Here is the complete Introduction to Claude Johnson’s upcoming new book, “BLACK FIVES: The Alpha Physical Culture Club’s Pioneering African American Basketball Team, 1904-1923.”
This is the complete Introduction to my upcoming new book, “BLACK FIVES: The Alpha Physical Culture Club’s Pioneering African American Basketball Team, 1904-1923.” (Here is some advance praise, and more details.) It’s the first in a series of books detailing the history of the Black Fives Era of basketball.
Typically, the intro for a book is supposed to tell readers why they should read the book. So please let me know what you think.
This book will be available soon in print as well as in ebook formats. The ebook versions will be available within a few days. The print version will be available in approximately one month. (I’m learning that indie publishing can be a lot like waiting for a good meal to come out of the oven.)
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Just after the game of basketball was invented in 1891, teams were often called “fives” in reference to their five starting players.
The earliest period of large scale organized participation in basketball by African Americans began in 1904 when a black gym teacher named Edwin Henderson introduced the game to his students in the racially segregated Washington, D.C. public school system.
Soon, teams made up entirely of African American players were referred to as “colored fives,” “Negro fives,” or black fives.
The period between 1904, when Henderson initiated his basketball efforts, and 1950, when the National Basketball Association signed its first African American players, came to be known as the Black Fives Era. Hundreds of all-black basketball teams played during this age. They were amateur, semi-pro, and professional. They represented athletic clubs, churches, businesses, Y.M.C.A.’s, schools and colleges, newspapers, military units, social and fraternal organizations, and neighborhoods. Some teams were made up of the best-available talent from any or all of these pools, brought together by enterprising basketball managers and promoters.
The best of these organizations had elaborate logos, attractive uniforms, faithful team colors, and memorable slogans. They had the finest equipment, including woolen warm up sweaters and kangaroo leather shoes. They had loyal rooters, pennants, pins, buttons, and fight songs. They had business offices or clubhouses, with team letterhead and stationary. They played in the spacious ballrooms, armories, gymnasiums, halls, auditoriums, and arenas. Home teams furnished their own house orchestras, which provided pre– and post-game music for dancing by spectators until well past midnight. Visiting opponents were dined, toasted, and entertained by their hosts. They rented special train cars or rode in private team cars and buses for inter-city travel.
African American teams collaborated with– and competed against an ethnically and racially diverse variety of squads, which included not only all-black lineups but also those that were all-Jewish, all-Italian, all-Asian, all-Irish, all-white, and even all-Native American, or combinations of these. “The Independent Seniors defeated the Chinese basketball team,” the New York Age wrote after a 1912 game featuring the all-black Independent Pleasure Club. “On the Chinese quint were two Chinamen, two Jews, and one Irishman.”
Every one of those black fives had pride and purpose. All were pioneers.
Blacks were not always in basketball, and basketball was not always in blacks. Henderson introduced the sport to his schoolchildren as a purely amateur recreational alternative meant to develop mind, body, and spirit. After all, basketball had been invented in a religious context – through the Young Men’s Christian Association – to help prevent idleness during the winter months. However, it wasn’t an instant hit. “Among blacks,” said Henderson, “basketball was at first considered a ‘sissy’ game, as was tennis in the rugged days of football.”
The game for African Americans needed something more to elevate it from the ranks of gym class leisure, experimental amusement, and club camaraderie. That something came in the form of independent teams organizing to compete against one another with something real at stake – bragging rights. Bragging rights soon gave way to something more real — professionalism. Despite heavy opposition by black proponents of amateur ideals, the concept of play-for-pay found its way into basketball and began to energize the sport. However, this progression was slow. It would take nearly a generation – until 1922 — for a fully professional black-owned African American basketball team to walk onto a court.
That historic and legendary team — the New York Renaissance Big Five a.k.a. “Harlem Rens” – deserves countless accolades. However, the Rens could not have come into existence without the efforts and contributions of many earlier pioneers. The most important of these may have been the all-black Alpha Physical Culture Club of Harlem – the first African American athletic club in America – and its basketball team, the Alpha Big Five. This is their story, the first book about them ever written.
The Alpha P.C.C. was founded in 1904 by the brothers Gerald, Conrad, and Clifton Norman. The Normans were among a handful of black men in New York City who, through their activism and influence, were personally instrumental in setting up the conditions under which basketball could catch on and thrive among local African Americans. This book introduces each of them. There was Everard Daniel, an assistant minister at St. Philips’ Church, a prestigious black congregation. Daniel ran the church’s powerful athletic offshoot, the St. Christopher Club. Another of these men was Romeo Dougherty, a sportswriter for the New York Amsterdam News, an up and coming African American newspaper. Then there was a man named Robert Douglas, who owned and managed a popular all-black sports organization known as the Spartan Field Club along with its basketball team, the Spartan Braves.
Each of these individuals was a staunch advocate for maintaining the strictest devotion to the amateur ideals that prevailed in the mainstream version of the sport of basketball at the time. They were the men who orchestrated the public
opposition to commercialism in the black game.
These men had something else in common that no one else has ever noticed, at least not in modern times. It is that each of them was a first-generation West Indian immigrant. Each held to a rigidly conservative basketball ideology that had been primed by their compulsory exposure to Caribbean sporting culture during childhood. These kinsmen set the black basketball agenda, with the founders of the Alpha Physical Culture Club at the center of their efforts. For almost two decades after the turn of the last century, West Indians controlled and regulated the game among African Americans in New York City with an influence that had a nationwide reach. This was accomplished, for a while, through their formation of a “cartel” – they called themselves the “Triple Alliance” – which included the Alpha Big Five, the St. Christopher Club, and the Spartan Braves. Together, they effectively blocked any teams or players from playing that did not comply with their strict code of hoops amateurism.
