Please cite this article as:

Myerscough, K. Separate but Equal: Black Fives Women’s Basketball, In Piercey, N. and Oldfield, S.J. (ed), Sporting Cultures: Global Perspectives (Manchester: MMU Sport and Leisure History, 2019), 181-200.

ISBN paperback 978-1-910029-49-7

Chapter 10 


Separate but Equal: Black Fives Women’s Basketball

Keith Myerscough



Black Fives basketball emerged in the early twentieth century as an expression of an African-American desire to participate in competitive sports. The movement had its origins in the formative years of the ‘New Negro’ movement in the major northern industrial conurbations of New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. The diaspora of African-Americans in the period 1900-c.1930 had served to create separate, but far from equal, communities for those American’s of colour living in predominantly black inner-city districts. The notion that apartheid could produce ‘separate but equal’ societies is examined for its impact on the pattern of African-American female participation in basketball.

The development of Black Fives women’s basketball is only now being fully debated by sports historians.[1] This growing body of ethnic and gender-specific research is illuminating the impact those early pioneers of black women’s basketball have had on the game. The work of the Black Fives Foundation and the Black History Movement, have made significant contributions to revealing the legacy created by the pioneering female players during the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ era, (c.1910-1940).[2] The resolve displayed by the players of teams such as the New York Girls (founded in 1909), the Roamer Girls of Chicago (1921), and the Philadelphia Tribune Girls (c.1930), is worthy of memorialising. The narrative that follows endeavours to make a contribution to this neglected area of study by examining the legacy of Black Fives women’s basketball.

The ‘New Negro’ and Black Fives basketball

The ‘New Negro’ movement attempted to re-awaken a black-African culture amongst migrants who had re-settled in America’s industrial north. The search for a renaissance in black self-expression first manifested itself in Harlem, New York, in a wide range of artistic and intellectual pursuits.[3] In the case of sport, athletic prowess often developed out of links with black community projects designed to create ‘racial uplift’.[4] The social conditions created by racial segregation under the ‘Jim Crow Laws’ heavily influenced both male and female African-American participation in 5v5 basketball. In practice, segregation made a significant positive impact on black-female participation in all sports, creating a distinctive African-American ethnographic sports profile in major US urban conurbations. The historiography of female African-American involvement in basketball has served to reinforce a distinctive ethnic sporting profile of the black athlete throughout the twentieth century.[5]

The mass migration of black Americans from the southern states in the first four decades of the twentieth century supported the involvement of African-American urban communities in basketball. The suppression of equal rights resulted in the awakening of a black consciousness that encouraged individuals to establish cultural links with their own African heritage. Having endured the tyranny of slavery, the American Civil War (1861-1865) had supposedly banished the practice of servitude, with a new dawn being proclaimed in the land of the free.[6] Statements of freedom from oppression had been broadcasted by the US government in 1883; the new Statue of Liberty ironically asked the world to, ‘give me your poor, your huddled masses’.[7] However, the migration of African-Americans from the Southern States was viewed differently from the mass migration of Europeans to the USA between 1850 and 1913, when nearly 30 million people left Europe for a better life in America.[8]

The ‘Great Migration’, from c.1910-1970, witnessed an estimated 6.5 million African-American’s move north from the southern states.[9] The aspirations of migrants had, initially, to be met within their own communities, stimulating a resilience and determination to celebrate their own cultural heritage within assumed ‘separate but equal’ population groups. Abraham Lincoln, in his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, had declared slavery to be illegal and that this was a cause worth fighting for.[10] However, on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the proclamation, poet, James Weldon Johnson lamented on how little progress had been made on the emancipation of the African-American:

That for which millions prayed and sighed,

That for which tens of thousands fought,

For which so many freely died,

God cannot let it come to naught.[11]

The migration of African-Americans to the north was as a direct result of the hostile treatment meted out by white supremacists. For example, in 1896, the US Supreme Court permitted southern states to adopt the ideology of apartheid under the Plessy versus Fergusson ruling, which resulted in the legal segregation of the black-white races in many aspects of their daily lives.[12] The stark reality in many of the southern states was that the Jim Crow Laws made it legal to discriminate on the grounds of the colour of a person’s skin.[13] As a result, public places had areas set aside for Blacks and Whites; the public schools, parks, and transportation systems, created services that aspired to be ‘separate but equal’. The penalty for breaking real or imagined white-laws could be very severe for black activists; the ultimate penalty for transgressions of white sensibilities could bring loss of life; between 1900 and 1914, over 1,100 African-Americans were lynched.[14]

There were a number of factors at work that caused the mass migration of African-Americans from the southern states to the north. The push factors of white supremacy and the pull factors of black-Americans’ aspirations combined to encourage migration in search of a better life. There were opportunities for African-Americans in the northern states that did not exist in the south where ‘political, social, and economic oppression’ were being practiced.[15] Although racial prejudice was most certainly practised in the northern cities, wages in 1914 were, on average, three times higher in the north than in the south.[16] In theory, there were no segregation laws, poll taxes and literacy tests, to prevent African-Americans from casting their vote. However, the practice of segregation, enforced under the extensive Jim Crow Laws from 1877 to the 1950s, was a form of apartheid that legitimised the fallacy of separate but equal communities.

