They were pretty. They were magnificent. They were the Chicago Roamers, a.k.a. the Roamer Girls.
Their story is worth telling. It’s about a great African American women’s basketball team you probably never heard of until now.
Formed in Chicago in 1921 by local basketball and track star Edward “Sol” Butler, the Roamer Athletic Club was originally affiliated with the Grace Presbyterian Church’s Sunday School.
The Roamer Girls won their very first game, played at the massive 8th Regiment Armory on Chicago’s South Side on Saturday on March 19, 1921, against the Olivet Baptist Church Cosmopolitans.
The Roamers featured Lillian Speed, Pollie Rickman, Margrete Lewis, Corinne Robinson, Mignon Burns, Lillian Ross, Virginia Willis, Lula Porter, and Isadore “Izzy” Channels.
Sol Butler, one of only a handful of African-Americans who played on white college varsity basketball teams before World War I (Dubuque University), also played basketball for the Chicago Forty Club, an all-black men’s team, and was a sports editor for the Chicago Bee, a local African American newspaper.
Butler was also a former world record holder in the broad jump and had been a member of the United States Olympic team in 1920.
Playing at the right forward position, Izzy Channels, was easily the star of the team.
“Scoring and passing at will and even at times joking,” the Chicago Defender, a leading Negro newspaper, wrote about Channels following one game in 1925, “she played a game far above the heads of her opponents and far in advance of her colleagues, registering 19 of the points scored by her team.”
She was also a four-time women’s singles champion of the all-black American Tennis Association.
By 1925 the Roamers had joined the women’s division of the Chicago City Basketball League, playing against white teams such as the Harvey Bloomers and the Taylor Trunks, while continuing their rivalry with African American teams like the Olivet Baptist Girls.
The Roamer Girls were black women’s national basketball champions throughout the 1920s, captivating sports fans across race and gender lines. In a 1927 poll by the Defender, readers picked Virginia Willis as one of the city’s most popular athletes.
My grandmother, Ellee Johnson, and her sister, Loberda, probably went to Roamer Girls games as part of their social activity.
They were lively, active young ladies who were new to Chicago, having arrived from Monroe, Louisiana in 1919.
Eventually, living up to their nickname, the Roamer’s star players began to roam, beginning with the retirement of Izzy Channels.
In 1928 the heart of the Roamer Girls’ lineup, Corrine Robinson, Virginia Willis, and Lula Porter, left to play with the Savoy Colts, newly formed as the sister team to the red hot Savoy Big Five men’s basketball team.
Joining Robinson, Willis, and Porter on the new Colts team was Ora Washington, an import from Philadelphia who would soon become one of the greatest female basketball players of her time.
By the early 1930s, Chicago’s magnificent Roamer Girls had faded away. On the Windy City horizon ready to take their place was a new all-black women’s team, the Club Store Co-eds.
And in the East, Philadelphia became the new hot spot for “colored” women’s basketball.
(Part 1 of a 4-part series of team profiles celebrating Black Women’s Basketball History Month.)
(Sol Butler photo courtesy of Dubuque University.)