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Honoring baseball greats
New NE museum to showcase Negro League
(Published August 23, 2004)

Staff Writer

At a glance the 900 block of 12th Street NE looked like a block party. Stretch Hummers, tour buses and neon-colored antique cars lined the street.

Urban Biker Girls, neighbors and dozens of cameras filmed the groundbreaking ceremony of what someday will be the home of the Negro League Legends Hall of Fame Museum -- a commemoration of the 3,000 Negro Baseball League players from the 1920s to the 1960s.

The museum, which will sit at 915 12th St. NE, is the vision of one man: Dwayne R. Simms, 47, founder and chief executive officer of the Negro League Legend Hall of Fame (NLLHOF).

"Washington, D.C., is the eye for the world to look into when they want to see America," Simms said, citing his reason for building the museum in the District.

His interest in the league began two years ago while driving along Route 6 in suburban Bowie, Md. He said he found himself passing a Negro League shop, where he met a woman who educated him about the Negro Baseball League. Since then, Simms, with help from public relations firm Clark and Associates, has created a media blitz that has taken him across the country campaigning and fundraising for the Negro League Legends Hall of Fame. Along the way Simms said he has formed lasting relationships with some of the 300-surviving members of the league teams. He calls them "oral historians."

Upon completion in May 2005, the $3 million museum will be roughly 4,000 square feet. The costs are mainly being paid by Simms and local contributors, including Washington lawyer Jack Olender and insurance firm G.B. Herndon Associates.

The D.C. museum won’t be the first dedicated to the Negro Baseball League. Kansas City, Kan., already is home to one, and there are plans for museums in Birmingham, Ala., and Philadelphia.

"I think every city should have a Negro League museum…It’s like a library -- you can’t just have one," said Simms, who added that the Negro League was often overlooked in the history of American sports.

Simms said his goal for the museum is to educate young and old about the league's contribution to American baseball history. He also hopes the museum will spark more interest in African-American history museums, which he said is lacking.

"If baseball was the number one sport, we’d know more about the Negro League," Simms said.

The Negro Baseball League was formed during the 1920s, a time when segregation kept African-American players out of the major leagues. At its peak, the Negro League sometimes was able to draw larger crowds than the major leagues.

Simms said he hopes the museum will educate the community, but he also sees the construction as an opportunity to revitalize the area around H Street in Northeast Washington.

"It’s going to put Northeast on the map," said Wanda Stevens-Harris, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who represents the Ward 6 neighborhood where the museum is to be built.

Aside from the museum, Simms also is in partnership with the Capital Hill Oasis to develop condominiums and townhomes in the area surrounding the museum. He said he plans to create a major tourism area once the museum opens its doors, but says visitors can expect to access the museum via a charter bus by appointment only, so that traffic doesn’t become a problems to area residents.

"My goal was that kids would not have to pay to come in," Simms said.

There are also plans for the museum to pay for traveling cost of its guess.

Simms said he sees the museum as a way to renew interest in baseball throughout the D.C. area.

Likewise, surviving Negro League player Sam Island said that basketball and football have become the sports of choice among today’s youth. He recalls a time when baseball games drew crowds of 400,000 a season.

"It was like a festival," he said.

Island said the Negro League's demise came after the Major League Baseball color line was broken by Jackie Robinson and other Negro League players were signed to major league contract, often only to sit out on the bench. Without its best players, the league suffered from low attendance that led to its end.

"We went through a lot of hardships to get where we are today…To get something, you have to give up a lot," he said.

The museum will not only pay homage to Negro League players, but also other contributors to sports. The late Sam Lacy, who became a sportswriting legend with the Afro-American Newspapers, will be honored with a replica of his office on display. Visitors also can expect to see never before seen photos and documentation of colored leagues formed in the late 1800s that predated the Negro League.

As for the interior, the rosewood floors will be imported from Africa.

"It's going to be grand," Simms said.

The museum will be operated by the NLLHOF Commission, which includes Simms and Afro-American sports editor Tim Lacy, and will be staffed by members of the community as well as Howard University students.

Simms said there are plans for re-enactment of the East/West Negro League games, which featured all-star players, to further promote the Hall of Fame.

Though his vision of a Washington-based Negro League museum has come to light, Simms said his biggest dream won’t arrive until May 2005.

"I see myself standing in the doorway of the museum, seeing little boys and girls say 'Wow!'" Simms said.

Copyright 2004, The Common Denominator