Eventually, the uncontainable tide of black demand for quality basketball together with the inherent forces of capitalism compelled the men behind the “Triple Alliance” to yield and transform. They came to accept and appreciate professionalism in the game, but at a price — the eventual demise of their amateur organizations. It was a stunning yet inevitable reversal.
This close causal link between the influence of Caribbean immigrants and the emergence of basketball among African Americans has never before been revealed. However, it should not be surprising in the sense that the Harlem Renaissance period of culture and art was itself deeply rooted in the contributions of West Indians.
There are several reasons why the history of the Black Fives Era has been overlooked for so long. Though they belonged to a dynamic and well-organized network of teams like themselves that faced one another as well as others, the basketball operations of early black fives were informal and unregulated, and their schedules were inconsistent. There did not exist any African American professional basketball structure akin to baseball’s better-known Negro Leagues. Instead, a semi-official Colored Basketball World’s Champion was chosen annually by consensus of the sportswriters of the Negro press. Basketball itself was fairly new to the sporting public, lacking the traditions and spectatorship of the national pastime or football. Collegiate basketball was self-contained and off-limits to outsiders. Professional hoops leagues were whites-only, and few succeeded for long due to the affects of Depression-era economics.
In addition, though the local and national editions of the Negro press covered the results of games involving all-black basketball teams, box scores and statistics were not consistently reported or kept. Moreover, few Caucasians ever read the broadsheets of the Negro press – newspapers like the Chicago Defender, Amsterdam News, Pittsburgh Courier, or Baltimore Afro-American — so this information did not become a “feed” for the sportswriters of white-controlled mainstream publications. Since the stories of the accomplishments of black basketball teams rarely made it into major newspapers, that information — like African-American history in general – got significantly less attention going forward.
Coverage of African American teams by white newspapers expanded during the 1930s, with the emergence of the Rens and several other black fives as regional or national basketball powerhouses. These teams had extensive travel schedules and booked games almost exclusively against white teams, whom they usually defeated. Before long, it was nearly impossible for a local paper to not mention elite caliber African American basketball squads – the New York Rens, Chicago Crusaders, Ciralsky Meat Packers, Philadelphia Tribunes, Cleveland Pennzoils, Chicago Studebakers, Harlem Globetrotters, Philadelphia Tribunes, Washington Bears, and others — that were coming soon to play the hometown favorites. These “colored champions” were too big of a draw to be ignored.
Furthermore, the introduction of the World Professional Basketball Tournament in 1939 changed the pro hoops landscape by providing the sport with its biggest national showcase ever. The country’s top professional basketball teams were invited to the single elimination annual event to crown a true world’s champion. Twelve teams were invited in all, including two black fives: the New York Rens and the Harlem Globetrotters. When the Rens won the inaugural championship that year, followed by the ‘Trotters’ tourney title in 1940, it meant that a major turning point had been reached. These were breakthrough successes at the highest possible level of achievement in the sport, which led directly – within a few years — to the racial integration of professional basketball leagues, including the N.B.A.
Afterward, public interest in less prominent African American teams declined. By then, black intercollegiate basketball teams were becoming stronger as their respective athletic conferences grew and matured. Black college hoops drew top young talent away from all but the best independent black fives, and were prohibited from playing against non-college teams. Mainstream newspapers only used ink to cover African American squads if they were champions or if they were novelty acts. In the Negro press, these exciting successes resulted in more coverage of the Rens, Globetrotters, and top black college teams. Less ink was devoted to remembering the earlier days of African American basketball, when the still-expanding market allowed many black fives could coexist. The result was that the history of the Black Fives Era began to fade.
After the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Basketball Association were formed, they dominated the attention and imagination of mainstream newspapermen as well as black newspapers. This was not just in contemporary accounts, but also in the past tense. In other words, the publicity generated by the major basketball associations was so great that black hoops history seemed either to be rewritten or systematically choked off. After a while, one got the sense that African-American participation in basketball began and ended with the stars and teams of the N.C.A.A. and the N.B.A. This outcome was not necessarily deliberate as much as it was due to the tremendous gravitational pull of those two basketball galaxies.
In more recent history, the strength and reach of traditional black newspapers suffered as readership and revenues fell due to a range of factors that have plagued the print media industry as a whole. This meant that the periodic reminiscences of long time Negro press sportswriters like Howie Evans of the New York Amsterdam News were nearly unnoticed for decades, by all but the most alert and devoted eyes.
These effects were so extensive collectively and cumulatively, that even the history of the most famous and accomplished of the black fives during their time – arguably the New York Rens – still remains quite below the public radar today. Another all-black team, the Harlem Globetrotters, is well known today as a brand name for a different reason, in a way that also obscures its historical past. That team’s highest fame and publicity was achieved after the N.B.A. was formed, while bringing black basketball into a new light after the arrival of widespread television broadcasting and airplane travel. The “clowning” reputation of the post-1940s version of the “Trotters” – often criticized as racially caricatured or exploitative, or both – became so pervasive that it overshadowed the team’s earlier genuine competitive achievements as well as the remarkable basketball talents of its individual players.
In summary, for a variety of reasons, the history of the Black Fives Era has been underrepresented for generations and was all but forgotten. The historical equation is severely imbalanced, and helps explain why pioneering basketball organizations like the Alpha Physical Culture Club of Harlem are so obscure today. My hope is that this book begins to balance that equation.