Rock Chalk or M-I-Z?!?

Please feel free to comment below or tweet us @can_of_corn!

KU/Mizzou Trash Talk is highly encouraged.

Advertisements

The City’s Greatest Champion: The Legend of Cumberland Posey, Jr.

In honor of Black History Month, we will be releasing a story every week about a black athlete or team whose story has rarely been told.  In order to appreciate the array of sports we have today, I feel that it’s important to understand where they have come from and to sing the praises of those contributors whose stories have mostly been forgotten. 

Posey's stellar play and later management of the Homestead Grays Negro League team eventually garnered him admission in Baseball's Hall of Fame. PHOTO CREDIT - Darryl B. Daisey, 2010

It was a sunny July day in Cooperstown, New York and many were gathered to see what was about to transpire.  Major League Baseball had decided to recognize the efforts of 17 Negro League Baseball players by inducting them into Baseball’s Hall of Fame.  As Buck O’Neil, the former first baseman and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs, stepped up to the podium everyone paused to listen.  He began, “These people helped build the bridge across the chasm of prejudice …” O’Neil’s words rang out across the Hall’s lawn as he sang the praises of the men and woman being inducted into the Hall.   He specifically hailed the contributions of Cumberland Posey Jr. of the Homestead Grays.  Posey was not present at the ceremony because it was 2006 and Posey had passed away 60 years prior.  Nonetheless, after nearly 70 years of being ignored, Posey and 16 others were being recognized for their contributions to the game of baseball; contributions that had been previously ignored because of their skin color.  If Cumberland Posey Jr. could have lived to see that day, he would have been proud of how far baseball has come.  More than that, he may have been a little shocked at his own induction.  After all, he was being honored at a Hall of Fame ceremony in Cooperstown when baseball was not even his best sport.1

Cumberland Willis Posey, Jr., or Cum Posey as his contemporaries knew him, was born on June 20, 1890 near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the borough of Homestead.  He was born the youngest of the three children to Cumberland Willis, Sr. and Anna Stevens Posey. The Posey’s were one of the richest black families in Pittsburgh with Cumberland, Sr. serving as the General Manager for the Delta Coal Company.   Posey’s mother Anna was the first black graduate of Ohio State University.  She was also the first black teacher there. Cumberland, Jr. grew up in a very affluent family that placed high priority on education and entrepreneurship.   Posey’s passion, however, was for athletics.2

In the early 1900s, basketball was still a young game.  While the sport had begun to establish itself in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., in the city of Pittsburgh, basketball was an infant.   Growing up, Posey played basketball in the streets and grew to love the game.  As he matured, he excelled a number of sports – most notably baseball, football, golf, and basketball.  Though Posey only grew to be 5’4” tall and weigh 140 pounds, he was a truculent athlete.  For the high school’s baseball team, he was a power-hitting right fielder.  On the school’s football team, he was a star fullback.  For the Homestead High School basketball team, he was a dominant guard. He was absolutely incredible.  On the court he was incredibly quick and played the game with an astuteness that was unrivaled. The only criticism that Posey drew as a player is that he did not play what coaches at the time called “scientific basketball” which was a style of play that stressed lay-ups and below the basket shots.  Posey was one of the game’s first perimeter shooters.   In 1908, young Posey led Homestead High School to the Pittsburgh City Championship title.3

Upon his graduation from high school, Posey decided to pursue a college education.  He first enrolled at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pennsylvania.  He studied chemistry and pharmacy.  He was very intelligent but he ignored his studies to focus on sports.  He was an exceptional basketball player.  In 1910, Posey made the varsity as a sophomore (freshman players could not be on varsity collegiate squads at this time) and became the first black intercollegiate athlete in the history of Penn State.2 Posey’s grades began to slip as he gave more of his attention to basketball.  Eventually the Nittany Lions threw him off the team for academic reasons.  After two years of playing basketball and attending Penn State, Posey dropped out.4 Posey decided to give school another go in 1913 and enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh.  While at Pittsburgh, Posey was considered one of the best basketball players in the country.  He had a brief stint playing basketball there as well and exhausted his eligibility before dropping out of that institution as well. In 1915, Posey enrolled at Holy Ghost (present-day Duquesne University).  Posey had always been noted as having light skin and hazel eyes and so at Holy Ghost, for the sake of athletic eligibility, he passed himself off as a white player by the name of Charles Cumbert.  At Holy Ghost, he was the basketball team’s leading scorer and the captain of the golf team.   Eventually, he dropped out of Holy Ghost as well.  In spite of his intelligence, Posey never graduated from college.  By the third time Posey dropped out of college around 1916, he had already established himself as a great athlete. 3

In 1909, after graduating high school, Cumberland had teamed up with his brother Seward “See” Posey to establish the Monticello Athletic Club – a semi-professional black basketball team – in Homestead, Pennsylvania.3 The name Monticello was taken from the street where Posey had grown up.  With the Cum Posey at the helm as the coach and starting right guard and coupled with his brother See Posey, James Dorsey, Sell Hall, and Walter Clark, the Monticello Delaney Rifles were a strong semi-pro squad.  They held their practices in the crowded Washington Field House, during the four hours a week that blacks were allowed inside, and played every possible opponent that they could.  Until a game in 1912, the Delaneys went largely unnoticed.5

On March 8, 1912, Cum Posey and the Monticello Athletic Association faced off against the Howard University varsity team out of Washington, D.C. at the Washington Field House.   Howard had won the black collegiate national championship in 1911 led by Ed Gray and Henry Nixon.  The heavily favored Howard team faced off against the Delaney Rifles in what Posey remembered as, “the first colored game ever played in Pittsburgh.” It had been decided that the game would be played under college rules (at the time there three or four sets of established rules).  The first half was hard fought and brutal and at intermission the Delaneys were ahead 9 – 8.  In the second half, the Monticello club demanded the rest of the game be played by YMCA rules.  The Howard University team was unversed in these rules and the mid-game change in rules confused the opposing team.  Cum Posey would explain years later that Monticello did this a lot in the early days to “bewilder the opposition”.6

Cum Posey took over from there, and at game’s end had scored 15 points,6 shooting the majority of his shots from beyond the free throw line.Howard had no answer for the perimeter shooting of Cumberland Posey, Jr.  His ability to make shots from twenty feet out without the backboard was something the players from Howard had never seen.6   The Monticello team defeated the Howard Big Five 24 -19 in an upset that garnered national attention. 3 The Delaney Rifles had handed Howard only their third loss in three years.6 Cum Posey and the Monticello Athletic Association had arrived.