The aspirations of middle-class African-Americans in the north’s major cities were centred on assimilation, with equal opportunities being a cornerstone to their ambitions. However, the backlash of white northerners resulted in African-Americans being forced to develop a parallel, alternative culture. Gerald Gems argued that the rejection of black-white integration had resulted in black traditions being ‘rooted in the African-American experience’; the result was ‘a distinct black urban culture’.[17] Black Fives basketball established itself as a community-based activity that benefitted from being segregated as it allowed the development of a style of play that encouraged the games growth in black communities. Ironically, the development of basketball in parallel with the white-female game allowed Black Fives women’s basketball to flourish in northern cities. Black Fives basketball had adopted its own cultural nuances born out of a celebration of African-American culture, allowing it to flourish within the black community and to remain separate. The description of African-American basketball players as “Coloured Quints, Black Fives, Negro Cagers, or even Chocolate Coeds”, embodies their struggle for equality of opportunity during the first-half of the twentieth century.

The growth and development of African-American women’s involvement in basketball had an additional barrier to overcome; namely, that of discrimination on the grounds of gender. Vertinsky and Captain acknowledged that any dialogue on the impact of black sporting females on American culture, involved the exploration of ‘a complex series of discourses’. The outcome, they suggested, has been the ‘construction and perpetuation of damaging myths of racial and sexual differences.[18] Spillers interpreted the African-American way of life to be ‘a decisive factor in national political life since the mid-seventeenth century … as a metaphor of social and cultural management’.[19] Vertinsky and Captain supported this view, declaring that ‘the shaping of the African American woman’s story in sport … reveals much more about the pictures in the minds of its shapers than about the diversity and complexity of her realities’.[20] White described the black-female predicament as being ‘underpinned by images of gender and race as natural and permanent’. The conundrum being that, ‘If she is rescued from the myth of the Negro, the myth of the woman traps her. If she escapes the myth of the woman, the myth of the Negro still ensnares her’.[21]

The birth of Black Fives women’s basketball

At a time when European-American women’s basketball was flourishing in segregated higher education institutions, African-American women’s basketball was being nurtured in segregated black inner-city communities. The early twentieth century was ‘an important time for community building, identity development, and racial uplift for African American women’, and basketball aided that process.[22] Stimulated by a new black consciousness, migrants had been emboldened to take advantage of the white supremacist ideology of separate but equal communities. Middle-class African-Americans, in particular, had aspirations to nurture a distinctively black Afro-American ethos in their daily lives and sporting pursuits.[23] The urban demographic allowed black females to create their own cultural identity during the first three decades of the twentieth century in a variety of leisure pursuits; basketball was but one form of recreational activity that prospered. The growth of the black demographic in the Harlem district of New York in 1910 was nearly 10% of the local population, by 1920 it had risen to 32%, and by 1940 it was 89%.[24]

In New York, the Alpha Physical Culture Club (Alpha PCC) was one of a handful of sport and exercise clubs for African-Americans, providing gymnastics, tennis, athletics, and basketball for its male members.[25] It was originally set-up to promote healthy pursuits amongst Jamaican immigrants in order to stave-off mortality rates as high as 25% in some New York boroughs. Claude Johnson viewed the founders of the Alpha PCC as pioneers of the physical fitness movement for African-Americans.[26] The Norman brothers, Gerald, Conrad, and Clifton, established the club in 1904 with the aim of providing aspiring local middle-class black Americans with a sport and physical exercise venue comparable with those available to the white population of New York. In 1903, there were about 70,000 ‘coloured people in New York … the big city fairly teemed with athletic clubs … [but] there was not a single one devoted to coloured people’.[27] The club’s membership included those in the medical professions, education, and the arts. The Alpha PCC insisted that its standards were as high as in similar white organizations’, and that its members ‘belong to the best class of coloured people in New York and surrounding cities’.[28] By 1906, the demand for physical activity was outstripping facility provision with the New York City Coloured YMCA Branch, having over 500 members. In contrast, the Alpha PCC had 35 members who paid a premium rate for exclusivity of activities in their gymnasium.[29]

The importance to the community of the Alpha PCC was not limited to their pioneering work in promoting physical exercise to the black middle classes of New York. The club played an essential role in the ‘evolution of basketball among people of colour in the United States’ throughout the first-two decades of the twentieth century.[30] The Alpha PCC’s motto was ‘A square deal for all’; members of the club were honour-bound to uphold the ideology of amateurism.[31] This ideology was essential in the formation and subsequent management of the New York basketball league that was controlled by the ‘Triple Alliance’ of the Alpha PCC, St. Christopher’s athletic club, and the Spartan athletic club.[32]

The first officially recorded black-male basketball team was formed by the Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn (Smart Set AC), in the winter of 1906.[33] The Smart Set AC played their first competitive game against the newly formed basketball team from the St Christopher Athletic Club (St Christopher AC), in early 1907.[34] The teams played on a regular basis throughout the summer of 1907, only being joined by the Alpha PCC basketball team in 1908. The first competitive league in New York began in the 1907-08 season; called the ‘Olympian Athletic League’, it consisted of three teams: the Smart Set, St Christopher’s, and the Marathon Athletic Club.[35] The 1907-08 league competition was won by the Smart Set who won all of their games. The Marathon AC of Brooklyn dropped out in the 1908-09 season, being replaced by the Alpha PCC’s team, known as the ‘Alpha Big Five’.[36] Competition was well organised and managed, and it was popular with players and spectators, which attracted female interest in creating a similar arrangement. The speed with which basketball became popular aroused grave misgivings in black athletic clubs, white universities, and the YMCA movement, as to the poor levels of behaviour that were becoming associated with competitive basketball.

