Let’s talk history for a few, shall we? And no, I’m not gonna bore you with the kind of history you almost failed your sophomore year in high school. I mean the kind that you won’t find in your school’s curriculum. A history, which gives this post much more significance and meaning as we steadily go deeper into detail. I’m talking about basketball, of course, particularly Black basketball history and its very beginnings, decades before the National Basketball Association became the poster child for integrated sports in the United States.
Most of you folks probably are familiar with the plague that was segregation and how this concept defined the struggles of Black athletes in professional sports, perhaps most famously recognized in baseball and Jackie Robinson’s uphill battle against racism in the late 1940s. Unfortunately, very few people have heard of the Black Fives, the Black-American basketball teams, which showcased the finest form of basketball played until the NBA was introduced as an integrated league in 1950.
Back in 1891, basketball was invented and established as a “Whites only” game. Not just in the world of sports, but the United States as a whole essentially operated under what one could describe as an Apartheid-esque regime. However, thanks to a Black physical education teacher from Washington, D.C. by the name of Edwin Henderson, the sport was introduced to Black-American communities for the first time in 1904. Credited as the “Grandfather of Black Basketball”, Mr. Henderson saw the sport as an opportunity to propel America’s sub-par public health and civil-rights’ standards as early as a decade and a half after the game’s inception. Taking Black athletics, especially the game of basketball, from its unorganized element to something with more structure made it possible for more distinguished Black student-athletes to be accepted into and attend White academic institutions while dismissing negative stereotypes of their race in the process. At the time, sports, contrary to politics and business, seemingly offered the only “level” playing field where Blacks were given a fair chance to succeed. With the premise of integrated competition — not teams — and the rising popularity of basketball as the foundation, the game took to clubs like YMCA. Subsequently, the first professional “Black Fives” teams were founded.
Despite the introduction of the sport to other races and the emergence of the first professional leagues, segregation still posed a major obstacle in the US that limited many of the Black Fives to playing on unofficial and non-standardized courts. Having to split time with events held in churches and ballrooms, where most teams’ ball games were also hosted, certainly added much of the entertainment factor that we see in sports today. In fact, most of the earliest advertising materials would offer “a night of basketball games and dance.” A combination of ragtime and basketball as a way to bring in the crowd and create revenue helped grow the sport into one of America’s favorite pastimes. Due to the fact that these basketball games were, essentially, part of an evening of entertainment and fun, the “Black Fives Era” not only pioneered integrated sports and entertainment infused events, but also spearheaded a faster-paced and more entertaining game that involved more athletic and flashy styles of play. Oohs and Aahs were considered an essential part of the game that separated the Black Fives leagues from the players and styles found in the White game.
Black basketball continuously experienced increases in popularity despite contemporary media outlets and even modern history accounts failing to mention anything about Black players, teams or the entire era for that matter. The common misconception of an all-Black league with all-Black players hindered accurate and historically sound depictions from coming to the forefront. Still, fact of the matter remains that Black and White teams did actually play against each other. Towards the later years of the Era, at the dawn of the NBA’s founding, annual basketball world championships were held, which hosted competitions from teams and players of both races. Remnants of these championships can be found, even in 2015. Maybe not highlighted as cultural and national history, but when the commissioner of the National Basketball Association takes the stage to present the winners of the NBA Finals with the Larry O’Brien trophy, he does so by announcing the new NBA champions as “World Champions.”
Black Fives and ’47 team up for an exclusive collection
Today, ’47, a privately held premium sports lifestyle apparel brand, has partnered with the Black Fives Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to research, preserve, showcase, and teach the pre-1950 history of African Americans in basketball, to create a first-of-its-kind collection of headwear, apparel and accessories that combines fashion with history to honor the pioneering teams of the Black Fives Era. The vision behind this collaboration from two authentically rooted brands is to not only capture fans’ passion for basketball, history and quality workmanship, but also to honor and celebrate the once forgotten but important efforts and contributions of the game’s early African American pioneers. If it wasn’t for them, there would probably be no Magic, no MJ, no Iverson or LeBron.
You can shop for select Black Fives apparel by ’47 x Black Fives Foundation right now at KICKZ.com!
“The Black Fives” is a short film by award winning director Marco Williams, produced by the New York Historical Society to introduce the first-ever comprehensive museum exhibition on the Black Fives Era of basketball (1904–1950). The production is narrated by Claude Johnson, founder and executive director of the Black Fives Foundation, who is also the museum’s guest curator for the exhibition.