Posey on the Penn State Basketball Team in 1913 PHOTO CREDIT - Darryl B. Daisey, 2010

The Monticello team was able to use their newfound fame to go on the road and play a number of teams from New York and Washington.   They beat every opponent that they faced including a rout of the New York All-Stars.  At the end of the season, Monticello had been unofficially crowned as the champions.  Throughout the sports world, Cumberland Posey, Jr. was being hailed as the best player in the nation.4 Bob Kuska wrote that, “Posey stood shoulder to shoulder with Paul Robeson, Henry Lloyd, Oscar Charleston, and other great black baseball and football players as the finest athlete of his generation.”6

The following season, Posey renamed his team the Loendi Big Five in recognition of the team’s sponsor; the Loendi Social and Literary Club of Pittsburgh.4   The Loendi Big Five had a rematch against the Howard Big Five for the championship that season on January 17, 1913.  In a game that was being played under the same YMCA rules that had handicapped Howard a year prior, Posey and the Loendi Big Five were left dazed by the quickness of Howard’s team.  The Howard team shut down Posey and picked apart the rest of the Loendi Big Five as they went on to win 33 – 15.6  The loss only proved to be a small bump in the road for Posey and his team as that year, Howard’s starting line-up all graduated and went to find other jobs.  It opened the door for a decade-long dynasty in Pittsburgh.

Today many would not think of the Steel City as a basketball town but in the 1910s and 20s, Pittsburgh had basketball’s best team in the Loendi Big Five and it’s best player in Cum Posey.  Throughout the rest of the 1910s and the 1920s, the Loendi Big Five won game after game.  Cum Posey’s brashness and ferocity made it easy for his rivals to hate him on the court but to respect his talent. From 1920 – 1923, the Loendi Big Five won an unprecedented four straight Colored World Championships.   During this run, they defeated great black teams, such as Bob Douglas’s Eastern Champion New York Spartan Braves by 20 points in 1921, and the best white teams, such as the New York Celtics.   From 1911 – 1925, no team was better than the Loendi Big Five and no player was better than Cum Posey.7   About Posey’s superiority on the court, the Interstate Tattler wrote, “The mystic wand of Posey ruled basketball with as much éclat as Rasputin dominated the Queen of all the Russias.”

In the late 20s, the Loendi Big Five began to deteriorate but the team had already made their mark on the game. Posey’s style of play and the rivalries the Loendi Big Five had with teams from New York and Washington had caused the popularity of the game to increase.  When basketball became a more widespread sport in the late 20s, it was because of the contributions of Cum Posey.   By that point however, Bob Douglas had established a new dynasty, the Harlem Renaissance, and Cum Posey had moved on to another endeavor.7

In the 1990s, basketball’s best player, Michael Jordan, left the game behind to pursue a career in baseball.  Similarly in the 1920s, Cum Posey, the best basketball player of the 1910s and 20s, left behind basketball for what he believed to be a more lucrative entrepreneurial pursuit.   Posey had not limited himself simply to basketball.  In the early 1920s he was playing semi-professional football for the Homestead Grays football team, was managing the Homestead Grays Boxing Club, and more famously, he was the owner of the Homestead Grays Negro League Baseball team.8

Posey had started playing for the Homestead Grays shortly after he and his brother Seward started the Monticello Athletic Association/Loendi Big Five.   Posey had a quick bat and a strong arm and was an anchor for the team at centerfield.   After three years on the team, he was named the captain and the following year he became the manager of the Homestead Grays.  In 1919, Cumberland Posey, Jr. bought the Homestead Grays and became team owner.   Over the next twenty-five years, he built the Homestead Grays into the best team in all of the Negro Leagues, and probably American baseball in general, with stars such as Josh Gibson, “Cool Papa” Bell, Buck Leonard, and Oscar Charleston.   The Grays won multiple championships (3 titles in 5 appearances) and Posey helped cement the place of the Negro Leagues in history by establishing the Negro National League and starting a rivalry with the cross-town Pittsburgh Crawfords.  This rivalry increased the popularity of the Negro Leagues and its players.  Always a visionary in everything that he did, Posey saw the end of his baseball success coming as he foretold the integration of baseball.    On March 28, 1946, Cumberland Posey, Jr. passed away, just 13 months before Jackie Robinson would make his debut with the Dodgers.8

Posey excelled in every sport he attempted. Aside from being a Hall of Fame Baseball Player and a Hall of Fame Caliber Basketball player, he was a great football player and an excellent golfer. PHOTO CREDIT - Negro League Baseball Players' Association

It has often been said that “a jack of all trades is a master of none” but Cumberland Posey, Jr. showed that this is not always true.  Throughout his life he took on a number of athletic endeavors and not only did he excel, he was the best at everything he did.   His accomplishments on the basketball court, football field, golf course, and baseball diamond cause the exploits of famous multiple-sport athletes such as Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Charlie Ward, and Jim Brown to pale in comparison.  For nearly twenty years, Cumberland Posey was the best athlete in the entire country and though recognized in baseball’s Hall of Fame, his contributions extend further than just one sport.  His impact goes beyond Cooperstown.

Many affectionately call Pittsburgh the “City of Champions” as a reflection of the city’s great athletic accomplishments.   Yet, long before the Steelers won six Lombardi Trophies and the Pirates won five World Series; before the Penguins hoisted up the Stanley Cup three times – there were the Loendi Big Five basketball team and the Homestead Grays Negro Leagues franchise and their championship years of forgotten fame.   Prior to Roberto Clemente, Honus Wagner, Danny Murtaugh, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Ben Roethlisberger, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, and all the others still to come – there was Cumberland Posey, Jr.  He was the greatest athlete of his generation – the best at basketball, the best at baseball, a star in football, and a mighty stalwart in golf.   In the City of Champions, Cum Posey was their first, their greatest.

_______________________________________________

1 Paul Hagen, “Negro League pioneers ‘helped build bridge”, Negro League Baseball Players Association, July 30, 2006, http://www.nlbpa.com/30july2006.html.

2  James A. Riley, “Cumberland ‘Cum’ Posey”, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 1994.

3 “A Man For [Nearly] All Seasons”, FanIQ.com, February 25, 2010, http://www.faniq.com/article/A-Man-For-Nearly-All-Seasons-Cumberland-Posey-2001432.

4 John N. Ingham and Lynne B. Feldman, “African-American Business Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary”, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1994.

5 Rob Ruck, “Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh”, University of Illinois Press, 1993.

6 Bob Kuska, “Hot Potato”, University of Virginia Press, 2006.

7  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance”, Simon & Schuster, 2007.

8 Brian McKenna, “Cum Posey”, The Baseball Biography Project, Accessed June 4, 2010, http://bioproj.sabr.org/bioproj.cfm?a=v&v=l&bid=2664&pid=19647.


Divided We Fall – The Saga of the Topeka Ramblers

In honor of Black History Month, we will be releasing a story every week about a black athlete or team whose story has rarely been told.  In order to appreciate the array of sports we have today, I feel that it’s important to understand where they have come from and to sing the praises of those contributors whose stories have mostly been forgotten.  

A special request was made on Twitter for this specific article after a North Carolina student read an article on ESPN that was based off of this article.  To see that article by my friend and mentor Dr. Richard Lapchick please click HERE.

