We are so pleased and grateful to announce that through a generous donor gift we recently were able to acquire a very rare historical African American basketball artifact for the Black Fives Foundation Archives.

It is the original 1963 election certificate for the first African Americans ever enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame: the New York Renaissance Big Five of Harlem aka the “New York Rens” aka the “Harlem Rens,” an all-black professional barnstorming team.

certificate hall of fame

Thanks to a generous donor gift, the 1963 Basketball Hall of Fame Certificate of Election for the enshrinement of the all-black New York Renaissance Big Five, an extraordinary artifact on many levels, now resides in the Black Fives Foundation Archives. (Black Fives Foundation Archives)

You may recall that the Renaissance dominated the entire sport of basketball from the late 1920s through the late 1940s. But what you may not know is that in 1963, the entire 1932-33 team was enshrined collectively into the Basketball Hall of Fame, in part because that squad won 88 straight games in 86 days.

It was an accomplishment that was nearly inconceivable at the time.

Remember the context. 1932 and 1933 were the worst two years of the Great Depression. By late 1932, corporate stocks had lost 80% of their value with prices reaching all time lows. Unemployment had reached 25% with over 13 million Americans jobless. More than 11,000 of the country’s 25,000 banks had failed by mid-1933.

During those two years alone, 34 lynchings of African Americans were recorded. Many of these murders were committed in states where the barnstorming all-black Renaissance Big Five team traveled that season: Alabama, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, and Tennessee.[1]

In addition, state legislatures were codifying as many unwritten Jim Crow “customs” as they could.

In 1932, Tennessee enacted a law that made interracial marriage a felony, and another statute requiring racially segregated high schools.

Missouri passed a bill that proclaimed, “It shall be unlawful for any colored child to attend any white school, or any white child to attend a colored school.” That state had another law declaring, “No person having one-eighth part or more of negro blood shall be permitted to marry any white person, nor shall any white person be permitted to marry any negro or person having one-eighth part or more of negro blood.”

No detail of Jim Crow was overlooked. Alabama legislation mandated, “It shall be unlawful to conduct a restaurant or other place for the serving of food in the city, at which white and colored people are served in the same room, unless such white and colored persons are effectually separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of seven feet or higher, and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided for each compartment.”

Every precaution of racial segregation was taken. In North Carolina, “books shall not be interchangeable between the white and colored schools, but shall continue to be used by the race first using them.”

The New York Renaissance, circa 1933.  L to R: Clarence "Fats" Jenkins, John Holt, Bill Yancey, James "Pappy" Ricks, Eiyre Saitch, Charles "Tarzan" Cooper, Willie Smith. Inset: Robert "Bob" Douglas.

The New York Renaissance, circa 1933. L to R: Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, John Holt, Bill Yancey, James “Pappy” Ricks, Eiyre Saitch, Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, Willie Smith. Inset: Robert “Bob” Douglas. (Black Fives Foundation Archives)

To say that it was challenging for a dozen African American basketball players to ride around America in a small bus for 86 days without losing a game, during the Jim Crow era and in the depths of the Great Depression, would be a gross understatement.

Thankfully, though 30 years later in 1963, the Basketball Hall of Fame agreed. Finally recognized as a “famous professional basketball team,” this “Certificate of Election” makes it official that the Renaissance Big Five “has been elected by the Honors Committee to the Basketball Hall of Fame.”

Even then, it had taken 14 years after their first enshrinement class – in 1959 – for the Hall and its 12-man committee to reach that obvious conclusion.

But was the Hall of Fame so oblivious, or was something else inhibiting their public recognition of the obviously superior Rens? Looking at all the considerations, we believe that the latter is more likely.

Consider the timing of the committee’s vote in support of this historic milestone, dated July 21, 1963. It is just after the civil rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama in May and the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi in June. It is just before the March on Washington in August and the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Alabama in September.