By 1910, Black Fives basketball in New York’s African-American communities, had adopted many of the undesirable features to be found in the ‘white-game’. The root-cause of basketball’s problems was the games sudden explosion in popularity and the lack of any strategies to control that growth. The ‘gentleman amateur’ attitude adopted by the black athletic clubs of New York, in common with the YMCA movement, felt uneasy about the direction basketball was taking. Lester Walton, a leading commentator on Black Fives basketball for the New York Age newspaper, reported on a courtside brawl at an Alpha Big Five match against the St Christopher AC, in 1911.[37] Whilst Walton was repeatedly raising his concerns regarding the behaviour of spectators, the co-founder and President of the Alpha PCC, Gerald Norman, was warning that ‘as soon as men are allowed to jump from one team to another … so soon will the game degenerate’.[38] The popularity of the game and the introduction of ‘play-for-pay’ were in danger of irrevocably changing the ethos of New York’s African-American basketball teams within a decade of their foundation.[39]

The enthusiasm shown for basketball amongst spectators was eroding the ideology of the amateur game by 1910. Walton reminded his readers of the New York Age in 1911 that ‘the class of people that supports basketball games played between our coloured clubs does not attend to see a prize fight, and young men of education and refinement should not so forget as to make themselves obnoxious’.[40] At this time the Alpha Big Five were attracting as many as 1,200 spectators to their games, many of them being female. The attendance of females was actively promoted by the Alpha PCC who hosted post-match receptions for ladies at their club house. This had two major outcomes – it gave the club a regular income and it promoted basketball as a game for females to play. As the number of spectators grew, it was inevitable that clubs would look for alternative venues to accommodate more paying ‘guests’. The Alpha PCC hired the Manhattan Casino in Harlem, as it held 6,000 spectators at a minimum price for admission of 50 cents, with boxes that seated up to eight people for $2.[41] The Manhattan Casino was a black-only music hall that attracted ‘well-dressed men and women’, who would watch a game of basketball and then dance to the casino’s Big Five Band.[42] Basketball had become an integral part of the entertainments industry for both male and female basketball enthusiasts by 1915.

The first organised Black Fives female basketball team was formed in 1910 without any official record being made of the exact date. Photographic evidence reveals that the Alpha PCC had formed a team called the New York Girls (NY Girls) who were city champions in 1910 and 1911.[43] Conrad Norman managed and coached the team, which gave female basketball the club’s seal of approval, as Norman was increasingly concerned as to the suitability of basketball for the Alpha PCC’s membership. His personal control of the female basketball team not only gained his seal of approval as representatives of the club, but it also extended to him marrying Dora Cole, one of the team’s star players in 1914. Norman had invited Cole, a 22-year-old teacher, to play for the NY Girls in 1909; she had learned to play basketball at the segregated Wadleigh High School in New York.[44] Cole was a role model for others girls, including her younger sister, as she had successfully combined an education and career with playing basketball. She was the sister of the actor and composer Bob Cole, who agitated with James and Rosamond Johnson to force theatres and song sheet producers not to use racially insulting language. Dora was not just a pioneer in women’s basketball but also an advocate of racial equality.

Black Fives women’s basketball had been established as a competitive sport by 1911 only because New York’s black athletic clubs had endorsed the game for its female members. For example, one of the most successful female teams of the 1910s was the ‘Younger Set’, who represented the Smart Set Athletic Club from Brooklyn. The club had been established in 1907, adding a women’s basketball team in 1912 when they thought it appropriate to do so. The manager of the Smart Set AC, Robert Lattimore, wrote of the female players in 1911, ‘They played basket-ball hard and fast, yet always retained their sweet womanliness and native dignity’.[45] The Younger Set, so named as they played their home games at Young’s Casino in Harlem, was an immediate success, winning their first seven league games. The team’s promoter, Henry Creamer, had recruited some of the best players in Brooklyn. Rosa Mitchell had been a star player with the ‘New York Girls’, and Edith Trice was formerly the captain of the ‘Spartan Girls’ of Brooklyn. Trice had been introduced to the game by two of her brothers, George and Arthur, who played for the club’s male team. Before their first home game, Creamer promoted his team as ‘the neatest, sweetest, likewise cleverest girls’ team it [New York] has known’.[46] The team was self-sufficient in that the members managed their own affairs; Trice was the captain and team treasurer, Mitchell was the president and team manager, Eva Miller was the vice-president, and, Mildred Gassaway was the club secretary.

