Ms. Eliza Gets a Seat
It wasn't April Fools Day, but it was a Friday the 13th; maybe that explains a lot. It was also a beautiful April afternoon in 1894, so Eliza Barnard, like many other residents in her neighborhood, decided to watch the game being played at the nearby baseball park. And that’s exactly what she was doing when an Atlanta policeman came by and hauled her down from the roof of her house.
Described by the Atlanta Constitution as “a lanky mulatto female with a serious face,” she was promptly transported to a seat in the courtroom of Recorders Court Judge Andrew E. Calhoun, where she was “charged with sitting on top of her house and allowing her gaze to rest upon the restive forms of the ball tossers as they flitted back and forth upon the diamond.”1
The Constitution noted that “she did not deny having, with much exertion and labor, hoisted herself to the roof of her house to look upon the game, but she said she thought she had a right to do so.”2
While Judge Andy Calhoun was a serious jurist when weighty cases were presented, he also had a lively sense of humor in dealing with the variety of human foibles that were paraded before him. The Constitution, in another context, described him as “one of the most entertaining men in the world. . . . His jokes never tire, and he never tires telling them. He has a way of acting them while telling them that is simply irresistible. He pushes his thumbs back under the armholes of his vest and, leaning far back, pours these jokes out to the group of attentive and appreciative listeners, and they always are rounded off with a hundred ha-has from the boys.”3
With Ms. Eliza before him, having asserted her belief that she’d done nothing wrong, Judge Calhoun was not at a loss. Perhaps he was already savoring how he’d tell the story to some ready audience when he said he had “a question in his mind whether she should be allowed to sit there or not.” It was not, however, a difficult question for him to answer. As the Constitution explained his reasoning: “If it was her house he believed she had the inalienable constitutional right to sit on it day and night.”4
RICHARD MCBANE, a retired newspaperman, is the author of "Glory Days: The Akron Yankees of the Middle Atlantic League, 1935–1941" (Summit County Historical Society, 1997), and "A Fine-Looking Lot of Ball Tossers: The Remarkable Akrons of 1881" (McFarland, 2005).