The month of February in the USA has been designated Black History Month. It provides a platform to celebrate the positive contributions made by African Americans to the development of all aspects of US society. The initiative serves to highlight the achievements of what W.E.B. DuBois coined ‘the talented tenth’ in 1903. He supposed that through their accomplishments they would facilitate changes amongst the black population, making it a more open and free society, enabling the renaissance of Afro-American culture.

The postbellum years of the American Civil War (1861-1865) unshackled the Negro slave but tied the African American to a system of segregation, the ‘Jim Crow Laws’, which denied them many basic civil rights until the 1960s. Told in three parts, this is the story of how the pioneers of men’s Black Fives basketball contributed to the development of basketball in the first-half of the twentieth century.


The Formative Years: 1900-1920

The term Black Fives describes a style of basketball that emerged in African American communities in the urban settings of New York, Chicago, Washington, and Philadelphia in the first two decades of the twentieth century. In 1900 basketball was just eight years old. It had been ‘invented’ in December 1891, with the first competitive game being played at the YMCA’s International Training College in Springfield, Massachusetts in January 1892. The take-up of the game in branches of the YMCA across America generated a fanatical interest in playing the game by both males and females, and ethnic minority groups. The international YMCA movement acted as a conduit for the spread of the game world-wide. The first game of basketball in England was played at Birkenhead YMCA as early as March, 1892.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, the seeds of Black Fives basketball were being propagated in New York.  The game had its roots in segregated social gatherings where it was possible for African Americans to express themselves through the creative and aesthetic medium of sport. It was the cities segregated schools, black community organisations, especially church gatherings, and physical culture clubs, that people of colour felt safe to creatively express themselves. Of particular importance to the development of basketball was the creation of segregated physical culture and athletics clubs. The first such club in America was the Alpha Physical Culture Club (Alpha PCC) established in 1904. The Alpha PCC of New York represented the aspirations of a black middle-class with notions of promoting health and wellness to its members. Other black neighbourhoods followed suit giving impetus to athletics clubs representing a particular black community.


The creation of separate/segregated facilities under the Jim Crow Laws led to black athletics clubs and teams, which in turn, stimulated greater self-expression in all facets of African American culture. Basketball was a beneficiary of the system with both male and female teams at all levels of the game proliferating. Competitive games of basketball began in 1906 with the formation of the Smart Set basketball team from members of the Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn; the St Christopher Basketball Club who played out of the St Phillips’ Church; and, the Spartan Braves who represented the Spartan Field Club. In 1907 the teams formed a league – the Olympian Athletic League – which comprised of just three teams, the Marathon Athletic Club, the Smart Set, and St Christopher’s. The first game formally organised and managed took place on 13 November 1907, with St Christopher’s beating the Marathon Club by 31 to 1, but the game did establish Black Fives as a community-based competitive sport for African Americans.

By the end of the 1907 season the Alpha PCC had formed a competitive team to play in the league. The club called their team the Alpha Big Five; by 1910 they were the best team in New York, playing to crowds of 1,200 each game at the Manhattan Casino in Harlem. The combination of a basketball game, either male or female, was followed by singing and dancing. This combination of entertainments attracted large audiences of colour, generating much needed income for the dance halls and the clubs. It was a winning formula followed by all the league teams, encouraging a competitive but skilful style of play with players demanding to be paid for their efforts. By 1910, the Alpha Club had a men’s team – the Alpha Big Five – and a women’s team – the New York Girls.


The successful development of Black Fives owes much to the segregation of the game on the grounds of colour. Segregation allowed African Americans to create their own brand of the game based upon its entertainment value. The community-based basketball programmes provided the elite players with an opportunity to play in the ‘Olympian Athletic League’ which became a highly competitive league. Financed by the revenue from the venues they played in, players saw an opportunity to play basketball professionally. This was an important issue for many of the physical culture and athletics clubs as they were formed as amateur clubs, upholding the principles of the mythical ‘gentleman amateur’. A development much regretted by some players and many club members. Initially clubs encouraged basketball because it was fun, and it was considered to be character-building. It also raised much needed revenue for the clubs’ coffers which would be spent on new equipment and an expansion in the variety of programmes on offer.

The desire to earn money for playing basketball and the development of a playing style to surpass that of white teams encouraged all-black teams from New York, Chicago, Washington, and Philadelphia, to step outside of their separate sporting environments. Part two of the article examines the birth of Black Fives as a professional sport.


Article © Keith Myerscough 

For Part 2 see –