The match venues for the women’s basketball teams reflected both the constraints imposed on them through segregation but also the freedom that this gave them in celebrating their African-American heritage. Popular music, dance, and sport were the ingredients that made segregated dance halls not only accessible, but a safe and secure environment for self-expression both on the dance floor and on the basketball court.[47] The self-promotion of Black Fives basketball satisfied this aesthetic for both male and female participants and the paying spectator. The proliferation of black male and female basketball teams generated and maintained an interest, if not fanaticism, for the game. The style of play was marked by the speed of the game and the athleticism on display, which was in stark contrast to the rather staid, often brutally physical approach adopted by white teams. Joanne Lannin suggested that the segregation of women’s basketball in the first two decades of the twentieth century led to the 5v5 game prospering amongst black females as a form of entertainment displayed in segregated music halls:

The black female athlete living in New York City in the early 1900s knew little of the controversy over rules and roughness that was swirling around the women’s game at that time. Living outside of the mainstream, attending segregated schools and their own community clubs, African-American women played basketball with the men’s rules, and danced the night away after the games.[48]

The main Black Fives women’s teams in New York in the first two decades of the twentieth century were the New York Girls, Younger Set, Spartan Girls, and the New York Blue Belts. It was the women’s teams from New York who dominated their segregated north-east leagues until c.1920, when the balance of power relocated to Chicago.

Black Fives women’s basketball in Chicago

The development of women’s basketball in Chicago was similar to that in New York. By 1909, Chicago had an African-American men’s basketball league sponsored and organised by black middle-class entrepreneurs from segregated athletics clubs. The development of Black Fives women’s basketball was a natural progression with each club adopting a ‘sister’ team by 1911. The focal point for Black Fives basketball was Chicago’s numerous church and community organisations who established both male and female basketball teams for their congregations. The Olivet Baptist Church claimed that they had 1,000 members largely due to their representative sports teams.[49] The first female basketball game is believed to have been played in 1911, between the ‘Philomatics’, who defeated the ‘Nonpareils’; a circumstance that could only have materialised under the practice of unequal but separate communities.[50] Isolation through segregation was further highlighted in 1913 when the white-only Evanston High School refused to play a league game against an integrated team from Lane Tech because they had a star black player called Virgil Blueitt. Lane Tech were awarded the game by default but this event, known as the ‘Blueitt Case’, was the catalyst for wholesale undesirable changes in race relations in Chicago.[51]

Despite the ubiquitous nature of racism in Chicago, Gems has suggested that contemporary accounts of the period reveal a degree of racial harmony not seen in other US cities at that time.[52] Appeasement came in the form of upholding the African-American right to vote, the potential for positive career opportunities, and there was even a degree of integration in the public school system and the Chicago athletic leagues. Gems further argued that ‘Chicago symbolised the mecca of African-American achievement’ from 1900 to the 1920s. This was born out by the creation of black sport-related activities in Chicago during this period. In 1908, Jack Johnson, the new world heavy-weight boxing champion, established home and business interests in Chicago. The first black baseball league began in Chicago in 1920, with aspirations ‘as a means to friendly relations between the races’; it even opened the way for college scholarships for black men. However, this degree of racial harmony began to erode as the black population of Chicago dramatically increased. By 1910 over 44,000 African-Americans lived in 24 of Chicago’s 35 electoral districts, in 1920 the black population had risen to 100,000 and by 1930 the number of residents had risen to 234,000.[53] Illinois had attempted to prohibit Negro migration through the implementation of a state law in 1848, but it was found to be unenforceable. The African-American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, founded by Robert Abbott in 1906, began a promotional campaign to encourage black migration to Chicago, calling it ‘a northern paradise for African-Americans’.[54]

By 1930, Chicago had established clearly delineated racial boundaries defined by increasing levels of segregation, resulting in a polarisation of cultural stereotypes often fed by prejudice. The belief that a ‘talented tenth’ could succeed in a white-dominated society was an aspiration partially achieved by African-Americans in the entertainments industry – including sport. Originally, the term had been used by W. E. B. Du Bois in an influential essay, the ‘Talented Tenth’, published in September 1903.[55] The term had been used by Du Bois to identify the ‘exceptional’ leaders within the black race, capable of leading African-American interests.[56] In sport, black leisure entrepreneurs in Chicago had created by the 1920s, a form of sporting freedom through the promotion of local and regional basketball leagues, black-only athletics clubs, and the Negro National Baseball League.

In 1921, the Roamer Athletic Club of Chicago formed the ‘Roamer Girls’ basketball team from a large pool of talented players exhibiting their skills in their church teams. The Roamer Girls exemplified the birth of a new approach taken by black female athletes in Chicago towards 5v5 basketball. Sponsored by the Defender newspaper, the team attracted some of the most influential black women athletes in Chicago and beyond. In 1927, a black women’s league, with eight teams, had been established, being dominated by the Roamer Girls. Such was the demand for organised, competitive women’s basketball, that a second division of the league was established in 1928, made up of ten church teams.[57] Both leagues were interracial, providing competitive basketball for black and white players, at both the amateur and professional levels of play. However, this situation was the exception and not the rule, as personal prejudice aided the continued existence of separate black and white cultural spheres. The Roamers participated in the Chicago City Women’s Basketball League, where they played regular games against white teams, often referring to them as being ‘Nordic’ or ‘Lily whites’.[58]

