America’s Black Basketball Pioneers

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April 17 2014 11:04 AM

America’s Black Basketball Pioneers

Washington Bears, 1943
Washington Bears professional basketball team, 1943

Courtesy of the Black Fives Foundation

Long before the National Basketball Association became racially integrated in 1950, black players had been charting their own course in basketball. The New-York Historical Society’s exhibition “The Black Fives” tells that nearly 50-year history in photographs, objects, and other memorabilia. Taken together, it celebrates the pioneering teams (known as “fives” for their five starting players) and athletes who shaped the early days of the game and paved the way for progress in other areas of black life.

According to the Black Fives Foundation, a not-for-profit that collaborated on the exhibit and works to promote the history of this era of black basketball, blacks have been playing the game since high school teacher Edwin Bancroft Henderson introduced it to his students in 1904. In 1906, the Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn, N.Y., became the first independent black basketball team in the country. Others followed, including the Alpha Physical Culture Club, the nation’s first all-black athletic club, and the New York Girls, the first all-black female team. Later, the New York Renaissance Big Five, also known as the “New York Rens,” became the first black-owned professional basketball team and went on to win the first World Championship of Professional Basketball in 1939.

Until integration in the NBA in 1950, blacks couldn’t play on white teams, and they were historically barred from playing in gymnasiums owned by whites. Instead, they played in other spaces, including church basements, meeting halls, and dance ballrooms. “We can learn a lot from the obstacles and challenges these pioneers faced. They had no road map or precedent. Probably some of the challenges they faced are similar to those we face today,” said Claude Johnson, the founder and executive director of the Black Fives Foundation. “Rather than panic or run away we should ask, ‘How do we face those challenges and do something?’ ”

new-york-girls-1910
The New York Girls basketball team, 1910

Courtesy of the Black Fives Foundation

alpha-pcc-1910
The Alpha Physical Culture Club basketball team, 1912

Courtesy of the Black Fives Foundation

Copy of rens-1939
The New York Rens professional basketball team, 1939

Courtesy of the Black Fives Foundation

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Basketball events, which often attracted attendees by hosting dances before or after the game, served an important social function for blacks in the post-Reconstruction era. “People were escaping to the North,” Johnson said. “They were bewildered coming from the rural South, and they had to find a way to get their bearings in the big city. One way was through these social events. The music and the dancing brought people together, but then there were also the games.”

The exhibit includes photographs culled from eBay, the Library of Congress, and the descendents of the athletes. “When you look at those team images, the men and women are standing there looking at the camera as if they all got a memo that said, ‘This is serious.’ They're not happy, sad, bragging, or celebrating. They're not mad. They're not trying to intimidate. There's purposefulness, and it's a really positive affirming look on their faces. What I read into that is they are all doing this for something bigger than their team and even bigger than the sport,” Johnson said.

The Black Fives” is on view through July 20 at the  New-York Historical Society in New York City.

dayton-rens-1948
The Dayton Rens basketball team, from the 1948 National Basketball League Yearbook. They were previously known as the New York Rens before joining a new league.

Courtesy of the Black Fives Foundation

Copy of rens-cooper
New York Rens star Charles “Tarzan” Cooper in uniform, 1939

Courtesy of the Black Fives Foundation

smart-set-athletic-club-1909
The basketball team of the Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn, 1909

Courtesy of the Black Fives Foundation

ny-rens-1933
The New York Rens professional basketball team, with inset of owner Robert “Bob” Douglas, 1933

Courtesy of the Black Fives Foundation

Copy of Fats-Jenkins-Rens-Whiting-1939
New York Renaissance players pose with the Whiting, Ill., team before tipoff as captains shake hands, 1939

Courtesy of the Black Fives Foundation

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