“Combine the two teams.’ It seemed like a simple request at the time but one that Topeka High School Principal Buck Weaver was hesitant to grant.  It was the fall of 1948 and Trojans player Dean Smith was relentless in petitioning Weaver for a change.1 The desire to win that would eventually make Smith an icon in Chapel Hill, North Carolina was already present in this young Topeka High School basketball player.  Smith wanted to be the best; he wanted to win; and he knew that by combining both of the school’s varsity basketball teams – the Trojans and the Ramblers – Topeka High School could have the greatest basketball team in the entire state.  But Principal Weaver worried about such a move and how it would be perceived by the community.  It was true that Topeka High School did have two very talented basketball teams that, if combined, could make Topeka High a basketball power.  It was simple in theory but there was just one slight problem: the Trojans were the school’s all-white team and the Ramblers were all black.  Much like local restaurants and the high school swimming pool, Topeka High School basketball had always been segregated and, in the name of social correctness and tradition, Buck Weaver was not about to let that change.“2

________________________________________________________________________

Before they decided to make headlines by naming themselves “Google, Kansas” for a month and before the band Kansas rose from being a local band to a national sensation, Topeka, Kansas became known as the place where the trail was blazed for the American Civil Rights movement.  In 1954, Topeka resident Oliver Brown (and other African-American parents) brought the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka before the United States Supreme Court to argue against the inconvenience and inequality that was created by a segregated grade school system in the state of Kansas.  The court ruled unanimously in the favor of Oliver Brown and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and overruled Plessy vs. Ferguson’s long-held doctrine of “separate but equal” in regard to public institutions of learning.  Until this point, there were segregated grade schools, middle schools, high schools, and colleges/universities throughout the country.  In the state of Kansas all public schools below the high school level were kept “separate but equal”3 The policy of Kansas, as Alabama Governor George Wallace would declare in 1963, was, “segration now; segregation tomorrow; segregation forever.”4

The 1944 Topeka Ramblers; Photo Courtesy of Tanner Treiber

Before the historic decision of Brown v. Board, high schools in Kansas were the only public schools that were integrated.  Topeka High School was integrated from the time it was founded in 1871.  While Topeka High met the state requirement that all high schools be open to students of all races; Topeka High was not truly integrated.5 Despite the fact that black and white students attended the same high school, had the same classes, and even ate in the same cafeteria; segregation was alive and well in the Sunflower State.  Black students could not use the school’s swimming pool and had to attend separate school dances than white students.  Blacks had less representation on the student council than white students and could not play on the same basketball team as their white classmates.2 And in 1935, when the Topeka Ramblers, Topeka High School’s all-black basketball team, was formed; the significant change that Brown vs. the Board of Education would bring seemed a lot farther than nineteen years away.6  When Oliver Brown put on that Ramblers uniform, he had no idea the number of ways that he would one day effectuate social change.7

The Topeka Ramblers were formed in 1935 as the all-black high school basketball team of Topeka High School and considered a separate team from the school’s Trojans.   Topeka High School had two high school teams from the time the all-black Cardinals had formed in 1929 before they gave way to the Ramblers.   Similar to other schools of the time that had an all-white and an all-black basketball team, Topeka High School really did not claim the Ramblers as the Trojans were clearly the school’s team.  However, the Ramblers provided the one primary opportunity that young black Topeka athletes had to play competitive high school basketball. The team was formed by a group of black students from Topeka who had a love for basketball and was tired of being excluded from the same athletic opportunities that their white counterparts had.2 

The Ramblers were kept separate from the Topeka High School Trojans and were restricted from practicing or playing games in “the Dungeon” – the school’s gymnasium.  As former Ramblers player Jack Alexander recalled, “We had no connection with ‘the Dungeon” relative to basketball.”2 The Ramblers were, instead, forced to play their games and hold their practices at East Topeka Junior High.  The Ramblers also had an all-black cheerleading squad that was kept separate from the Trojans cheerleaders.   The Ramblers only had two balls to their name, one for games and one for practice, and except for the very rare occasion when a teammate had their own ball and allowed the team to use it; basketball practices were held using only one ball.6

However, to Topeka High School’s credit, though the Ramblers were kept separate from the school they represented, they were treated better by Topeka High than other all-black high school teams of the time (though this treatment was still far below what the white teams received).   Topeka High School provided the Ramblers with their uniforms and was unprecedented in providing the Ramblers players, coaching staff, and cheerleaders with buses for road games; most other black teams of that era relied on public transportation to play away from their home court. 6

The Ramblers traveled all over the state of Kansas and western Missouri to play their conference rivals.  They played local teams such as the Lawrence High School Promoters and Leavenworth High School.  They also routinely traveled to the Kansas City area (nearly 75 miles away) to play teams like R.T. Coles High School in Kansas City, Missouri and Bartlett High School in St. Joseph, Missouri.2  This geographically widespread all-black conference was often referred to as the “Chitlin’ Circuit” (the name given to the collection of concert halls and venues that black musicians were permitted to perform at in the South8) by many of the players.6   The team also played a non-conference schedule that included traveling to Independence, Missouri (nearly 85 miles), Fort Scott, Kansas (nearly 150 miles), and Parsons, Kansas (nearly 200 miles) on an annual basis.  The Ramblers were very successful and talented and always found ways to win.  While Topeka High School provided the travel and uniforms, Ramblers players had to still deal with the hardships at home and on the road of playing in a segregated era.2

Though Topeka High School was integrated, hardly anything else in Topeka was.  The local theater forced blacks to sit on the right side and whites on the left.  Restaurants, swimming pools, and other public places were segregated – the road was no different.  When the Ramblers played on the road they would eat simple meals in churches or gymnasiums with the food being provided by the families of the opposing teams.  Former Ramblers player, Donald Redmon, remarked about the food they ate that, “It [eating rabbit on road trips] wasn’t exactly what I would call first class.”3 When the Ramblers went on extended road trips to Fort Scott or Parsons, the team, cheerleaders, and coaches would stay with local black families.  Meanwhile the Trojans were afforded the relative luxury of being able to eat at restaurants and stay in hotels due to nothing more than the color of their skin.2

As time marched on, change slowly but surely came to Topeka, Kansas and the rest of the country.  In 1936, a year after the Ramblers began to play, Jesse Owens, a black track athlete, shone at the Summer Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany.   In the 1940’s, it became common in Kansas for school’s to have integrated high school football teams, baseball teams, and track teams.  In 1947, Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby broke the color barrier in the National and American Leagues respectively.  However, in Topeka, even though these young men routinely played basketball against each other in their gym classes, the high school continued to have two teams and kept the Ramblers and the Trojans separate.6  Both teams were extremely talented.  In 1948, the Ramblers placed third in the state tournament.  Bill Bunten, a former Trojans player, recalled that, if the teams had been combined that year, Topeka High School could have been state champions.2  The following year, after nearly twenty years of segregated basketball in Topeka, change seemed to be on the horizon when a young Trojans player approached the principal, Buck Weaver, and asked him to combine the two teams.1

