NEW YORK (AP) — Just a few years after the invention of "Basket Ball," black players in segregated America formed leagues of their own, eventually creating a barnstorming circuit featuring such teams as the New York Renaissance, the Washington Bears and the Harlem Globetrotters.
Dozens of teams flourished between 1904 and 1950 in what became known as the Black Fives Era, an often-overlooked piece of black history that is the subject of an exhibition opening at the New-York Historical Society on March 14.
The exhibition features 150 artifacts on loan from the Greenwich, Conn.-based Black Fives Foundation, including newspaper clippings, ticket stubs, programs, press badges and vintage photographs of the period's pioneers.
Among the more intriguing items are canvas shoes, buckle-front shorts and a pair of leather-and-sheepskin kneepads, used not only to prevent injuries from rough play but from the protruding nails, splinters and uneven planking of early basketball floors.
"Prior to 1950, it was a rougher game ... if you could elbow a guy in the stomach and get away with it, you did," said Susan Rayl, author of "The New York Renaissance Professional Black Basketball Team: 1923-1950."
When basketball was invented in 1891, teams were referred to as "fives" for their five starting players. Wider exposure to the game came in 1904 when Edwin Henderson, a physical education instructor who learned the sport while at Harvard University, introduced it to black students in Washington, D.C.'s segregated school system. All-black teams initially were sponsored by black YMCAs, athletic clubs, churches and schools as a way to keep young men occupied during winter months.
It was strictly amateur at first, and the idea of getting paid to play "was considered practically blasphemous," said Claude Johnson, the foundation's founder and the exhibition's guest curator.
But that gradually began to change in the 1910s when players and promoters of teams in New York, Washington, Chicago, Pittsburgh and other large cities saw the benefits of sharing gate receipts, and staging lucrative games against all-white teams.