(From the Stonehill College Department of Communications and Media Relations)
Claude Johnson presenting his talk at Stonehill College.
Curiosity can lead you a long way. For Claude Johnson, his curiosity led to the discovery of a significant era in Black history when hundreds of talented African-Americans excelled on the basketball court during a time of widespread discrimination. On Thursday in the Martin Institute, Johnson shared with students and community members the grassroots story of the founding of his company, Black Fives Inc., which is seeking to widen the appreciation of these pioneers of basketball.
“I was working for the NBA back in 1996, the year the league was celebrating its 50th anniversary,” said Johnson, who recalled that just three pages of the NBA’s 800-page history book published that year were dedicated to the African-American teams that played before the league’s integration in 1950.
“No one knew anything more about these teams or this history – not even the Basketball Hall of Fame,” noted Johnson. Wanting to learn more about these teams, he found his library card and began the daunting task of reading old newspaper articles on microfilm.
After uncovering information on dozens of teams, dating as far back as 1904, Johnson trademarked each name and logo and from there created Black Fives Inc.
Johnson said his goal with Black Fives is to take this era of Black history and make it relevant to today’s society.
“I was in Philadelphia a few years back and there was an elderly African-American man who was curious about these photos I was holding. I stopped and showed him the photos of some of the players and when I looked up, I noticed he had a tear in his eye.
The talk included a question and answer session with about 125 attendees.
“I realized right then and there, what I was doing was so much more than just bringing these teams back to life. I began to ask myself questions like, what do these teams stand for? Why does it stir up emotions in people? What are the life lessons to be learned from this era?”
One of the most important aspects of the Black Fives Era to consider was the seemingly insurmountable obstacles the players faced noted Johnson. “You have to wonder, how did they continue escalating to higher and higher levels of success during that time?” said Johnson.
From personal stories told to him by John Isaacs, one of the stars of the world champion New York Renaissance, Johnson said often times players weren’t allowed to shower after a game or eat in restaurants while on the road.
“They could have easily said I quit or I’m too upset but they didn’t because there was a sense of connectedness to something bigger. In their case, there was a sense of whatever they did, was also good for the entire race,” continued Johnson, who stressed the positivity the players were able to maintain in their environments was a key part to their success, and that same principle can still apply in today’s world.
“If you resist what is, then you are resisting life itself,” said Johnson, who plans to expand Black Fives’ offerings to museum exhibits, online courses, and books in the future.
These initiatives will follow the recently launched Black Fives Community Fund, which raises money for the communities and neighborhoods where the original Black Fives teams played, from Harlem to Los Angeles.
(For more information, contact Stonehill College Communications and Media Relations at 508-565-1321.)