The Atlanta Braves paid tribute to African-American heroes from World War II to the civil rights movement and from the baseball diamond to the skies during the team’s first-ever Heritage Weekend. Fans at Turner Field got the opportunity to see legends from the Negro Leagues, Tuskegee Airmen and more during the team’s three-game series against the Washington Nationals.
The weekend also included a series of exhibits and attractions honoring African-American achievement in multiple fields.
The festivities kicked off on Friday with a celebration of two civil rights leaders, former Georgia Congressman and United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young and former state senator Leroy Johnson, who were named the first recipients of the Hank Aaron Champion for Justice Award.
The two were feted during a panel discussion on Friday morning at the 755 Club inside Turner Field. Panelists for the discussion included former Tuskegee Airman Val Archer, former NBA player Bernard King, former Brave Brian Jordan and Tommie Smith, the 1968 Olympic gold medalist in the 200-meter track-and-field event. The discussion was moderated by Doug Shipman, CEO for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
That was followed by a veritable smorgasbord of history and culture on Saturday, highlighted by a P51 Mustang Red Tail fighter plane that flew over Turner Field after the National Anthem, and a concert by hip hop pioneers RUN DMC for fans following the game.
Before Saturday’s first pitch, Negro League players from teams like the Atlanta Black Crackers, Kansas City Monarchs and Birmingham Black Barons were honored on the field. While most players simply tipped their caps to the crowd, Roosevelt Jackson, who at 95 years old is recognized as the oldest living member of the Negro Leagues, treated the crowd to a series of dance moves after his introduction.
Negro League players also took time to sign autographs and converse with fans who had waited in long lines at Turner Field’s outdoor patio area.
“I came here and played in ’58. We’d come and play the Atlanta Black Crackers,” said Henry Elmore, who played for the Negro League’s Black Barons and Philadelphia Stars. “I’ve been here before and done the same thing. All [fans have] to do is talk and listen and learn, because we’ve got a story to tell them.”
The Braves and Nationals paid homage to the Negro Leagues by donning their old uniforms. The Braves wore the home jerseys of the Black Crackers while the Nationals wore the away jerseys of the Homestead Grays.
There was even more history outside the Turner Field gates where fans had the chance to watch a 15 minute movie called “Rise Above.” The feature spotlighted the Tuskegee Airmen and included interviews with living members of the historic all-Black World War II brigade, footage from their journey and first-person video from inside the cockpit of the Mustang fighter planes used in battle.
“I just appreciate the fact that they’re using sports to bring attention to some of the issues around diversity and overcoming obstacles, given the publicity around Jackie Robinson recently and his movie,” said Kweku Forstall, who came from Tucker with his wife and two daughters to see the exhibits. “This is another way to expose people to it.”
Sunday gave fans the opportunity to visit the Negro League Exhibit inside Turner Field’s Hank Aaron Room and catch additional showings of “Rise Above.”
Pure baseball fans also got their money’s worth for the weekend as the Braves took two out of three from the division rival Nats to increase their lead in the National League East.