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.
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
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.5 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
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.
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.