GOOD MONDAY MORNING P.O.U.!!
This week we’re going to take a look at the early era of African Americans in basketball known as the “Black Fives Era”.
First, a brief historical background…
The term Black Fives refers to all-black basketball teams that thrived in the United States between 1904, when basketball was first introduced to African Americans on a large scale organized basis, and 1950, when the National Basketball Association became racially integrated. The period is known as the “Black Fives Era” or “Early Black Basketball” or simply “Black Basketball”.
Early basketball teams were often called “fives” in reference to the five starting players. All-black teams were known as colored quints, colored fives, Negro fives, or black fives.
Dozens of all-black teams emerged during the Black Fives Era, in New York City, Washington, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and other cities. They were sponsored by or affiliated with churches, athletic clubs, social clubs, businesses, newspapers, YMCA branches, and other organizations.
The terms “Black Fives” and “Black Fives Era” are trademarked phrases owned by Black Fives, Inc., whose founder and owner, Claude Johnson, coined the terms while researching and promoting the period’s history.
Edwin Henderson is considered the “Grandfather of Black Basketball.” He was a black gym teacher who is credited with being the first to introduce the game of basketball to African Americans in a wide scale organized way, in the winter of 1904 in Washington, D.C., through physical education classes in the district’s racially segregated public school system. It was thirteen years after basketball was invented. Henderson learned the sport while taking summer classes in physical training at Harvard University. He envisioned basketball not as an end in itself but as a public-health and civil-rights tool. Henderson believed that, by organizing black athletics, including basketball, it would be possible to send more outstanding black student athletes to excel at northern white colleges and debunk negative stereotypes of the race. He reasoned that in sports, unlike politics and business, the black race would get a fair chance to succeed. According to Henderson, the relatively new sport was not an immediate hit with his students. “Among blacks, basketball was at first considered a ‘sissy’ game, as was tennis in the rugged days of football,” he later wrote. In 1906, Henderson co-founded (along with Garnet Wilkinson of the M Street High School and W. A. Joiner of Howard University, as well as W. A. Decatur and Robert Mattingly of Armstrong Technical High School) the Inter-Scholastic Athletic Association of Middle Atlantic States, an amateur sports organization designed to encourage intramural competition among intercollegiate and interscholastic athletes, in track and field as well as in basketball.
Subsequently, several all-black basketball teams made up of players from public schools, athletic clubs, churches, colleges, and Colored YMCAs began to emerge in the Washington, DC area. Simultaneously, basketball was catching on among African Americans in New York City, and these two urban centers served as the early incubators of the black game.
The first independent African American basketball team in the history of the sport was the Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn, which was organized in 1907. This team promptly won the first “Colored Basketball World’s Championship”—a title coined by African American sportswriters to honor the best all-black basketball team, by their informal consensus—for the 1907-08 season.
SMART SET ATHLETIC CLUB
Smart Set Athletic Club, of Brooklyn, New York, was an amateur African-American basketball team in the early 1900s. Smart Set was the first team to be designated Colored Basketball World’s Champions, in 1908 and 1909. The team so dominated their opponents they were known as the “Grave Diggers.”
The basketball team was only one of the sports teams fielded by the Smart Set Athletic Club, which was founded in 1905. The Smart Set maintained a large track and field team, and members of the club were also active in baseball, swimming, rowing, bowling, boxing, and wrestling. The Smart Set sponsored track and field meets, notably big indoor meets at the 14th Regiment Armory and the 47th Regiment Armory. The athletic club drew its membership from the wealthy black families that lived in the predominantly white Stuyvesant Heights section of Brooklyn.
The basketball team, formed in 1907, is believed to be the first independent all-black basketball team. The Smart Set team played its home games at the 14th Regiment Armory in Brooklyn.
In 1907 the Smart Set team joined other black clubs to form the Olympian Athletic League, which included notable rivals St. Christopher Club and the Alpha Physical Culture Club both of Harlem, as well as the Marathon Athletic Club of Brooklyn and the Jersey City Colored YMCA.
In 1909, the Smart Set pioneered intercity basketball among black teams by traveling down to Washington, DC, to play against the club champion of the Inter-Scholastic Athletic Association, Crescent Athletic Club. In 1910, the Smart Set met the 12th Street YMCA of DC in a season-ending game, and lost.
The Smart Set Athletic Club also sponsored a women’s team, the Spartan Girls, one of the first all-black women’s basketball teams.
Spartan Athletic Club, or Spartan Girls, of Brooklyn, New York, was an African American women’s basketball team in the early 1900s. The team was the female auxiliary club of the Smart Set Athletic Club.
Spartan Athletic Club was organized in August of 1910, and sponsored track and field and basketball. In the team’s first season, 1910-11, the Spartans won ten games and lost two. The team was coached by a male, S. Jackson. Players were Bernadine Harris, Agnes Green, Genevieve Harris, Edna Clements, Mary Harris, Gladys Moore, and Captain Edith Trice.
*FUN FACT: Edward “Teddy” Horne, the father of the late Lena Horne, was a member of the Smart Set Athletic Club!*