Museum Closure

The New-York Historical Society will close at 5 pm on Friday, October 31 for the DiMenna Children's History Museum Halloween party. For ticket information, click here.

FShare Tweet

The Black Fives

March 14, 2014 - July 20, 2014

This exhibition covers the pioneering history of the African-American basketball teams that existed in New York City and elsewhere from the early 1900s through 1950, the year the National Basketball Association became racially integrated. Just after the game of basketball was invented in 1891, teams were often called “fives” in reference to their five starting players. Teams made up entirely of African-American players were referred to as “colored fives,” “Negro fives,” or black fives—the period became known as the Black Fives Era. 

Charles “Tarzan” Cooper (1907-1980) was a star center with the Philadelphia Panthers, New York Rens, Grumman Hellcats, and Washington Bears, winning two World Pro Basketball Tournament championships – with the Rens (1939) and the Bears (1943). The Rens won 1,303 out of 1,505 games with Cooper, who is considered one of the greatest centers of his time and was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1977. Photograph courtesy the Black Fives Foundation.

Dozens of all-black teams emerged during the Black Fives Era, in New York City, Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlantic City, Cleveland, and other cities where a substantial African-American population lived. The Black Fives Era came to an end in the late 1940s with the growth in stature of black college basketball programs combined with the gradual racial integration of previously whites-only collegiate basketball conferences and professional basketball leagues. The overarching significance of the Black Fives Era is that it is as much about the forward progress of black culture as a whole as it is about the history of basketball. This history is relevant today not only as a realization of our collective basketball roots but also as a search for identity.

The exhibition will be a collaboration and partnership between the New-York Historical Society and Claude Johnson, a historian and author who is the founder and executive director of the Black Fives Foundation, whose mission is to research, preserve, exhibit, and promote the inspiring pre-1950 history of African-American basketball teams in order to help teach life lessons, while honoring its pioneers and their descendants. Among its activities, the organization maintains a collection of artifacts, ephemera, memorabilia, objects, photographs, images, and other material relating to the period.

Creative: Tronvig Group