Long before the National Basketball Association became racially integrated in 1950, black players had been charting their own course in basketball. The New-York Historical Society’s exhibition “The Black Fives” tells that nearly 50-year history in photographs, objects, and other memorabilia. Taken together, it celebrates the pioneering teams (known as “fives” for their five starting players) and athletes who shaped the early days of the game and paved the way for progress in other areas of black life.
According to the Black Fives Foundation, a not-for-profit that collaborated on the exhibit and works to promote the history of this era of black basketball, blacks have been playing the game since high school teacher Edwin Bancroft Henderson introduced it to his students in 1904. In 1906, the Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn, N.Y., became the first independent black basketball team in the country. Others followed, including the Alpha Physical Culture Club, the nation’s first all-black athletic club, and the New York Girls, the first all-black female team. Later, the New York Renaissance Big Five, also known as the “New York Rens,” became the first black-owned professional basketball team and went on to win the first World Championship of Professional Basketball in 1939.