The Roamer Girls were coached by Edward ‘Sol’ Butler, who was a star basketball player with a reputation as an Olympic athlete.[59] He had held the world record in the broad jump and he had competed at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp for the USA.[60] The star player for the Roamers was Isadore Channels who ‘played the game far above the heads of her opponents and far in advance of her colleagues’.[61] Channels also played tennis, winning the African America National Tennis Association’s (AANTA) women’s singles championship four times.[62] The Roamer Girl’s popularity with the African-American population of Chicago typified the interest female participation in sport was generating in the 1920s. In a poll of black sporting heroes carried out by the Chicago Defender newspaper, nominees could be male or female but they had to be amateurs. The contest ran from May to July 1927, with one third of the votes cast going to female athletes who occupied the top four places. Miss Irma Mohr was first with 18,000 votes – she played golf, basketball and tennis; Mrs C. O. Seames was second with 10,730 votes – she played and organised tennis for African-Americans in the Chicago area; in third place came Miss Corrine Robinson with 5,000 votes – she played basketball, ran track and played tennis; and, in fourth place came the captain of the Olivet Baptist Church basketball team with 1,400 votes. Only two men got more than 1,200 votes.[63]

By 1930, the Roamer Girls dominance of women’s basketball in Chicago was replaced by the ‘Club Store Coeds’.[64] The team was formed by nightclub entrepreneur, Dick Hudson, who engaged an all-star line-up of accomplished female athletes. Tydie Pickett was an international hurdler, Helen Smith was the tallest African American athlete at 6’-7”, and Lula Porter was the four-time winner of AANTA’s singles championship.[65] It was Hudson’s stated intention to dominate Black Fives women’s basketball in order to profit from the game as a commercially organised spectator sport. He had formed a men’s team, the ‘Harlem Globetrotters’, c.1926, with the intention of creating a commercially driven enterprise that promoted basketball.[66]

In 1930, the Club Store Coeds embarked upon a long, but financially profitable, tour of the West Coast and the Canadian territories. The Coeds were the first all-black female barnstorming basketball team, touring mainly in the west and north-west. It was whilst on their long journeys on the road that local newspapers began to call the team the Chocolate Coeds, a name they appear to have accepted.[67] The “Chocs”, as they called themselves, had a game schedule in 1949 that involved playing 89 games in 30 states, there were 44 games against women’s teams and 45 against men’s.[68] Paradoxically, the Chocolate Coeds were considered to be promoting race relations, gender equality, and the economic empowerment of females. The argument being that by highlighting the basketball skills of African-American females, they were providing a positive image of the black female athlete.[69] By the end of 1950 the Chocolate Coeds had ceased to exist due to a polarisation of gender issues in sport.[70] Lannin suggested that there had been a steady increase in political pressure to integrate the races particularly in education and professional sports. An alternative view was forcefully expressed in 1959, by columnists Dan Burley of the Chicago Defender, when he declared that, ‘today’s girls are too lazy to get involved in competitive sports’.[71]

The establishment of regular schooling by the 1930s for black females in Chicago meant that they had experienced playing competitive basketball at school, with the more able players progressing to clubs on graduation. For example, in 1931, the ‘Whippets’, who were formed from players at Phillips High School, which was the first integrated school in Chicago, had reached prominence at the AAU championships.[72] It was common practice for black women’s teams to include former school friends, particularly in the church leagues, where it was not unusual for working-class domestic servants to mix with clerks and teachers.[73] By the mid-1930s, the seat of power for black female basketball had moved from Chicago to Philadelphia where the influence of professional black sportsmen and sports entrepreneurs generated further interest in Black Fives women’s basketball.

Black Fives women’s basketball in Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, the dominant Black Fives woman’s team in the 1930s was the ‘Philadelphia Tribune Girls’. Sponsored by the city’s oldest black newspaper, the Philadelphia Tribune, the ‘News Girls’ were a dominant force on the court, travelling nationwide to play black high school and college teams, black community teams, and the occasional white team. The teams were professionally managed and the players were expected to display their basketball skills for a ‘small salary’.[74] It was the Tribune News Girls entertainment value that set them apart from other black female teams of the period. Their style of play and the athleticism of individual players combined to attract fans of basketball both in Philadelphia and on their extensive ‘barnstorming’ road trips. During the 1937 season the News Girls reportedly traveled over 5,000 miles to fulfill their schedule, which included a tour of the southern states.[75] Their dominance was unequivocal, winning eleven Coloured Basketball World Championships (1931-1941). This was a remarkable feat, not least because their success occurred during the decade of the Great Depression. The barnstorming road trips, subsidized by the financial support received from the Tribune, were profitable for both management and players.[76]

The Tribune’s most influential player, both on and off the court, was Ora Mae Washington. As with so many African-Americans, her family had migrated north from Virginia to Germantown, Philadelphia, in search of a better life. She played tennis and basketball at the coloured branch of the Germantown YWCA where she was known as the ‘Queen of Tennis’. As a professional tennis player, she won the AANTA singles title eight times in nine years from 1929 to 1936; she also won twelve straight doubles championships.[77] As talented as she was, the one match denied Washington was that against Helen Wills Moody, who allegedly refused to play her.[78]

Ora Washington first played basketball in 1930 with the YWCA-sponsored, Germantown Hornets, who had won 22 of their 23 games that season. In 1932, she moved to the Philadelphia Tribune Girls where she played until 1941; she played as the team’s center, she was also the leading scorer, and the team coach. The dominant play of the Tribune Girls inevitably attracted entrepreneurs who saw the potential for making money from basketball road trips. The most famous, but not the first of such barnstorming teams, was the Harlem Globetrotters who began to tour in 1927.[79] The Tribune Girls were the female equivalent, with their owners and sponsors taking full advantage of their potential to earn money from playing league and exhibition games.

