Before LeBron: Historic Tribute to Basketball Pioneers

Claude Johnson of the Black Fives Foundation in the New-York Historical Society's "Black Fives" gallery.

Claude Johnson of the Black Fives Foundation, surrounded by memorabilia, in The Black Fives show at New -York Historical Society.

With LeBron James’s big announcement in the news, it’s a good time to trek over to the New York Historical Society to learn about how it all started – basketball, African American domination of the sport, and pro trades — in the fascinating second-floor show, The Black Fives, running through July 20.

When basketball really took off in the 1910s and 1920s, the top starting players were known as “fives.” Pre-integration, when African-Americans had their own teams, the amateur club starters were known as “black fives.” NYHS produced this show in collaboration with Claude Johnson, director of the Black Fives Foundation, who has been leading the charge to collect, document, and interpret the unknown or forgotten history of African American participation in one of America’s favorite games.

Recap: Basketball began in 1891, using peach baskets, as a game to keep youngsters occupied during long winters in the Northeast. in 1904, Harvard-educated Edwin “EB” Bancroft Henderson introduced the game to African-Americans through the public-school phys ed classes he taught  in Washington, D.C. Physical activity was seen as a way to combat TB and pneumonia, which were rampant in cities. Here’s a short clip about Henderson:

It wasn’t long before basketball came to Harlem, Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Atlantic City, and Pittsburgh, where there were large populations of young African American men and coach/role models ready to start something new in public schools, churches, and colleges.

Charles “Tarzan” Cooper (1907-1980), the star center who won the World Pro Basketball Tournament championship with the Rens in 1939. Photo: courtesy Black Fives Foundation.

Charles “Tarzan” Cooper (1907-1980), the star center who won the 1939 World Pro Basketball Tournament championship with the Rens. Photo: Black Fives Foundation.

Johnson’s collection of original cotton jerseys, trunks, stop-clocks, balls, and shoes from the 1910-1920 era is amazing, and really brings you back to the days when basketball courts were surrounded by wire mesh to protect fans (“cage match”, anyone?). You’ll see original, handmade basketball shoes, crafted of canvas and kangaroo leather and a life-size photo of how these snazzy sportsmen dressed.

Since NYC gymnasiums were still racially segregated, African-American clubs had to find alternate spaces to play. Uptown, the rise of basketball just happened to coincide with the Harlem Renaissance. Solution: use a ballroom and combine dancing, jazz orchestras, and basketball.

Ballrooms and basketball boomed, with “black five” teams now having really nice home courts. In 1923, Bob Douglas created the first Black-owned pro team for Harlem’s 2,500-seat-capacity Renaissance Ballroom at 138th Street. Douglas christened them the New York Renaissance Big Five (fans called them the “New York Rens”), and promptly started offering big-time contracts to the best players in town. By luring top talent with lucrative pay, the Rens would dominate basketball for decades to come.

Since they couldn’t compete at first in white leagues, the Rens went barnstorming across the country to play white teams, averaging 130 games per season. Some venues were as large as 10,000 seats. Fans went wild during the Depression to see the amazing Rens. From 1923 on, the Rens won 1,673 out of 1,944 games, led by Charles “Tarzan” Cooper. By 1939, they captured the first World Championship of Pro Basketball in Chicago, defeating the top white team in the country, the Oshkosh All Stars. The Rens were hailed as the top team of the decade, black or white.

This 1971 Milton Bradley game , in the NYHS collection, celebrates the Harlem Globetrotters, who were a team  that started on Chicago's South Side

This 1971 Milton Bradley game , in the NYHS collection, celebrates the Harlem Globetrotters, who were a team that started on Chicago’s South Side

To learn more about this history, visit NYHS or go to the foundation’s web site and click through each section of the exhibition in the pull-down menu. In the Depression Era section, you’ll get the entire backstory on how the Harlem Globetrotters were actually from South Side Chicago and how even they got creamed by The Rens in ‘39. (The Globetrotters didn’t actually play a game in Harlem until 1968!)

Check out the exhibition video:

Here, you’ll see more about the Black Fives and Brooklyn, and how the Barclay Center is commemorating the “Black Five” era:

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