In 1930, a 6-ft. 7-in. black female basketball player was a rare sight.
That is, everywhere but on the South Side of Chicago in the early 1930s, which witnessed the birth of one of the greatest women’s basketball teams ever created, the Club Store Coeds, a.k.a. the Chocolate Coeds.
The Coeds were formed by local nightclub promoter Dick Hudson, and they took over where the Roamer Girls, Oberlin Girls, Olivet Girls, and Savoy Colts had left off.
The team featured a lineup of all-stars that included four-time All-American Kate Bard of Crane College in Chicago (now Malcolm X College), former Oberlin Co-eds and Philadelphia Tribunes player Bernice “Mighty Atom” Marshall, former Oberlin Coeds player and La Salle College of Chicago star Marge Jackson, two-time Olympian hurdler Tydie Pickett, Vi Casey, an All-American from “colored girls” college national champion Xavier University, Lula Porter, a four-time winner of the all-black American Tennis Association’s women’s singles championship, Naomi Stokes, formerly of the St. Louis Argus Five, and Helen “Streamline” Smith, a graduate of Lemoyne College in Memphis, who at 6-feet 7-inches was perhaps the tallest female in basketball.
The Coeds played their home games at the renowned 8th Regiment Armory in the heart of Bronzeville.
Shortly after forming the team, promoter Hudson conceived a plan to take the Coeds on an extensive West Coast tour, with stops in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, on the way to compete in the National Amateur Athletic Union championships, to be held in Colorado in March. Hudson also planned Canadian stops in Alberta and British Columbia.
The Coeds became the first ever all-black female barnstorming basketball team.
They distinguished themselves from other top all-black female basketball teams like the Germantown Hornets and Philadelphia Tribunes because they toured mostly in the West and Northwest.
It was during one of their long journeys on the road that local papers began calling them the “Chocolate Coeds,” and the name stuck.
The “Chocs,” who always played with class and sportsmanship, routinely achieved winning streaks of up to 35 games in a row and were so good that other female teams were often too intimidated to schedule them.
In that case the Coeds simply scheduled games against men, winning more than half of such contests. (To be fair, special rules applied in these games: men had to shoot from beyond the foul line extended or attempt only one shot per possession.)
The Coed’s 1949 schedule, a typical one for them, included 89 games in 30 states, with 44 contests against women’s teams and 45 games against men . No black women’s team traveled more extensively, over 10,000 miles per season on average according to some accounts.
Helen Smith was the team’s leading attraction. A gentle giant off the court, she was often advance-billed as a 7-footer and even as the “tallest woman in the world” when the team was on the road. “No woman who has checked her,” it was said, “has ever been able to hold her to less than 30 points a game.”
Following World War II, in a sign of the times and as a testimony to her obliteration of competition, Smith began to be called the “Atomic Bomb of Femme Hoop.”
In the days when advance-billing copy was the only way to sell seats, marketing hype was an economic necessity.
The Chocolate Coeds promoted race relations, gender equity, and economic empowerment for females during a time when these concepts were new to most Americans.
By highlighting their basketball talent while avoiding comedy or freakish antics, the Coeds helped expand the image, definition, and realm of the black female athlete.
For nearly 20 years the Coeds were, game for game and player for player, arguably the best all-black female basketball team in the nation.
The Coeds began to fade in the late 1940s as support for women’s sports slowed down in post-war America. So did did the uniqueness and innovation of women’s teams playing basketball against men.
A new decade of fiercely protected gender polarity was dawning. America wanted boys to play against boys, and girls to play against girls (if at all).
By the end of 1950 the Chocolate Coeds were no more.
(Part 2 of a 4-part series of team profiles celebrating Black Women’s Basketball History Month.)