It’s an act of a bygone era but there was a time “Hit the N—– Baby” was once a regular attraction of carnival goers at fairgrounds in the United States. It was so popular that carnival promoters publicized the act to draw in people to their fairgrounds.
The white carnival goers threw eggs or balls at African-Americans in a game popularly known as “Hit the N—– Baby.” The games were staged as early as the 1880s, and as recently as the 1950s.
“Hit the N—– Baby” also known as “The Black Dodger” or “Hit the Coon” was a common fairground game in which players hurled objects (usually eggs or baseballs) at African-American people serving as human targets. According to the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University, “It sounds like a common carnival target game, but there was one unsettling part of the game, namely, the game’s target was a real live human being, a ‘negro’ human being.”
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Its popularity was so widespread that newspaper bulletins promoted upcoming carnivals and fairs. Snopes reports that in July 1948, a “soldiers reunion and homecoming” held in the public square in Brownstown, Indiana, was advertised in the Jackson County Banner with the exhortation “Make this big week your vacation time — Bring the family — meet old friends — Hit the ‘Nigger Babies’ — Eat Hot Dogs — Join the Fun.”
One vignette from the St. Petersburg Times described how some residents of St. Petersburg, Florida, celebrated Labor Day in 1925: “Who can hit the nigger? Buy three chances to hit the nigger.” With all the vigor of a professional ballyhoo man, the laborer drew the crowd to the side attraction at the Labor Day celebration at Waterfront Park Monday afternoon.
Given that Negroes or Black men or boys were positioned with their heads exposed as targets for eggs and later baseballs, injuries resulting from this “game” were common, especially when baseballs were used instead of eggs. In 1887, the New York Sun recounted a bad day at the Westchester County Fair by noting that “Everything seemed to go wrong. The African Dodger was disabled. A very hard ball had explored a very soft region of his cranium and he was laid up for repairs.”
“Based on newspaper reports, it appears that some African-American men may have been killed during the course of these games. In 1908, for example, an “African Dodger” named William White was the target of carnival-goers in Hanover, Pennsylvania, where a squad of baseball players took turns throwing hard balls at his head. White, according to the Philadelphia Record, was “subjected to a fusilade of balls” but “took the punishment courageously.” Almost as an afterthought, the Record observed later in the piece that “He was compelled to retire soon afterward with internal injuries which may prove fatal.”
Despite inference to baby, there was no evidence of actual infants being used as targets.
It was also part of the practice of the time to use wooden “heads” or effigies instead of real African-Americans as it was easier to get.
Franklin Hughes, a digital media specialist who works with the Jim Crow Museum, submits an alternative to the African Dodger was the “African Dip,” which appears to have made its debut during the summer of 1910 and involved black men being dunked in water every time a target was hit.
The New Jersey paper Trenton True American described this form of carnival attraction in 1911 as follows:
“It used to be just five cents a throw at the colored gentleman’s head, and every time you hit it a cigar was your reward. But it is changed now, along with the progressive era. Here’s the way it’s played, according to the printed rules.”
Even with this so called progressive option, the repeated baths the Negro had by being dipped in water once a target was hit soon gave him the swimmer’s cramps.
The popularity of the game meant at times in the early 20th Century, the idiom “playing African Dodger” was used as shorthand for “avoiding uncomfortable questions,” especially in the context of political debate and journalism.