GETTY IMAGES Dean Smith is one of the winningest coaches in NCAA history. It was while a student at Topeka he learned the importance of equality

Combine the two teams.  It seemed like a simple request at the time but one that Topeka High School Principal Buck Weaver was hesitant to grant.  It was the fall of 1948 and Trojans player Dean Smith was relentless in petitioning Weaver for a change.1 The desire to win that would eventually make Smith an icon in Chapel Hill, North Carolina was already present in this young Topeka High School basketball player.  Smith wanted to be the best; he wanted to win; and he knew that by combining both of the school’s varsity basketball teams – the Trojans and the Ramblers – Topeka High School could have the greatest basketball team in the entire state.  But Principal Weaver worried about such a move and how it would be perceived by the community.  It was true that Topeka High School did have two very talented basketball teams that, if combined, could make Topeka High a basketball power.  It was simple in theory but there was just one slight problem: the Trojans were the school’s all-white team and the Ramblers were all black.  Much like local restaurants and the high school swimming pool, Topeka High School basketball had always been segregated and in the name of social correctness and tradition, Buck Weaver was not about to let that change.2

Weaver was primarily worried about events like school dances (two separate school dances were already held at the school for blacks and whites after football games) and how the integration of the Ramblers and Trojans would be received in Topeka.   While the school’s football, track, and baseball teams were integrated, blacks and whites playing on the same basketball team was still virtually unheard of in the state of Kansas.   Blacks and whites had always been separated on the court but as Ramblers center Richard Ridley once said that, “any time that separate is not equal, there’s chicanery.”2 Though players of the day recall that there was never any documented ruling that blacks and whites could not play together, segregation on the court was enforced by simple tradition.  Black players had always expected to play on the Ramblers and white players had always expected to play on the Trojans.  While some young black players dreamed of playing on the Trojans and were disappointed when this was not the case, most did not give it a second thought because of the fact that it had “always been that way”.2 A young Dean Smith, however, was one of many who realized that it was not right and that it was not in the best interest of the school to segregate.  Weaver maintained that it was not in Topeka High’s best interest to have blacks and whites socializing at the same school dance and thus, the teams should be kept separate.1

Nonetheless, progress was coming to Topeka and not even Principal Weaver could stand in its path.  After the 1948 – 1949 season, Smith got his wish and Topeka High School’s basketball teams were integrated and the Ramblers disbanded.   Three black players joined the Trojans junior varsity squad in 1950 and during the 1951 season, Bill Petersen became the first black Trojans varsity player in school history.2  After the integration of the two teams, several of the Rambler alumni went on to play important roles in the city of Topeka and elsewhere.   Former Rambler Joe Douglas became Topeka’s first black fire chief, Jack Alexander became the town’s water commissioner, and Richard Ridley made a name for himself in real estate.  Coach Merle Ross became an administrator for the city’s elementary schools and Ira Hutchinson became the Deputy Director of the National Park Service (NPS).   Former Ramblers players Oliver Brown and Charles Scott put Topeka, Kansas on the map and scored the first major victory for racial equality in the United States when they won the landmark Supreme Court Case Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka in 1954.   Today, Topeka High School has one of the most racially diverse high school athletic programs in the state of Kansas.6

And what of the young Trojans player who first asked Buck Weaver to integrate Topeka High School’s teams?  Dean Smith went on to play at the University of Kansas under the legendary Forrest C. “Phog” Allen where he won a national championship in 1952.   He then served as an assistant coach with the University of Kansas and the University of North Carolina (UNC) – Chapel Hill and in 1961, was named the head coach of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels men’s basketball team.  Smith coached the team for thirty six years and when he stepped down in 1997, he had coached the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal, had made eleven Final Four appearances, won two national championships as a coach at UNC, and had been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983.  At the time of his retirement, his 879 career wins were the most all time among college coaches.10 But more importantly was the fact that the Trojans player who asked his principal to integrate the Ramblers and Trojans in 1948 never stopped fighting for equality.11 Smith once commented that, “It’s embarrassing [the segregation of basketball teams at Topeka High School]; I was taught that we’re all human.”1 Smith took these life lessons and applied them throughout his coaching career. In 1966, Smith successfully recruited Charlie Scott, UNC-Chapel Hill’s first African American scholarship player and one of the first in the Atlantic Coast Conference.  He used this recruitment as a stepping stone to use his influence to fight for desegregation in Chapel Hill and the rest of the state of North Carolina.11

In 1966, Charles Scott became the first black scholarship athlete at UNC. Dean Smith recruited him. Dean Smith's father also successfully integrated the Division II Basketball team at Emporia State University in Emporia, Kansas. PHOTO CREDIT - UNC ATHLETICS

Though Smith had 879 victories to speak of when he stepped down in October of 1997, perhaps his greatest victories were the ones that were not tallied.  Perhaps his utmost wins came off of the court.  Recruiting Charlie Scott, fighting for racial equality in North Carolina, and having the courage as a young man to ask his high school principal to desegregate the school’s basketball teams in spite of societal norms are much more significant than what a scoreboard read at the end of a basketball game.  Dean Smith saw through the lies that Topeka High School and society were telling him and knew Topeka High School needed to be unified.   He knew that in order to win, on and off the court, that the teams could no longer be divided on the basis of race.

In 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren would tell the Topeka Board of Education that Plessy vs. Ferguson no longer applied to public schools.  He would explain to them that a young girl should not have to ride a bus to an all-black school when she can walk the seven blocks to a school that had been all-white.  He would explain that separate is never equal.5 Brown v. Board helped to dispel one of the greatest lies American society has ever told.

In 1858, President Abraham Lincoln declared that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”12 A high school cannot have two separate varsity teams divided on the basis of race and consider themselves an integrated high school.  A school cannot neglect to claim one team and force them to play and practice with less equipment and in a separate facility and call it equal.   One team cannot eat in restaurants on the road while the other is eating rabbit in churches. Yet from 1871 – 1949, Topeka High School did just that and claimed to be integrated when that really was not the case.   The Ramblers and Trojans were both conditioned to believe that exclusion and disconnection were in the best interest of all parties involved and that both were given equal opportunities.  Topeka High School had two talented basketball teams but to ensure “equality” kept them apart.  If only Topeka High School had one team instead of two, the great teams that could have been.   If only.

If only the Trojans and Ramblers had been allowed to play as one, united; Topeka High School could have multiple championships to their name.  But unfortunately, they were forced to play as two, divided.  In the name of societal interest they fell divided, with only tradition and “best interest” to blame.

_______________________________________________

1 Mike Adams, “A Microcosm in Basketball”, The Baltimore Sun, January 6, 2002, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2002-01-06/news/0201060203_1_topeka-jack-alexander-blacks-and-whites.

