Entering the 1930s, despite the economic hardships of the times, the New York Rens expanded and thrived beyond all expectations. Facing decreasingly reliable home crowd support at the 2,500-capacity Renaissance Ballroom, and exclusion from whites-only professional leagues, team owner Bob Douglas found he could book many more games and make more money “barnstorming” with long, profitable road trips to the towns and cities of the Northeast, Midwest, and South. These localities were hungry for quality basketball, newfangled entertainment, and the economic impact of the famous visitors. Fans drawn from miles around would spend money with local merchants and among themselves through enthusiastic betting. Playing almost every weeknight and often twice a day on weekends, the New York Rens averaged about 130 games per season primarily on the road against white teams.
Souvenir Program, Wilberforce “U” Basketball Team vs Bobby Anderson’s Chicago Stars, Savoy Ballroom, March 4, 1933 | 1933
The Cudahy Packing Company, South Omaha, Nebraska | The Force, Vol. 16, May 1938, No. 5
The New York Rens kept interest in basketball growing and became a symbol of success that fostered hope, pride, and unity among African Americans during difficult times while inspiring other all-black teams. African American squads represented a growing number of organizations including manufacturers, railroads, meat packers, newspapers, fraternities, athletic clubs, civic groups, colleges, nightclubs, and community centers.
Stewart’s Photo Studio, Akron, Ohio | Basketball team of the Association for Colored Community Work, Akron, Ohio | 1930s | Postcard
Postcard promoting basketball game between Cincinnati Lion Tamers and Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, two African American teams | Postmarked Dec 3, 1930
Handbill promoting the Philadelphia Giants barnstorming basketball team as “Colored Champs of the World!” | 1930s
New York Harlemites basketball team getting set for tip-off inside ballroom in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, featuring star players Donahue “Donny” Goins, Al “Runt” Pullins | Ca. 1935 | Photograph | Collection of Melanie Cowart, Esq.
“This team is in constant demand from all parts of the country and manager Douglas is besieged with requests to appear in other cities,” wrote the Pittsburgh Courier in 1930, about the New York Rens. Though the blatant racial segregation of the times prevented the Rens from using local accommodations, crowds for their games reached as many as 10,000. They became the model for numerous copycat teams with supposedly black-sounding names, like the Philadelphia Colored Giants, the Cincinnati Lion Tamers, and the New York Harlemites, which were advance-billed as “colored champions” or “showmen,” a promotional tactic designed to sell more tickets.
Philadelphia Tribune Girls basketball team | Ca. 1930s | Reproduction
In 1930, recognizing the growing interest in the sport among women, the Philadelphia Tribune, that city’s black newspaper, organized an all-female African American team. Led by Ora Mae Washington, the Tribune Girls won eleven straight Women’s Colored Basketball World’s Championships during the 1930s and 1940s.
Unidentified women’s basketball team | 1930 | Photograph
Lon W. Jourdet and Kenneth A. Hashagen | Modern Basketball | Philadelphia and London: W.B. Saunders Company, 1939
Oswald Tower, editor | American Sports Publishing Co., New York | Spalding’s Athletic Library, Official Basketball Guide 1939-40 | 1939
Edwin Bancroft Henderson | The Negro in Sports, revised edition | Washington, D.C.: The Associated Publishers, Inc., 1939
Despite their undeniable successes, mainstream publications like the annual Reach, Spalding, and Converse guides did not mention the New York Rens. Nor did Modern Basketball, published in 1939, mention their signature motion offense, a truly modern innovation. The Negro In Sports by Edwin Bancroft Henderson, a retrospective also published in 1939, was a first. “Mr. Henderson’s book should eliminate much of the guess work upon which both sports writers and fans have been forced to rely in discussing the merits and records of our runners, jumpers, boxers, swimmers, basketball and football players and other stars,” wrote the Amsterdam News.
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