One hundred years ago, in all likelihood, Oscar Charleston met the young woman who would be his first wife. She had the unpromising name of Hazel Grubbs, but her family was one of black Indianapolis’s best.
Her father was William E. Grubbs, highly respected principal at Public School No. 42. William was called “professor” by those who knew him. He had a bachelor’s degree from Butler University and taught mathematics for a while at Tuskegee Institute, where he attracted the notice of Booker T. Washington. Like Washington, William believed in self-help, education, and civil society. He played the viola, among other instruments. Director of the Boys Club Orchestra of North Indianapolis, leader of YMCA membership and war-bond drives, active member of the First Baptist Church, he was not only a civic leader but a good-humored man, too, possessing “the ready capacity to shunt aside for a time the cares of work in favor of a good laugh.”
Hazel’s mother, Alberta, was just as energetic and highly respected as William. Her life centered around music. She taught piano out of the Grubbs’s home on 25th Street (it’s gone now, by the way, and I think it’s safe to say that the neighborhood no longer is home to ambitious bourgeois families), often directed musical performances around the city, and served as the organist at her church. She also sang and acted. The papers made frequent mention of her advanced musical abilities. In August 1918, she played before a Chautauqua audience of 5,000 in Rush County. This was a very talented woman.
By 1916, Hazel had followed in her mother’s footsteps. She often played piano for her father’s boys’ orchestra and took part in other performances as both a pianist and vocalist—at banquets given by the Ethical Culture Society, for example, and for the Shiloh Baptist Church’s Booker T. Washington Musicale.
Hazel was clearly no cleat-chaser. So how did she meet Oscar? The Grubbses didn’t live too far away from the Charlestons, but their home was a mile or so north of the Charlestons’ immediate neighborhood. They were clearly of a different social class. And at a time when baseball was still considered mildly disreputable, it would be somewhat surprising to learn that they were big fans. I suppose the Indianapolis black community wasn’t all that big. Oscar could have run into Hazel or her parents in any number of ways. Still…
Oscar and Hazel were married on January 9, 1917. So much silence surrounds the event that one wonders about the circumstances. The black press didn’t mention the marriage at all (although I haven’t yet been able to check the Freeman). Hazel was seventeen or eighteen at most—a young age for a bride even at that time, and especially young for an upwardly mobile, socially prominent family like the Grubbses. The eighth-grade-educated, ballplaying, grocery-clerking (that was his offseason job after the close of the 1916 season) Oscar couldn’t have fit William and Alberta’s preconception of what Hazel’s husband ought to be.
How and why these two people got together is a mystery.