2 Steve Fry, “’49 Basketball Teams Segregated”, The Topeka Capital-Journal, October 10, 2009, http://cjonline.com/news/local/2009-10-10/49_basketball_teams_segregated.

3 Lisa Cozzens, “Brown v. Board of Education”, African American History, May 25, 1998, http://www.watson.org/~lisa/blackhistory/early-civilrights/brown.html.

4 George C. Wallace, “1963 Inaugural Address”, January 14, 1963.

5 “Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka Information Release”, The Topeka Capital-Journal, February 28, 2002, http://cjonline.com/stories/022802/ksb_release.shtml.

6 Topeka Public Schools, “Famous Topeka Athletes: Black Pioneers Slam-Dunk Segregation!”, Sports Gazette, Accessed June 7, 2010, http://www.hummersportspark.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=41&Itemid=46&limit=1&limitstart=7.

7 Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, “In the Paint”, Accessed June 8, 2010,  http://www.tscpl.org/programs/comments/in_the_paint/.

8 Mississippi Blues Commission, “Club Ebony,” Accessed June 10, 2010, http://www.msbluestrail.org/_webapp_2179154/Club_Ebony.

Steve Fry, “Ramblers, Trojans Talk Basketball”, The Topeka Capital-Journal, October 15, 2009, http://cjonline.com/news/local/2009-10-15/ramblers_trojans_talk_basketball.

10 Phil Ponce and John Feinstein, End of an Era”, Newshour, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), October 9, 1997, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/sports/july-dec97/dean_10-9.html.

11 Elizabeth Hull, “Black History at UNC: Charles Scott”, UNC Library, February 6, 2009, http://www.lib.unc.edu/blogs/morton/index.php/2009/02/black-history-at-unc-charles-scott/.

12 Abraham Lincoln, “House Divided Speech”, June 16,1858.

Was It Only a Dream? : The Story of Wilmeth Sidat-Singh

In honor of Black History Month, we will be releasing a story every week about a black athlete or team whose story has rarely been told.  In order to appreciate the array of sports we have today, I feel that it’s important to understand where they have come from and to sing the praises of those contributors whose stories have mostly been forgotten. 

“With his head hung and a towel draped over his head, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh sat on the sidelines in College Park, Maryland, humiliated. He suffered the pain of hatred and bigotry as he just sat there; helplessly; watching his team’s hopes of an undefeated season grow fainter with every snap of the ball. Syracuse was a much better team than Maryland but Sidat-Singh, their star halfback, could not go out on the field and lead the Orangemen to victory as he had all season. After all, he was black, and at the University of Maryland blacks were not allowed to compete in intercollegiate sports.”

__________________________________________________________________________________

“Did you see that thing?
That’s Wilmeth Sidat-Singh!
The Syracuse Walking Dream!
Oh, he was amazing!”

  ~ Attributed to Grantland Rice1

PHOTO: RL Young, 2005

Wilmeth Sidat-Singh was born in Washington, D.C in 1918 as Wilmeth Webb, the son of Elias and Pauline Webb.   When Wilmeth was seven, Elias Webb died of a stroke and his mother then married Samuel Sidat-Singh, a doctor from the West Indies.  Wilmeth adopted his stepfather’s surname and the family moved to New York City.2   Wilmeth Sidat-Singh grew up in the Big Apple with an incredible love for sports.  He learned how to play basketball, football, baseball, and tennis on the sandlots of Harlem near the place Dr. Sidat-Singh practiced medicine.  Young Wilmeth spent hours discovering how to throw a football and shoot a basketball along childhood friends John “Wonder Boy” Isaacs, Eyre “Bruiser” Saitch, and Jazz legend Duke Ellington’s son, Mercer.  Wilmeth quickly grew to be an extraordinary athlete.  Isaacs recalled that he once saw Sidat-Singh throw a football “60 yards, flat-footed” and that on the basketball court he was a fast, powerful, and dynamic player.   Sidat-Singh was a rare talent and Isaacs was not the only one who noticed.3

As he grew and went on to attend a DeWitt High School in New York, Sidat-Singh became a two-sport standout in football and basketball.  Whenever Wilmeth had a ball in his hands, it seemed that he was capable of anything.   John Isaacs once explained that, “anything he [Wilmeth Sidat-Singh] put his mind to, he would do it.”  Sidat-Singh became renowned for his explosiveness on the basketball court when he led DeWitt High School to a title in 1934.  In 1935, Sidat-Singh made the all-city team3 and led the Govs to a second consecutive preparatory championship.1 After his senior year; Wilmeth was awarded a basketball scholarship to Syracuse University.   Though everyone in his hometowns of Washington, D.C. and Harlem, New York knew he was black, people began referring to him as a Hindu.3

Nobody took much notice of Sidat-Singh his freshman year at Syracuse because in the 1930’s, freshmen were athletically ineligible.  The following year when Sidat-Singh was able to play for the basketball team, he picked up right where he left off at DeWitt.  The athletic superiority of the player wearing number 19 was immediately noticeable1 and papers began writing about Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, the “Manhattan Hindu”.2 Sidat-Singh facilitated the offense and had a great ability to lead his team on the floor and control the pace of the game.  For all three seasons that he was at Syracuse, number 19 led his team in scoring and brought Syracuse basketball to prominence.  They had three straight winning seasons with Wilmeth at the helm.  His senior year at Syracuse the “Manhattan Hindu” led his team to a 14-0 record and an unofficial national title.3

Though he had no Hindu descent and was born and raised in the U.S., the African American Wilmeth Sidat-Singh became largely known as the nation's premier Hindu athlete. Photo Courtesy of Jack Rimer.

Although Sidat-Singh was a great basketball player, he was not taken seriously as an athlete.  He was viewed as more of a novelty than anything.  Even though he was Syracuse’s greatest star he was demeaned because of his race and forced to live off-campus in the poorest parts of the college town.  In the media, the press continued to have misconceptions about his race as they deemed Wilmeth the nation’s only “Hindu Basketeer”.  They did not recognize his unmatchable talent on the court, only his mistaken racial association.  Sidat-Singh had never claimed to Hindu and had even tried to explain at one point that he had “never been to India” but regardless, the press continued him a “full blooded Hindu” and that was what made him newsworthy, not his athletic talent.1 Syracuse tried to perpetuate the misnomer by asking Wilmeth to wear turbans and traditional Indian garments but Wilmeth refused.4 If all Sidat-Singh had accomplished was an exceptional basketball career, the only mention of his name may have been the continued cases of mistaken racial identity.  However, Syracuse assistant football coach Russell Simmons, Sr. saw something in Sidat-Singh in 1936 that was going to make Wilmeth a household name.5

