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Most people have heard of the Negro Leagues in baseball, of Jackie Robinson breaking the color bar in the late 1940s, but fewer may know about the Black Five. They're the African-American basketball teams that played before the NBA was integrated in 1950. An exhibit at the New York Historical Society aims to rectify that. NPR's Margot Adler has more.
MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: Basketball was invented in 1891, and it was a totally white game. In 1904, Edward Bancroft Henderson, a black Washington, D.C. gym teacher, took a summer course at Harvard and brought the game back to black segregated schools. From there, it went to YMCAs, and eventually to black teams with names like the Washington Bears and the New York Renaissance. Claude Johnson is the president and CEO of the Black Fives Foundation. He's the guest curator at this exhibit, and he became obsessed with this lost history about ten years ago.
CLAUDE JOHNSON: These are dozens and dozens of all black teams that played basketball in parallel with the evolution of black culture, black society. And they're a mirror of the way America evolved, the way game evolved. You know, the pioneers of the game, for all of us, not just black descendants, but anybody who loves the game and who loves sports.
ADLER: Johnson says no one from those teams is alive today. In the early days, he says, when black basketball was only played in schools and Ys, it was often seen as a matter of character building, and health - for good reason.
JOHNSON: Round the turn of the century, the mortality rate among blacks in New York City from pneumonia and tuberculosis was 25 percent. That means one in four.
ADLER: Many of the flyers advertising those games say basketball games and dance. They combined ragtime, the music of the day, with basketball as a way to bring in the crowds. There are more than 150 artifacts in a fairly small gallery - basketballs, shoes, uniforms - some from the early days of the game when the basket was closed at the bottom, and referees had to tip it over every time the ball went in. There would be a jump shot mid-court after every basket. Claude Johnson collected all these artifacts.
JOHNSON: A lot of them come from eBay. It's not that people don't know what they have, it's that there was nobody else for years that would even be interested in this.
ADLER: It's easy to come away thinking black and white teams were totally separate until 1950. And with one exception, the books on basketball in the exhibit don't even mention black players. But Stephen Edidin, chief curator of the New York Historical Society, says it's more complicated. Black teams and white teams did play each other.
STEPHEN EDIDIN: Ten years before NBA, there were 10 years of world championship basketball, which three black teams won three of those years.
ADLER: And while there is not much archive audio easily available, here is one of those three championships - the 1943 game between the Washington Bears, the African-American team, and the white Oshkosh All Stars.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: There's a free throw for Oshkosh, but the Washington Gates' crew will not be denied and they sweep on to victory, Bob Gates with points and Jonnie Isaac with 10, lead the new champions to their crown.
ADLER: But stereotypes were abundant. Many people today would find this language unacceptable and even racist.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Now, the Harlemites stop their monkey business long enough to score, and after that effort they get down to it in earnest.
ADLER: Johnson tells one story of how after the New York Renaissance won their championship in 1939, their star player took a razor blade to his jacket, which said World Colored Champions.
JOHNSON: And he literally went cut the stitches off the felt lettering and took off the word colored.
ADLER: For they were World Champions. Stephen Edidin and Claude Johnson hope the Black Fives exhibit will not only bring alive 50 years of little-known basketball history, but will give a new generation of fans a more nuanced appreciation of the game. The exhibit at the New York Historical Society is on through July 20th. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
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