The driving force behind the Tribune Girls was Otto Briggs, a famous Chicago baseball player, who manged both the men’s and women’s Tribune-sponsored basketball teams.[80] Briggs had been approached by Inez Patterson, an enterprising female basketball player, with a view to gaining sponsorship from the Tribune newspaper for her team, the ‘Philadelphia Quicksteppers’. She had recognised the need for financial backing if the team were to attract the best players in Philadelphia and become a commercial success. The change of name from the ‘Quicksteppers’ to the ‘Tribune Girls’ was a price worth paying as the team gained free advertising in the Tribune and they were able to take commercially sound road trips to the mid-west annually.[81]

The practice of sports teams touring or barnstorming begun with the ‘Brooklyn Excelsior’ baseball team of New York in 1860, when they played exhibition games in the New York State region. The main aim, as with all professional sports teams competing in leagues, was to raise funds to pay the best players available. Other sports followed suit as it was an obvious means for the more ambitious teams to keep and attract elite players. In basketball, the Trentonian’s, from New Jersey, are believed to be the first men’s team to have been paid for a home-game in 1896 when they played the Brooklyn YMCA, beating them 16-1, and being paid $15 each for doing so.[82] The notion of being paid to play basketball occurred within the first five years of the game being established. The practice of touring or barnstorming inevitably attracted leisure entrepreneurs who viewed basketball as just another sport that could be commercially exploited.

The impact of the ‘New Woman’ on basketball

The ‘New Woman’ movement, from c.1890-1920, served to progress the cause of female involvement in a variety of styles of basketball. It rewarded participants, both black and white, with a degree of economic independence, social gravitas, and aesthetic fulfilment.[83] By the 1920s several Black Fives women’s basketball teams were touring with their prime purpose being to raise money for their club and as a means of being financially recompensed for their time playing. By the 1930s, many of the best women’s teams were barnstorming around the country as professional or semi-professional entertainers.[84] The social and political turmoil of the first-half of the twentieth century in America did little to impede the progress of women’s basketball.[85] The barnstorming teams played long gruelling schedules, against a wide variety of teams; either black or white, professional or amateur, which effectively chipped away at some of the social barriers to integration. However, it was not until 1950 that the first African-American man, Chuck Cooper, was drafted by the Boston Celtics to play in the National Basketball Association League (NBA).[86]

The efforts of the first pioneering black women’s barnstorming teams in the form of the ‘Chicago Coeds’ and the ‘Philadelphia Tribune Girls’ in the 1930s, are still not celebrated by the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame Foundation has recognised only three women’s barnstorming basketball teams as being “Trailblazer[s] of the Game”. The voting was based upon the teams ‘integrity, sportsmanship, record of performance, national and international recognition, and contributions to the game of women’s basketball’.[87] The first inductee was the ‘Edmonton Commercial Graduates Basketball Club’, founded in 1915, drawing its players from the Canadian McDougall Commercial High School. In 25 years the team played 522 games in Canada, the USA, and Europe, winning 502 of the matches. The team represented Canada at the 1924 (Paris), 1928 (Amsterdam), 1932 (Los Angeles), and 1936 (Berlin), Olympic Games. Dr James Naismith said of his fellow Canadians:

My admiration is not only for your remarkable record of games won (which itself would make you stand out in the history of basketball) but also for your record of clean play, versatility in meeting teams at their own style, and more specifically for your unbroken record of good sportsmanship.[88]

The Helms Foundation was inducted for establishing and supporting women’s basketball from 1936-1982. Their team was originally called the ‘United Savings and Loan Bank’, changing its name c.1957, to the ‘Citizens Savings Athletic Foundation’, until it was disbanded in 1982, having had 13players inducted into the Hall of Fame. The third team to be recognised is the ‘All American Red Heads’ who played from 1936 to 1986.[89] The Red Heads style of play made them very popular entertainers, and very much in demand. At one stage there were three separate teams playing under the Red Heads name. From 1957, the franchise had an African-American team called the ‘Harlem Chic’s’ (1957-1960); they then changed their name to the ‘Harlem Queens’ until they disbanded in 1977.[90] The continued success of the Harlem Globetrotters had influenced the Red Heads management to introduce an all-black female team.


Throughout the first half of the twentieth century it was clear to African-American athletes that their prowess in the national sports of America would not end segregation. The notion of ‘separate but equal’ communities succeeded in only perpetuating the creed of white supremacy, whilst enabling the creation of the ‘New Negro’ sportsperson. Ironically, the practice of apartheid served to promote Black Fives women’s basketball; the elite team’s style of play served to commodify the game to such an extent that it became a commercially organised spectator sport from the outset.

Within four decades, Black Fives men’s and women’s basketball had created a following amongst their local communities and generated a marketable product to both black and white audiences. Whilst white university and college girls were playing 6v6, 9v9, Newcomb Ball, and American Netball, on divided courts, African-American women’s teams were playing 5v5 full-court basketball. Paradoxically, the female game for black players remained largely true to Naismith’s original thirteen rules at a time when the white-female game was being reinvented by Senda Berenson and Clara Baer, the pioneers of the white girl’s game.[91] The women’s rules were designed to promote the white, middle-class social conventions of the day. The notion of how the young white lady should behave is clearly reflected in the rules of play promoted in Clara Bear’s ‘Newcomb Ball’ version of basketball, and also, Senda Berenson’s more widely accepted, ‘Women’s Basketball Rules’. The Black Fives game of basketball was able to prosper free of the social conventions determined by the pronouncements of a dominant white-male Western culture. But, this came at a price, the price was relative obscurity, where the play of African-American females flourished seemingly out of site and out of mind of ‘mainstream’ white-dominated basketball.

