Role: Pioneering basketball referee, manager, and coach.
“He controlled the floor, the game, the crowd, the coaches, the tempers; always with a smile, but you knew Dutch was in charge.”
—John “Boy Wonder” Isaacs, 2008
“Dutch as a referee had few equals in either race and was one of the most sought after officials in the East.”
—New York Amsterdam News, 1930
Chris Rudolf Huiswoud, a native of Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana (now Surinam), was a pioneering African American basketball referee during the 1920s and ’30s.
Huiswoud started in basketball with brief stints as a player with the St. Christopher Club and the New York Incorporators, before opting to manage and coach women’s teams as well as officiate games.
During the 1910s, Huiswoud managed the famous all-black Younger Set Girls, the “sister” team of the Smart Set Athletic Club’s basketball squad, as well as the New York Blue Belts, a high-caliber Harlem-based women’s team.
He was the brother of Otto Eduard Gerardus Majella Huiswoud, the famous Harlem-based race activist who was committed to black liberation and socialism. Considered a revolutionary in his time, Otto Huiswoud was the only founding member of the American Communist Party of African descent.
In the early days of basketball, the game’s founding fathers recognized that certain uniformly acceptable standards had to be in place, approved by a governing authority, in order to maintain the legitimacy of the new sport.
Because the early game was developed strictly in accordance with amateur ideals, this authority was given to the Amateur Athletic Union, or A.A.U.
The A.A.U. governed every aspect of basketball, from equipment and scorekeeping to player eligibility and referees.
In order for a basketball game to be considered official, it had to be officiated by an A.A.U.-certified referee. Few basketball promoters would hire non-certified officials for fear of alienating their ticket-buying fans who expected games to be “legit.”
This was especially so among African American basketball teams, their promoters, and their followers, many of whom believed that faithful adherence to official guidelines led not only to legitimacy but also to acceptance and uplift of the entire race.
The flip side is that because the A.A.U. controlled the referee industry, they were able to keep black referees out, even for games between two African American teams in all but a few cases.
But eventually, as race consciousness and cultural identity among blacks grew throughout the 1910s, this stopped making sense. “Hardly any big game has been staged,” complained The Competitor, a nationally distributed African American sports magazine, “that has not drawn some comment as to why the white referee?”
That changed on January 29, 1920, when Huiswoud became the first basketball referee of African descent certified by the A.A.U. to officiate a formally organized game. It was at the Manhattan Casino in Harlem, between the St. Christopher Club of Harlem, which featured a young Paul Robeson, and the Loendi Big Five of Pittsburgh, with black basketball superstar Cumberland Posey, Jr.
That game, before a crowd so large—over 5,000 patrons—that “special policemen” were needed to escort players onto the floor, 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. “He was tried and proved equal to the occasion.”
For some of the St. Christopher organizers at the game, their old habits were hard to shake off. “Though he is an A.A.U. official sanctioned by that august body to represent it in officiating at basketball contests,” explained the Competitor, “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 identity around.
After gaining his A.A.U. credentials, he traveled the country as a kind of a barnstorming basketball official. He eventually became the “house ref” at the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem, working most of the New York Rens games at home and many on the road. Huiswoud eventually also officiated in the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association (C.I.A.A.).
He 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.)