Chris Huiswoud became the first referee of African descent to become formally sanctioned (allowed) by the Amateur Athletic Association (A.A.U.) to officiate a basketball game, on January 29, 1920.
It was during a game in Harlem between the St. Christopher Club of Harlem (featuring Paul Robeson) and the Loendi Big Five of Pittsburgh (featuring Cumberland Posey).
Loendi won the game, 32-15, before a Manhattan Casino crowd of over 5,000 that was so large that “special policemen” were required to escort players onto the floor.
It was a big game, a rough game, and it made Huiswoud famous.
“We certainly congratulate Mr. Huiswoud upon his signal success in measuring up to the required standard in this Blue Ribbon clash,” wrote the Competitor, a black sports magazine. “He was tried and proved equal to the occasion.”
Prior to that, Huiswoud wasn’t “officially” allowed to ref a basketball game, not even one between two all-black teams.
That’s because African American sports teams wanted to keep everything official, for the sake of “uplifting the race.” Official meant abiding by the rules and regulations of the A.A.U., which required being officially accredited by them and only them.
So that’s how the A.A.U. controlled the referee industry.
It meant that for nearly its first 20 years, black basketball went without a referee of African descent.
The A.A.U. was notoriously racist.
In its literature they praised and encouraged African American participation in sports, yet didn’t allow black athletes to participate in local, regional, or national A.A.U. events.
“Hardly any big game has been staged,” the Competitor complained, “that has not drawn some comment as to why the white referee?”
But the A.A.U. wasn’t fully to blame. Black players, promoters, and fans weren’t open to the idea.
Huiswoud was so famous as the first sanctioned African American basketball referee that he was mentioned on game tickets as part of the attraction.
“And though he is an A.A.U. official sanctioned by that august body to represent it in officiating at basketball contests,” explained the Competitor
, describing the start of the St. Christopher-Loendi game, “it took more than two hours of convincing one of the most advanced colored athletic clubs in America that he did not need a white official to help him handle the contest.”
Huiswoud helped turn that “negative race consciousness” around.
He became so famous as a basketball referee that his name was used to promote the games in which he was scheduled to officiate, and was often printed on the game ticket itself!
Huiswoud was born in Dutch Guiana (now Surinam). His nickname was “Dutch.”
He started in basketball as a player with the New York Incorporators, briefly, before opting to coach women’s teams and officiate.
Huiswoud managed the famous Younger Set Girls and New York Blue Belts, Harlem-based women’s all-black basketball teams of the late 1910s.
He fine tuned his officiating skills while in a physical education program at Springfield College.
After gaining his credentials from the A.A.U., Huiswoud officiated around America as a kind of a barnstorming basketball referee.
“Dutch as a referee had few equals in either race and was one of the most sought after officials in the East,” said the Chicago Defender.
He eventually became the “house” ref at the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem, working most of the New York Rens games including all the famous battles between the Rens and the Original Celtics.
John Isaacs, the fiery former Rens player, remembers Huiswoud. “He controlled the floor, the game, the crowd, the coaches, the tempers,” he says. “Always with a smile, but you knew Dutch was in charge.”
Huiswoud also officiated in the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association (C.I.A.A.).
“Wrong at times, yes,” wrote the Amsterdam News, “but honestly so, and not because of any desire to do any one dirt.” Huiswoud, it was said, “has never shown a yellow streak in the face of players rushing up to him with blood in their eyes and a desire to do him bodily harm.”
Chris Huiswoud, a basketball pioneer, died in Washington, D.C. in 1941 of a heart condition at age 44.
(Images courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.)