By 1940 Black Fives women’s basketball had successfully created a separate sphere of their own creation which enabled them to have a significant presence in competitive Fives Basketball. They promoted their games in preferred venues, which reflected a black urban middle-class culture. The experience of African-American basketball players in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, was but one part of a migrant-led cultural transformation that was being woven into the fabric of urban black America. The history of Black Fives women’s basketball contains a rich seam of precious material that still has to be unearthed and subjected to the academic rigour of the researcher – it is still very much ‘work in progress’. The Black Fives Foundation is actively encouraging researchers to memorialise the heritage created by those black females who pioneered the playing of basketball as an expression of their African-American legacy.




[1] Gerald R. Gems, ‘Blocked Shot: The Development of Basketball in the African-American Community of Chicago’, Journal of Sport History 22, no. 2, (1995): 135-48; Pamela Grundy and Susan Shackelford, Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women’s Basketball (New York: New Press, 2005), 63.

[2] Andy Koopmans, The Harlem Renaissance (Detroit: Lucent Books, 2006); JoAnne Weisman Deitch, ed., Northern Migration and the Harlem Renaissance (Carlisle, Massachusetts: Discovery Enterprises, 2001).

[3] Weisman Deitch, Northern Migration and the Harlem Renaissance (Carlisle, Massachusetts: Discovery Enterprises, 2001), 42-8; Koopmans, The Harlem Renaissance, 30-61.

[4] Cindy Hines Gissendanner, ‘African American Olympians: The Impact of Race, Gender, and Class Ideologies, 1932-1968’, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 67, no. 2 (1996): 172.

[5] Donald McRae, In Black and White: The Untold Story of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens (London: Scribner, 2003), 3; Harry Edwards, Revolt of the Black Athlete (New York: Free Press, 1969), 16-26; David K. Wiggins, ‘Great Speed but Little Stamina: The Historical Debate over Black Athletic Superiority’, in The New American Sport History: Recent Approaches and Perspectives, ed. S.W. Pope (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 312-38.

[6] Francis Scott Key, ‘Star Spangled Banner (1814)’,  (accessed April 21, 2018).

[7] Emma Lazarus, ‘The New Colossus (1883)’, (accessed April 21, 2018).

[8] Ran Abramitzky, ‘Europe’s Tired, Poor, Huddled Masses: Self-Selection and Economic Outcomes in the Age of Mass Migration’, American Economic Review 102, no. 5, (2012): 1832-56.

[9] Mitch Yamasaki, ‘Life in the South’, in Northern Migration and the Harlem Renaissance, ed. JoAnne Weisman Deitch (Carlisle, Massachusetts: Discovery Enterprises, 2001), 5; Koopmans, The Harlem Renaissance, 6-11.

[10] Abraham Lincoln, ‘Emancipation Proclamation’, (accessed April 23, 2018).

[11] James Weldon Johnson, ed., ‘Fifty Years, 1863-1913’, in The Book of American Negro Poetry (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1922).

[12] Yamasaki, ‘Life in the South’, 5.

[13] Koopmans, The Harlem Renaissance, 15-7.

[14] Ibid., 24-5.

[15] Kathryn Cryan-Hicks, ‘The Migration North’, in Northern Migration and the Harlem Renaissance, ed. JoAnne Weisman Deitch (Carlisle, Massachusetts: Discovery Enterprises, 2001), 12; New York Age, March 22, 1917; The Crisis, June 1917.

[16] See Kathryn Cryan-Hicks, ‘Years of Strife’, in Northern Migration and the Harlem Renaissance, ed. JoAnne Weisman Deitch (Carlisle, Massachusetts: Discovery Enterprises, 2001), 22-40.

[17] Gems, ‘Blocked Shot’: 137.

[18] Patricia Vertinsky and Gwendolyn Captain, ‘More Myth than History: American Culture and Representations of the Black Female’s Athletic Ability’, Journal of Sport History 25, no. 3 (1998): 532.

[19] Hortense J. Spillars, ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book’, Diacritis 17, no 2 (1987): 79.

[20] Vertinsky and Captain, ‘More Myth than History’: 552.

[21] Deborah Gray White, Ar’nt I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: W.W. Norton, 1985).

[22] Vertinsky and Captain, ‘More Myth than History’: 533.

[23] See Eric King Watts, ‘African American Ethos and Hermeneutical Rhetoric: An Exploration of Alain Locke’s the New Negro’, Quarterly Journal of Speech 88, no. 1 (2002): 19-32.

[24] National Historical Geographical Information System, ‘Harlem’s Shifting Population’, Gotham Gazette, (accessed April 23,  2018).

[25] Claude Johnson, Black Fives: The Alpha Physical Culture Club’s Pioneering African American Basketball Team, 1904-1923 (Lexington, Kentucky: Black Fives Publishing, 2012).

[26] Ibid., 3.

[27] Ibid., 6; Joanne Lannin, Finding a Way to Play: The Pioneering Spirit of Women in Basketball (Portland, Oregon: Portlandia Press, 2015), 46.

