The Buck Leonard Association for Sports and Human Enrichment had ambitious plans in 2020 to celebrate the centennial of the founding of the Negro National League. It was the first such professional baseball league.
The plans were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic as last year’s celebration was postponed. The disruption of the celebration only encouraged Buck Leonard Association Director Rose Hunter to make this year’s event “really big.”
And after a one-year absence, the Buck Leonard Association’s annual gala begins on Friday in what will be a two-week celebration of the Negro Leagues, the arts associated with it and the community.
“This year is a mix of what should have happened in 2020 with the Negro League centennial that we couldn’t have because of COVID,” Hunter said. “And since we never know what could happen next, we figured we better go on and get this done and make this really big.”
The lineup consists of various events from Oct. 15-23, beginning with an opening-night reception on Friday at the Rocky Mount Mills. The reception will feature the grand opening of the Black Diamond exhibit, which is a collection of works by artist Darryl Matthews that honors Negro Leagues baseball players.
Matthews is the son of former Newark Eagles first baseman Francis Oliver Matthews.
The events will continue at 11 a.m. on Saturday at the Imperial Centre.
There, children are encouraged to participate in learning about the history of the Negro Leagues and the famous players such as Buck Leonard, Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson, “Cool Papa” Bell and John-Henry “Pop” Lloyd during a led presentation by historian Derrick C. Jones.
Children also will be given a chance to wear reproductions of jerseys and there also will be a permanent exhibit that includes portraits, an oral history and public artworks including The Positions on the Field and portraits of ballplayers in porcelain enamel.
Much of the art was donated by those at the Seattle Mariners’ home field T-Mobile Park, formerly Safeco Field.
“The art was donated to us and we had people come in from Seattle to help get it set up,” Hunter said. “We are very excited about this for people to come and see the display.”
Oct. 18 will be an opportunity to meet members of the Buck Leonard Association and tour Leonard’s home in Rocky Mount at 605 Atlantic Ave. Leonard lived there from 1934 until his death in 1997. In May 2019, the Rocky Mount City Council voted unanimously to officially designate the home as an Historical Landmark.
Later on Oct. 21, Belmont Lake Golf Club will host a scramble-style tournament with the Inner City Youth Sports & S.T.E.A.M.
The following day, Oct. 22, will highlight Rocky Mount’s downtown scene that will feature the restaurants, bars and businesses of the downtown area. The evening kicks off with a community reception at the historic Booker T. Theater.
On the evening of Oct. 23, there will be a gala and online auction as the association welcomes several special guests — including the family of jazz legend Thelonius Monk.
The event will celebrate the history and the Rocky Mount community through musical performances from the Monk Family and Joyce Thompson-Stearnes, daughter of Negro League baseball legend Norman “Turkey” Stearnes.
Hunter noted that it was intended to host the various events across Rocky Mount as a way to showcase the numerous offerings that the city has as it is on its way up.
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Leonard’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, and Hunter said she hopes the association’s celebration can be regional.
“We don’t want to relegate it to any one area as we want it to be citywide,” Hunter said. “And next year we want it to be region-wide. Rocky Mount says it is the ‘center of it all,’ so let’s make that a reality.
“The city can’t do it all alone and our nonprofit has been important in bringing this to the area for 20 years and we love what we are doing and we want it to continue.”