The week prior to the historic enshrinement vote, the Baltimore Afro American issued a challenge. “Some colored athletes are currently resorting to the old dodge game in their refusal to stand up and be counted in the current all-out civil rights battle being waged throughout the nation,” the paper wrote. “If ministers and people of other professions and even children can take part in protest demonstrations and sit-ins and subject themselves to police dogs and fire hoses as well as arrests, colored athletes could at least lend their active support to the campaign for racial justice,” the Afro American continued. “Just think of how much prestige a Willie Mays or Jim Brown or Wilt Chamberlain could bring to the civil rights fight.”[2]

The upcoming March on Washington was a source of considerable anxiety reaching all the way to the White House. “The Kennedy administration was afraid that if there was violence on the march, it would mean that the Civil Rights Act, which John F. Kennedy had just introduced, would never get passed,” said march planner Rachelle Horowitz in a 2014 interview on CNN.[3]

But by the week of the mid-summer Hall of Fame enshrinement, the administration felt more at ease. When asked by the Afro American if the demonstrations taking place throughout the country were going to handicap the significant progress of his civil rights agenda, JFK answered, “No, I think that the way that the Washington march is now developed, which is a peaceful assembly calling for a redress of grievances, the cooperation with the police, shows every evidence that it is going to be peaceful.” The President continued with his own powerful set up. “They are going to the Washington Monument, they are going to express their strong views, and I think that is in the great tradition,” he stated. “I look forward to being here.”[4]

It was a complex situation, with much at stake, but in the end JFK did not give a speech on the Mall that day because it was perceived by African American leaders – including future U.S. Representative John Lewis, then 23 years old and a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – that Kennedy’s mere presence would have taken over the event.

These were difficult times. In this context, how did an all-white honors committee elect African Americans into a hallowed basketball shrine that previously has been populated exclusively by Caucasians? Were they making a civil rights statement, or yielding to pressure? Did they consider if there might be a backlash?

In the absence of honors committee meeting minutes or surviving members, we may never know the answers. What we do know is that they elected the Renaissance Big Five anyway. Their rightful and deserved action was not only unprecedented. It also took introspection and focus and ultimately, courage.

Maybe not surprisingly, the milestone received little attention in newspapers. Only one publication, the local Lowell Sun, is known to have mentioned the enshrinement of African Americans in an article headline. The New York Times ignored it.

Lowell Sun, July 21, 1963.

A headline in the Lowell Sun from its July 21, 1963 issue acknowledges the enshrinement of a “Negro Team.”

One other newspaper, the Camden Courier-Post, which covered southern New Jersey, focused on local resident Bill Yancey of Moorestown, who was a member of that 1932-33 Renaissance team and was by then a baseball scout for the New York Yankees. Though only 5′-10″ tall, the Courier-Post explained, Yancey was “the hardest man of the outfit to guard because of his dead-eye, speed, and change of pace.”[5]

In a related development, legendary University of Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp was named to the Honors Committee exactly one week after the Renaissance enshrinement. This may explain why it took nearly 10 more years for the Hall of Fame to enshrine another African American. That was New York Rens team owner Robert “Bob” Douglas, another super-obvious choice, in 1972. Rupp, who was known to be a racist, did not recruit a black player until 1971. In 1965, he famously refused to visit African American high school star Wes Unseld’s home, causing the Kentucky native to sign with the University of Louisville instead. Unseld went on to become a two-time NCAA All-American, an NBA Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player, and a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

All of this makes the 1963 Basketball Hall of Fame Certificate of Election for the enshrinement of the all-black New York Renaissance Big Five an extraordinary artifact. In fact, considering its historical significance in sports and the timing of its delivery during perhaps the most pivotal year of the Civil Rights Movement, it will be one of the crown jewels of the Black Fives Foundation Archives.

By its very nature, we want this item to inspire storytelling that not only engages and teaches but also creates common ground. There is no better time than now to appreciate the meaning of the phrase basketball brings us together.

Finally, historical preservation is an essential part of our mission and ours is the world’s leading archives of its kind. We hope the generous donor gift that made this remarkable acquisition possible inspires others to do the same. Regardless of the amount, you can designate a donation specifically for archival acquisition by us, to preserve the important pre-NBA history of African Americans in basketball.

[1] Rayl, Susan. “The New York Renaissance Professional Black Basketball Team.” Diss. Pennsylvania State University, 1996. Print.
[2] The Baltimore Afro American, 27 July, 1963.
[3] Matthews, David, “Kennedy White House had jitters ahead of 1963 March on Washington,” CNN.com, 28 August, 2013.
[4] The Baltimore Afro American, 27 July, 1963.
[5] “Court Hall Cites Bill Yancey,” Camden Courier-Post, 27 July 1963.