[28] Black Fives Foundation, ‘Alpha Physical Culture Club’, (accessed May 9, 2018).

[29] Johnson, Black Fives, 10.

[30] Ibid., 3.

[31] Ibid., xxxvi.

[32] Ibid., xxxvi, 56.

[33] Ibid., 16

[34] Ibid., 17.

[35] Ibid., 20.

[36] Ibid., 21.

[37] New York Age, February 16, 1911.

[38] New York Age, February 17, 1910.

[39] Johnson, Black Fives, xxxv, 51; Bob Kuska, Hot Potato (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004), 25.

[40] New York Age, February 16, 1911.

[41] Johnson, Black Fives, 26-7; Lannin, Finding a Way to Play, 45.

[42] Lannin, Finding a Way to Play, 45.

[43] Johnson, Black Fives, 33.

[44] Lannin, Finding a Way to Play, 46.

[45] George Lattimore, ‘Some Facts Concerning Athletic Clubs in Brooklyn and New Jersey’, in Spalding Athletic Library Official Handbook of the Inter-Scholastic Athletic Association of Middle Atlantic States, 1911 (New York: American Sports Publishing, 1912), 61; Johnson, Black Fives, 32.

[46] Black Fives Foundation, ‘Spartan Girls’,  (accessed May 9, 2018).

[47] Wiggins, ‘Great Speed but Little Stamina’, 334; Koopmans, The Harlem Renaissance, 75-6; Johnson, Black Fives, 25-7.

[48] Lannin, Finding a Way to Play, 46-7.

[49] Gems, ‘Blocked Shot’: 139.

[50] Ibid.: 137.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.: 136.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.: 135.

[55] W. E. B. Du Bois, ‘The Souls of Black Folks (1903)’, in Three Negro Classics, ed, James W. Johnson (New York: Avon Books, 1999), 207-390.

[56] Weisman Deitch, Northern Migration, 37.

[57] Gems, ‘Blocked Shot’: 141.

[58] Susan K. Cahn, Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Sport, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 37-40.

[59] Lannin, Finding a Way to Play, 48; Gems, ‘Blocked Shot’: 141.

[60] University of Dubuque, ‘Solomon Butler’, (accessed May 9, 2018).

[61] Gems, ‘Blocked Shot’: 141.

[62] Ibid.; Lannin, Finding a Way to Play, 49.

[63] Linda D. Williams, ‘Before Althea and Wilma: African American Women in Sport, 1924-1948’, in Black Women in America, ed, Kim Marie Vaz (Sage: London, 1995), 292-293.

[64] Gems, ‘Blocked Shot’: 142.

[65] Ibid.: 143, Cahn, Coming on Strong, 37-40.

[66] Ben Green, Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters (New York: Harper, 2006), 34-38.

[67] Cahn, Coming on Strong, 37-40.

[68] Black Fives Foundation, ‘Death by Chocolate Coeds’, (accessed May 31, 2018).

[69] Gems, ‘Blocked Shot’: 146.

[70] Lannin, Finding a Way to Play, 54.

[71] Ibid.

[72] See Phillips Academy High School, ‘Our History’, (accessed May 6, 2018).

[73] Gems, ‘Blocked Shot’: 142.

[74] Grundy and Shackelford, Shattering the Glass, 68; Lannin, Finding a Way to Play, 50.

[75] Black Fives Foundation, ‘All Hail the Philadelphia Girls!’,  (accessed May 31, 2018).

[76] Lannin, Finding a Way to Play, 49; Black Fives Foundation, ‘Depression Era, Pt. 1’, (accessed May 31, 2018).

[77] Bijan C. Bayne, Sky Kings: Black Pioneers of Professional Basketball (New York: Franklin Watts, 1997), 26.

[78] African American History, ‘Washington, Ora Mae (1898-1971)’, (accessed May 31, 2018).

[79] Green, Spinning the Globe, 37.

[80] Lannin, Finding a Way to Play, 49.

[81] Ibid., 50-4.

[82] Robert W. Peterson, Cages to Jumpshots: Pro Basketball’s Early Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 34-6.

[83] Joan S. Hult and Marianna Trekell, eds., A Century of Women’s Basketball: From Frailty to Final Four (Reston, Virginia: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 1991), 5-8.

[84] Lannin, Finding a Way to Play, 87-97; Grundy and Shackelford, Shattering the Glass, 102-7.

[85] John A. Molina, ed., Barnstorming America: Stories from the Pioneers of Women’s Basketball (Morley, Missouri: Acclaim, 2016).

[86] Bayne, Sky Kings, 35-8.

[87] Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, ‘All-American Red Heads Recognized at 2011 Induction’, (accessed June 3, 2018).

[88] Ibid.

[89] Ibid.

[90] Elliott Harris, comment on ‘Dempsey Hovland’s World Famous Texas Cowgirls Basketball Team, 1949-1977’, (accessed June 28, 2018).

[91] Betty Spears, ‘Senda Berenson Abbott: New Woman, New Sport’, and Joan Paul, ‘Clara Gregory Baer: Catalyst for Women’s Basketball’, both in A Century of Women’s Basketball, ed. Joan S. Hult and Marianna Trekell (Reston, Virginia: American Alliance for Health, 1991)19-36, 37-52.