As previously mentioned, Wilmeth had been a multiple sport standout throughout his youth and high school career.  Though he was brought to Syracuse on a basketball scholarship, Sidat-Singh participated in a number of intramural sports, football among them.   During the fall of 1936, Coach Simmons decided to go watch a touch football game between two of the Syracuse dormitories and became intrigued with the young man who was calling the plays for one of the team.5 He was only about six feet tall and 190 pounds3 but he had a vibrant playing style, was quick on his feet, and every pass of his was on target.  As the game progressed, Simmons figured out that the young man calling the signals was the school’s basketball star Wilmeth Sidat-Singh.  Coach Simmons recalled that he immediately halted game play and went down on the field to Wilmeth and said, “Singh, you don’t belong here.  You belong down on that other field with the varsity.”  Sidat-Singh had always enjoyed the game of football and after his sophomore year, despite his basketball coach’s worries; he took Simmons up on his offer and decided to become a two-sport athlete at Syracuse.5

Wilmeth quickly excelled on the football field and showed that he was just as talented on the gridiron as he was on the hardwood.  The arm that Simmons had admired and the speed that made him a basketball phenom made Sidat-Singh a perfect fit for Syracuse’s single-wing offense.  Wilmeth played the halfback position which was a hybrid position that demanded the swiftness of a running back and the throwing ability of a quarterback.1 Throughout his collegiate football career he exhibited dominance over every team he faced.  In any athletic endeavor he pursued, Sidat-Singh seemed invulnerable and his abilities were unparalleled.  On the basketball court, he established supremacy with his quick feet and ability to score quickly.  On the field, his passes were on target and he was able to get by any line that he matched up against.  That is, until t Sidat-Singh tried to run past a line called the Mason-Dixon.1

In the week leading up to the Syracuse game, Sam Lacy from The Washington Tribune ran the story, “NEGRO TO PLAY U. OF MARYLAND, THEY CALL HIM A HINDU”.  The article explained how Sidat-Singh had been born Wilmeth Webb and how his mother, Pauline, had remarried.  At the time many schools in the South, including the University of Maryland, had a strict segregationist policy that they did not play against black teams or athletes in any sport.   Days earlier this same exclusion had not applied to an alleged Indian, but now was being applied to a black star.  Maryland refused to let Sidat-Singh play on their field and Syracuse conceded to their demands.2

When the day of the game arrived, Sidat-Singh had traveled to Maryland with the team but the Orangemen would take the field without their star player.  With his head hung and a towel draped over his head, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh sat on the sidelines in College Park, Maryland, humiliated.  He suffered the pain of hatred and bigotry as he just sat there; helpless, watching his team’s hopes of an undefeated season grow fainter with every snap of the ball.  Syracuse was a much better team than Maryland but Sidat-Singh, their star halfback, could not go out on the field and lead the Orangemen to victory as he had all season.  After all, he was black, and at the University of Maryland blacks were not allowed to compete in intercollegiate sports.1

“Seared in the flames of withering injustice”; 10 miles away and more than 30 years later that is how Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech would phrase

PHOTO: Courtesy of SU Athletics

the sting that Sidat-Singh felt.Syracuse running back Marty Glickman looked on in disgust, because a year prior, he had felt it too.  Glickman had been invited to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin as a member of the 4 x 100 relay team.  Right before the race, he and teammate Sam Stoller were taken off the team and replaced by Ralph Metcalfe and Jesse Owens.   Glickman and Stoller were both Jewish and the relay team they were a part of was a favorite to win the gold medal that year (which it eventually did, setting a world record that would stand for 20 years).  It was believed by many that United States Olympic Committee had replaced Glickman and Stoller at the request of Adolf Hitler who did not want his athletes to suffer the embarrassment of losing to a couple of Jews.  Glickman had been denied the greatest honor an athlete can know because of his race.7 He had been seared in the flames of intolerance.  Now, just fourteen months later, Marty Glickman stood yards away from his teammate and friend Wilmeth Sidat-Singh as the inferno of prejudice continued to smolder.3

Glickman had considered whether or not to take a stand and sit out the game as well but was afraid of being depicted as a “trouble making Jew”.  The decision to play against Maryland was one that he regretted all his life.3 The Terrapins defeated Syracuse 13-02 and their victory was credited to being better able to handle the field conditions but it was clear that Sidat-Singh was the difference. Following that game, Sidat-Singh returned to the line-up and became the nation’s best two sport athlete.  In his senior year, he would defeat the legendary Sid Luckman’s Columbia squad 13-12.  He was so famous by then that Maryland and Duke both lifted their racial exclusions for the Syracuse game.  He defeated Maryland at Syracuse 53-01.  His greatest triumph came when he scored a major upset against the Rose Bowl bound Cornell Big Red by throwing six passes for 150 yards and three touchdowns in the game’s final six minutes to lead the Orangemen to a 19-17 comeback victory.  This performance prompted writer Grantland Rice to jot down the lasting words, “Did you see that thing? That’s Wilmeth Sidat-Singh! The Syracuse Walking Dream! Oh he was amazing!”8   Sidat-Singh was amazing as Rice had written but he would never escape the discrimination of college sport as his senior year he was forced to sit out of a basketball game against the U.S. Naval Academy due to the color of his skin.4

The Syracuse Walking Dream was amazing and one of the best athletes of his era. Upon graduating with a degree in zoology, Sidat-Singh began looking for opportunities to play sports professionally.  It was well-known that the National Football League (NFL) had never allowed blacks among their ranks.  As a result, Wilmeth decided to return to basketball and play the game that had brought him to collegiate athletics in the first place.1

He immediately signed with the Syracuse Reds and instantly became a star.  In December of 1939, Sidat-Singh and the Reds defeated the Original Celtics 40 – 37.  Sidat-Singh led the scoring with 14 points.  Wilmeth only spent one season with the Syracuse Reds before he left to join childhood friends John Isaacs and Eyre Saitch as members of the Harlem Renaissance.9 He had moved back to Washington, D.C. after graduating from Syracuse in 1939 to live with his longtime girlfriend Marjorie Webb (no relation) and regularly commuted to New York to play with the Rens.  By the time that the “Syracuse Walking Dream” joined the Rens, they were no longer what they once were.  The team had grown older.   Clarence “Fats” Jenkins and Charles “Tarzan” Cooper were gearing up to retire.  Coach and owner Bob Douglas planned to build his team around younger stars such as Isaacs, Saitch, William “Dolly” King, and Sidat-Singh.  Douglas hoped to make Sidat-Singh the focal point of his offense.10

As the 1940’s arrived, the Harlem Renaissance ran into fiscal concerns and broadcaster Hal Jackson pursued Sidat-Singh for his up-start Washington Bruins basketball team.   Jackson was able to recruit the hometown hero and made him the first major signing of his new team.   Jackson was excited to have his first big star but Bob Douglas insisted that Sidat-Singh was still under contract with the Renaissance.   Sidat-Singh opted to pursue every possible athletic opportunity that he could while he waited for the expiration of his contract.  He played semi-pro football with the U Street Lions, won a Colored City Championship with the Treasury Department fast-pitch softball team, and even played singles tennis.1

