the New Grenada Theater), homes, commercial properties and other institutional buildings throughout Pennsylvania. Bellinger also designed the Hill District’s other stadium, Greenlee Field, in 1932. Even though it opened more than a decade later, Greenlee Field was recognized as “the first African American-owned stadium in the Negro Leagues.”
Construction of the Central Amusement Park was already underway in June of 1920 when Pittsburgh City Council voted to allow Williams to extend his stadium into the Chauncey Street right of way. “Chauncey Street is not passable between Mahon Street and Center Avenue, but is used between Mahon Street and Humber Way,” Pittsburgh City Council reported in June 28, 1920. The council agreed that the stadium would not obstruct pedestrians using the Chauncey Street city steps.
The ballpark opened for business on Saturday, July 24, 1920. The inaugural game pit the Steubenville Giants against the local P.J. Sullivans. Williams bought his own Negro Leagues team, the Pittsburgh Keystones, and the ballpark became their home field.
For four years, the Central Amusement Park featured baseball games, boxing matches and concerts. Though the ballpark attracted crowds to its 4,500 seats, the Williams brothers failed to turn a profit and Alexander Williams struggled to pay his players and bills.
Alexander Williams’ dream of baseball glory ended in 1925. The year before, he turned the park over to Sellers (“Sell”) McKee Hall. A former Negro Leagues ballplayer who once played for the Homestead Grays, Hall later became one of the city’s leading entertainment and sports promoters.
Williams heavily mortgaged his properties, including the family’s Wylie Avenue home, to meet his financial obligations. Allegheny County land records show that Williams, who was unable to satisfy his mounting debts, sold all of his real estate to avoid foreclosure and court.
“When he went bankrupt, he lost three or four houses that he owned in the Hill District,” his granddaughter Donna says.
The losses devastated the Williams family. A long streak of economic bad luck followed. Classified ads published in the 1920s through the 1930s show that Williams sold off personal items and his beloved pool tables. The family also had to take in boarders.
“The daughter of a friend rented in the house and like I said, my father told me that the minister in the neighborhood rented,” Donna Williams says.
Alexander Williams recovered enough to send his son McDonald to the University of Pittsburgh. After studying at Pitt, McDonald Williams earned a doctorate in English from Ohio State University. He became a national leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, along with his wife, the accomplished speech scholar Jamye Coleman Williams.
Before retiring in 1988, Williams directed the Honors College at Tennessee State University. He and his wife were profiled in the 2004 book, “A Wealth of Wisdom: Legendary African American Elders Speak” by Camille Cosby and Renee Poussaint.
Like his father, McDonald Williams made history.
In May 2011, McDonald Williams submitted a 20-page historical marker application to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. It included a brief summary of the ballpark’s history, focusing on the Pittsburgh Keystones team.
The history included material sourced from published accounts and from his own memories of conversations with his father. Williams appended copies of invoices for lumber made out to Bellinger and delivered to the stadium site. It also included copies of accounting records for the Pittsburgh Keystones, a player’s contract and the 1941 Pittsburgh Courier obituary for his father.
“I am sorry to inform you that, at this time, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has chosen not to approve the Pittsburgh Keystones and Central Park historical marker nomination that you recently submitted,” the agency wrote to Williams about 11 months later on April 26, 2012.
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission did not retain the Williams application; it was destroyed after remaining on file for 10 years — three at the agency and another seven at the State Records Center.
According to Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Andrea MacDonald, the agency followed its internal protocols for records retention. In emailed responses to questions about the application, MacDonald says that her agency did not conduct any additional research into the ballpark’s history.
McDonald Williams’ application sparked no curiosity among the agency charged with preserving Pennsylvania’s historic sites, stories and documents.
Citing the discretion to withhold certain records from public view that it described as “predecisional privilege,” the agency declined to release internal documents related to the 2012 decision in response to a Pennsylvania Right-to-Know Law request.
The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records reversed that decision on appeal. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission responded by sending a screenshot of a 2012 internal report titled “Historical Markers Review in 2012 Not Recommended for Approval.”
Looking for justice
Amateur baseball historian and local attorney Mark Fatla says the agency made a mistake.
Fatla is the author of a new book being published in March titled “Pittsburgh’s Historic Ballparks.” He wants to work with local officials and the Williams family to correct the error.
“A historical marker, I want to start talking to the mayor’s office about,” Fatla said in an interview last September.
It’s part of a larger mission for Fatla to correct what he sees as mistakes.
After lobbying in 2009 by the Heinz History Center, the Josh Gibson Foundation and the Society for American Baseball Research, a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker was placed on Bedford Avenue near the former Greenlee Field site. The marker declares that Greenlee Field was “the first African American-owned stadium in the Negro Leagues.”
The information that appears on the Greenlee Field marker is derived from decades of research by baseball historians, including the University of Pittsburgh’s Rob Ruck, author of the 1987 book “Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh.”
Fatla wants to see Central Amusement Park get the honor that is incorrectly attributed to Greenlee Field. Though the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission does have a process for revising historical marker text, according to MacDonald, Fatla wants to see a new marker at the Central Amusement Park site.
So does Donna Williams.
“I think the record needs to be set straight, number one,” Williams says. “And number two, I want my granddaughters to understand who their grandfather was and on whose shoulders they’re standing.”