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The Chattanooga Choo Choos are shown in 1946. Willie Mays is kneeling fourth from the left, and team owner Beck Shepherd is standing second from the left. / Source: Negro Southern League Museum Research Center

(Editor's note: Last of three parts)

A few blocks north of Engel Stadium stands another landmark of Chattanooga baseball history. Established in 1918 amid the racial segregation and inherent inequality of the Jim Crow South, Lincoln Park served as a social and recreational oasis for black Chattanoogans barred from the whites-only Warner Park. Featuring a picnic area, bandstand, playground, basketball and tennis courts, a small amusement park and zoo, and an Olympic-sized, WPA-constructed swimming pool and bathhouse, Lincoln Park was an anchor for local black life and identity as well as a magnet for African Americans throughout the region.

The baseball field was an additional focal point of the park, especially after 1938 when lights were added for evening play. Used for black industrial leagues and recreational softball, Lincoln Park also hosted decades of local and visiting Negro League baseball teams cheered on by black spectators free momentarily from the gaze and indignities of a white supremacist society. Though the historical record and memory frequently highlight African American stars who played at the more stately but segregated Engel Stadium, the likes of Jackie Robinson more often played at the Lincoln Park field.

Chattanooga was home to several Negro League baseball teams between 1920 and 1951, including the Tigers, White Sox, Black Lookouts, Black Cats, Choo Choos, Black Choo Choos and Stars. When not engaged in Negro Southern League action at Lincoln Park, Andrews Field or Engel Stadium, Chattanooga's black professional and semi-professional squads barnstormed throughout the South, Midwest and Northeast playing scores of exhibition games.

(Read more: Thompson and Collyer: The 'Barnum of Baseball' meets his match) 

The Chattanooga White Sox won the Negro Southern League in 1927 with a 22-8 record. This championship team included future pitching legend Leroy "Satchel" Paige (1906-1982), who arrived in Chattanooga in 1926 from Mobile, Alabama, and departed in 1927 to play for the Birmingham Black Barons. After a well-traveled four-decade career, Paige became the first former Negro League player to be elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971.

Satchel Paige was not the only African American baseball phenom who passed through Chattanooga. Before he was known as the "Say Hey Kid," teenager Willie Mays spent the summers of 1945 and 1946 playing for the Chattanooga Choo Choos, a semi-professional team based in Lincoln Park and owned by local black businessman Beck Shepherd. Amid the team's financial struggles and poor conditions on the road, Mays left Chattanooga and returned to Alabama to finish high school and join the Birmingham Black Barons. Willie Mays was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979 after a long and record-breaking career predominantly with the New York and San Francisco Giants.

Negro League baseball in Chattanooga contended with economic depression, world war, racism and inconstant rosters and ownership. Limited media coverage at the time and a relative lack of available documents today present challenges to those researching black baseball in Chattanooga and beyond. But the recovery and recollection of this history is imperative given the central role of sport, entertainment, leisure and community to African Americans seeking refuge from the harsh realities of Jim Crow in the early-to-mid-20th century South.

(Read more: Thompson and Collyer: New markers highlight Chattanooga's baseball history)

Like Negro League baseball, Lincoln Park declined in the decades after legal integration and the modern Civil Rights Movement. Though the death of Jim Crow birthed new hope for racial justice, the late 20th century also witnessed the erosion of secure community and cultural spaces for Chattanooga's black citizens. Substantial portions of the historic park, including the filled-in pool, have been absorbed into Erlanger Health System's expanding footprint. Though the baseball field remains intact, no marker recognizes the site's historical significance, and the fate of the parceled property is uncertain.

In fall 2017, students in professor John Swanson's UTC course "Filming Chattanooga History" interviewed Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association members and other Chattanooga residents for the production of four short documentary films about Lincoln Park's past, present and future. These films, along with a wealth of other information, are available for viewing on the UTC History Department's website at www.utc.edu/history.

Mike Thompson is a UC Foundation associate professor and head of the UTC History Department. Nate Collyer, a graduate of Hixson High School, is a senior history minor at UTC.

Read more Chattanooga History Columns

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