By the time that Wilmeth was contractually eligible to play with the Bears it was 1941 and Jackson had assembled a cast of collegiate all-stars, former Globetrotters, and former Rens to complement Sidat-Singh.  Jackson had lured Tarzan Cooper out of retirement to act as a player-coach for the newly named Washington Lichtman Bears (after team sponsor Abe Lichtman).   In the season opener, Sidat-Singh led the Bears with an unheard of 18 points (at a time when an average score for a winning team was around 30) as the Bears easily defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He served as the center of the Bear’s offense that entire season as the team played won several games before packed houses.1 When he was not running down the hardwood; Sidat-Singh walked the beat as a member of the Washington, D.C. Police Department.3

The following season, several of Sidat-Singh’s former teammates from the Rens joined Wilmeth in Washington John “Wonder Boy” Isaacs, William “Dolly” King, and Eyre “Bruiser” Saitch all drove down from New York on the weekends to play for the Bears.  That season Sidat-Singh averaged 20 points a game and in a game against the Baltimore Mets, he scored, a record at the time, 28 points in the same state where years earlier he had not been allowed to play football.1 The Washington Bears were an elite basketball team during the 1942-43 season.  They finished the season 66-0 and went on to beat the Oshkosh All-Stars in the World Championship Tournament in Chicago.  Wilmeth Sidat-Singh was not at Chicago Stadium to share in his team’s glory.   In August of 1942 (mid-season), Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, feeling an incredible sense of duty to country, had decided to join the United States Air Force.10

Sidat-Singh left sports behind to defend a country whose ideals and freedoms were not available to him. PHOTO: "Washington City Paper", 2008

Before the 1940’s, it was extremely rare for blacks to fly airplanes – especially for the U.S. military.  Nonetheless, in 1942, the American commitment in Europe and Asia had escalated and the U.S. Air Force wanted any pilot they could find.  Just like American society, the military was segregated.  Wilmeth was designated for assignment with the all-black 332nd Fighter Group.3   Today, many know the Fighting 332nd as the Tuskegee Airmen.  In May of 1943, Sidat-Singh graduated from flight school and was ready to serve his country.1

Not long after his graduation, the news broke that the “Syracuse Walking Dream” had gone missing during a training exercise.1 On May 9, 1943, Sidat-Singh’s P-40 plane failed while he was flying a routine mission over Lake Huron.    His flight trainer, C.I. Williams saw the whole thing happen.  He claimed that Sidat-Singh did not deploy his parachute in the free fall and had drowned with his plane in the lake.Many refused to believe that Wilmeth was dead.  Among those convinced he was still alive was John Isaacs who remarked, “If you saw him swim … you’d understand.”1 Six weeks after the crash, divers found the body of Wilmeth Sidat-Singh wrapped up in his parachute and stuck to his plane.3At the young age of 25, a great competitor and a greater person had been lost.  He was an athlete who had unmatched talent and a person who had unparalleled resolve.  The Syracuse Walking Dream was almost too good to be true.  It was as if he could do anything that he put his mind to.  That is unless, he put his mind to eating at a white lunch counter, sitting in the front of a bus, playing football in the state of Maryland, or being treated as an equal.

Wilmeth Sidat-Singh died for a nation that was founded on the belief that “all men are created equal” but had never lived up to that creed.  The Syracuse Walking Dream had left his own endeavors behind because he believed in a concept that did not seem to believe in him.  He chose to stop playing the games he loved and excelled at to fight for a democracy that for so long had fought against him.  He protected freedoms that he had always been denied.  He defended a dream that society would never allow him to realize.   For a country that had made him, and those who looked like him, a pariah, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh made the ultimate sacrifice.  He gave his life and just like that, the dream was over before it had ever really begun.

Courtesy of Devan Dignan+

_______________________________________________

1 Dave McKenna, “The Syracuse Walking Dream”, Washington City Paper, May 23, 2008.

2 Ron Fimrite, “Sam Lacy: Black Crusader”, Sports Illustrated, October 29, 1990.

3 Luke Cyphers, “The Lost Hero”, The Daily News, February 25, 2001.

4 Gerald Horne,“The End of Empires: African Americans and India”, Temple University Press, 2008.

5 Sal Maiorana and Scott Pitoniak, “Slices of Orange: Great Games and Performers in Syracuse University Sports History”, Syracuse University Press, 2005.

6 Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream”, August 28, 1963.

7 Larry Schwartz, “Owens Pierced a Myth”, ESPN.com, Accessed June 9, 2010, http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00016393.html.

8  “SU to Honor A Pioneer — Wilmeth Sidat-Singh”, Syracuse University Athletics, Accessed June 7, 2010,  http://www.suathletics.com/news/2005/2/24/sidat-singh.aspx.

9 “Countdown to Kickoff: The Legend of Wilmeth Sidat-Singh”, Syracuse University Athletics, Accessed June 7, 2010, http://www.suathletics.com/news/2003/8/9/sidat%20singh.aspx.

10 Hal Jackson with Jim Haskins, “The House that Jack Built”, Colossus Books, 2001.

Phogged Over: The Tale of the Lawrence Promoters

In honor of Black History Month, we will be releasing a story every week about a black athlete or team whose story has rarely been told.  In order to appreciate the array of sports we have today, I feel that it’s important to understand where they have come from and to sing the praises of those contributors whose stories have mostly been forgotten. 

1930 Lawrence Promoters Team (courtesy of Lawrence Journal, February 2000)

Basketball may have been born right here in Springfield, Massachusetts but Lawrence, Kansas is where the game grew up.   Considered by many to be a “mecca” of men’s basketball, the city of Lawrence is home to the University of Kansas; a program that was started by basketball’s inventor, James Naismith, and became dominant under legendary coach Dr. Forrest C. “Phog” Allen.  The Jayhawks boast one of the winningest college programs of all time boasting an impressive 13 Final Four appearances and 5 National Championships.  With a basketball heritage that was built by great black players like Wilt Chamberlain, JoJo White, Danny Manning, and Mario Chalmers, it is hard to believe there was ever a time that basketball was segregated in Lawrence.  Yet before 1950, sport, much like the city itself, was segregated.  For the first half of the 20th century, “Rock Chalk” was not merely a chant in Lawrence, but also the only color of player allowed on a basketball court.  In Lawrence, blacks and whites were prohibited from playing basketball with or against one another.  This was the era of segregated basketball; this was the age of the Promoters.

