El Profe: Chasing Ghosts in the Shadows of Woodlawn

Indiana Jones movies always intrigued me — the idea of interacting with the past and examining artifacts. The movies in some way influenced why I became a history professor.

The past is with us. As William Faulkner put it: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

In the classroom, I tell students that history is a relationship between those of us in the present and those in the past — an understanding influenced by the work of anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot.

Yes, what happened in the past happened. What changes is our understanding of why or how it happened.

But this is not the lecture hall, not my undergraduate seminar. It’s a story about the feeling of chasing ghosts, or of being chased by history.

A perch of imagination

My maternal grandmother Mercedes lived in the north Bronx from the early 1970s into the mid-1990s. Her fifth-floor apartment on Bainbridge Ave. sat across the street from the immense Woodlawn Cemetery.

As a kid, I would venture to one of the rooms overlooking the cemetery, particularly around dusk. Looking at the magnificent mausoleums, headstones and graves of war heroes dating back to the Civil War, I wondered: What stories must they hold?

Sometimes my imagination ran wild. I swore that I saw ghosts traipsing through the lush greenery of Woodlawn.

Abuelita Mercedes eventually retired from her job as a garment worker and moved out of the Bronx to live closer to her family. But the ghosts of Woodlawn still beckoned, calling me to visit.

Visiting the past

While conducting research in Cooperstown for Cuban Star, my book on Alejandro “Álex” Pompez, the pioneering Cuban-American executive, Negro Leagues team owner and Major League Baseball scout, I came across a questionnaire completed by his wife, Ruth Seldon Pompez, in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum library files. What she listed as the burial site of her husband of 40-plus years caught my attention: Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

On my next research trip to New York City, I decided to visit the Pompez family plot where Ruth and Alex lay buried. I contacted officials at Woodlawn Cemetery, now a National Historic Landmark, and they encouraged me to stop by their office on my visit. When I arrived, they provided me with well-organized files and a map of the grounds, which cover 400 acres, with an approximate location of the Pompez plot, purchased in 1931.

It was late spring, a crisp day that made the lush greenery of the massive cemetery all the more alluring. The century-old trees throughout, the sound of birds singing — one felt miles away from the hustle and bustle of the Bronx or of Manhattan. It was tranquil and beautiful.

Connecting the Dots

Departing the visitor center, I drove toward the burial plot. I had to walk the last stretch, as the area was located a distance from the road. With each pace, it felt like I was walking further and further into the past, observing the memorials and markers to those who had departed so many years earlier. Clearly others had walked this path before, to remember, to pay their respects. The flowers and cleared headstones told me as much.

As I continued walking, I noticed a particularly green tree, and there it stood right next to the tree: the Pompez family headstone. Both Alex and his sister were buried here, along with their spouses. Alex’s younger sister Leonor and her husband Pedro Rodríguez, who died in 1931, through Alex himself in 1974, and finally Ruth a decade later in 1985.

Thoughts flooded over me about the long life that Alex and Ruth lived. Born in 1890 Key West, Alex witnessed momentous historical shifts in the United States. The rise of Jim Crow in Florida and throughout the South had sent thousands of blacks, including Latinos like himself, fleeing north to New York. It was in Harlem that Pompez made his mark, both in the illegal numbers game and in Negro League baseball, running the Cuban Stars and the New York Cubans.

And it was while living in Harlem he married Ruth in 1934, in the midst of legal troubles for his numbers involvement. With Ruth by his side, Alex dedicated his entrepreneurial zeal just to baseball. Moving from a Sugar Hill apartment in Harlem to a more suburban-style brick ranch house on Long Island, Ruth and Alex witnessed the end of baseball’s racial segregation. And after the New York Giants hired Alex in 1950 to be their scout in Black baseball and across Latin America, he played a significant role in baseball’s integration, helping sign future Hall of Famers such as Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal.

After snapping a few photos of the headstone, I took in the scene, getting goosebumps as I gazed up and across the street, across what turned out to be Bainbridge Ave., and onto the apartment building that stood there.

It was abuelita Mercedes’ building — and there was the fifth-floor window I had looked out of so many times as a youth, and where I lived my first year after graduating from college. All with a direct view onto the Pompez family plot.

For that moment, I was Indiana Jones.

Featured Image: Jesús Jacobo

Inset Images: Transcendental Graphics / Getty Images Sport