By 1926, maybe earlier, an all-black high school team known as the Promoters existed in Lawrence as the only opportunity for black high school boys to play organized, competitive basketball.  The Promoters primarily hailed from Liberty Memorial High School (now Lawrence High School) and played their home games at what is now Central Junior High.1   While it remains unclear who initially organized the team or gave them their name, one former player, Jesse Newman Sr., recalled that it was the “White Shadow” that prevented the team from disbanding at the onset of the 1930s.  Newman was a center and a large inside presence for the Promoters from 1930 to 1932.  The “White Shadow” was the nickname given to Forrest Noll, a white junior high mathematics teacher who served as the coach of the Promoters beginning in 1928.  Prior to Noll, black college students (including future Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer John McClendon) had coached the Promoters, but each had quickly left Lawrence upon graduation from the University of Kansas.  Noll gave his own time and resources to ensure that all boys in Lawrence, not just those who were white, had an opportunity to play organized basketball.  In 2000, for an article in the Lawrence Journal-World, Jesse Newman Sr. remarked that Noll “took it upon himself to buy eight suits for eight boys.  He paid the $50 fee [to enter the league]”.2  Former Promoter Jesse Newman Sr. has constantly said that, “If it hadn’t been for the ‘White Shadow’, Lawrence’s black Liberty Memorial High School students would not have been able to play basketball in the early 1930s.”3

The Promoters wore secondhand jerseys that read Oilers throughout the 1930's that led to some calling them the Oilers

Liberty Memorial High School was an integrated high school but that did not keep the school from having two separate teams: one white and one black.    The teams were kept separate, but were far from equal.   The Promoters had difficulty fielding an all-black team and it was not rare for the Promoters to extend into the junior high to find players to fill out their roster. The Promoters were not allowed to use Liberty Memorial’s basketballs and could only use the court when the white team did not want it.  Oftentimes it was seven o’clock at night or later before the Promoters were able to begin their practices.  Many times, because the team was so small, the Promoters scrimmaged against fraternity guys from the University of Kansas who would come out to practice with them.2 When the high school gymnasium was not available, the team would practice at Woodlawn Elementary whose gym, one player remarked, was “about the size of my living room.”1 The school’s all-black team had a cheerleading squad made up of three girls.  This squad was separate from the white team’s cheerleaders.  They also had their own pep club called The Red Peppers.  In the team’s infancy, the Promoters had worn an “L” or the word “Lawrence” on their jerseys but eventually that right was taken from the Promoters as well.  While they represented Liberty Memorial, they were not allowed to have the same name, mascot, or colors as the white basketball team. 4 Noll was able to find new uniforms for the team – most  likely donated and second hand – that were white and gold and read “Oilers” across the front.William Moore, who played for the Promoters from 1934 to 1937,  recalled that the fans, “started calling us Oilers.  We were still the Promoters but we had the Oilers on our uniforms.”3

The Promoters played games all over Kansas, but unlike the white team, they were allowed to travel outside of the state to play in games and tournaments (due to the small number of all-black high school teams that did exist in the Midwest) and played several games in Missouri as well.  The Promoters played against high schools in Topeka, Leavenworth, Kansas City, and even as far away as St. Joseph, Missouri (a two and a half hour drive at the time).  The Promoters not only played against high school teams but sometimes played teams formed by YMCAs and college teams like Northeast Junior College in Kansas City, Kansas.4 The long travel proved incredibly difficult for the team because the school did not provide any buses or other accommodations to assist with transportation.  The Promoters often traveled anywhere between 60 and 200 miles to play in games.  Family members and other adults in the community often personally provided the transportation necessary for the Promoters to play organized basketball.  On occasion, when there were no other options, the team would utilize public transit to get to their games.   While white teams got to go out and eat when they played, the Promoters found themselves eating at the houses of the home team’s parents, many times in the basement, because most restaurants refused service to the black athletes.  In Lawrence, there were not any restaurants where the Promoters could get a meal. 2

The environment and accommodations provided to black high school basketball in Kansas was not close to equal to the opportunities provided to white players.  The teams were not equal on the court either.  By and large, the Promoters were more talented and a better team than their white counterparts.   They won the Missouri Valley Athletic Association conference tournament in 1930.2 The Promoters were the league co-champions in 1936, Noll’s final year, and repeated this feat in 1938.  In 1940 the Promoters won the league championship outright.4  Promoters player James O. Barnes always remember Jesse Newman Sr. talking about how, “they won the league, and they had a trophy.  It was the only trophy the Promoters ever won, and [Newman] said they used to show it [at] old Liberty Memorial High School.  I never saw it.”3

PHOTO: Courtesy of Jason Dailey, from "Red & Black" Yearbooks

In the 40s the Promoters were led by G.O. “Doc” Watson.  Watson was a white social studies teacher at Liberty Memorial and the school’s football coach.4  Throughout much of the 1940s; the Promoters were a good team but did not exhibit the same dominance they had throughout the previous decade.  In the late 1940s, the landscape of segregation in high school sports began to change.  The school’s track team was integrated early in the 1940s.  In 1947, Verner Newman III (Jesse Newman’s nephew) and two other members of the Promoters basketball team became the first black players on Liberty Memorial’s football team due to the efforts of Doc Watson.  Basketball stayed segregated at Liberty Memorial High School until 1949.  In their final year, the Promoters were the co-champions for the Missouri Valley Conference and the league runner-up after losing to Atchison in the championship.  The integration of local high school sports was the beginning of the end of segregation in Lawrence but for some black youths, it was also perceived as the end of an opportunity to play for the Promoters.  With only one team at Liberty Memorial, there were several black students left without the chance to play organized basketball.1

From the 1920s to 1950, a few miles from where James Naismith and Phog Allen were building a basketball powerhouse, Lawrence had another team of champions, the Promoters.  They were a team that was created out of a systemic social injustice; by a desire of black youth to play organized basketball, the goodwill of college students and white teachers who chose to coach and finance the team, and the sacrifice of the families and community members who chose to support them.  Today, a few pictures of young basketball players in Oilers jerseys, memories of a championship trophy that has gone missing, and a small display in a local church in Lawrence, Kansas are all that remain to recognize a high school team that was a dynasty in their own time; a dynasty that the school they represented refused to claim.  Lawrence, a city whose identity and legacy is found in the game of basketball, has forgotten some of its greatest champions.

Disparity, segregation, and institutional racism forced the Promoters to stand alone, unequal.  Their resilience, talent, and supremacy on the court had the Promoters standing alone; unequaled.

Courtesy of Devan Dignan+

_______________________________________________

1 Doug Vance, “Champions”, Sunflower Publishing, 2005, Accessed May 12, 2010, http://www.lawrence.lib.ks.us/oralhistory/LMw08Promoters.pdf.

2  Tom Meagher, “Basketball team offered outlet for black players”, Lawrence Journal-World, Volume 142, No. 51, February, 2000.

3 Alice Fowler and Amber Reagan-Kendrick, “The Promoters – Lawrence’s All-Black Basketball Team, 1920s – 1950s”, Lawrence/Douglas County Library, Interview, April 8, 2005, http://www.lawrence.lib.ks.us/oralhistory/3team.html.

4 Jill Sherman, “Racism in School and Sports”, National Museum of African American History and Culture, November 13, 2007, http://nmaahc.si.edu/memory/view/36.

5 Barbara Watkins, “The Promoters All-Black Basketball Team”, National Museum of African American History and Culture, November 23, 2007.  http://nmaahc.si.edu/memory/view/41.