There were dozens of African American female basketball teams that played during the Black Fives Era.
Their rivals, the Spartan Girls of Brooklyn, were the sister team to the Smart Set Athletic Club men’s organization.
A third team, the Jersey Girls, was organized in nearby Orange, New Jersey, and affiliated with the men of that city’s all-black Independent Pleasure Club.
In the early days, basketball among women was all about camaraderie and social networking. It was a chance for a young lady to expand her world not only to other parts of the city but also to other pockets of black people.
This meant, more eligible men to meet … easy because early girls basketball teams were linked to previously established men’s fives. For example, the New York Girls were coached and managed by Conrad Norman, who was also the founder of the Alpha club.
It was common and maybe even encouraged for female players to marry male players on their counterpart teams.
History was made on February 26, 1910, the date of the first recorded basketball game between two independently organized all-black women’s basketball teams, the New York Girls and the Jersey Girls.
The Saturday afternoon game, played in front of a “delighted audience,” was described as “a pleasing innovation” and considered a big success.
“The players, winsome and charming in their dainty white blouses, showed up well in practice,” reported the nation’s leading African American newspaper, the New York Age, “but it was when the referee’s whistle started the game that the real surprise came. These lassies demonstrated that they could play!”
In a “clever and even scientific game,” the New York Girls won 12 to 3. “The New Yorkers were heavier, but the Jersey girls were more familiar with the baskets,” it was said .
Subsequently, many other all-female, all-black teams emerged with names like the Smarter Set, the Younger Set, Mysterious Girls, the Cosmopolitans, the Savoy Colts, the Quick Steppers, the Germantown Hornets, the Tribune Girls, the Lincoln Nurses, the Club Store Co-eds, the Chocolate Coeds, the Defender Girls, the St. Nicholas Girls, the Roamer Girls, the Kansas Industrial Girls, the Gloom Chasers, the Argus Five, the Twentieth Century Girls, the Tattlers, the Blue Belts, the Dauntless Five, and the Gibraltars.
These women’s teams were covered nationally in the Negro press, although less than their male counterparts, and despite warnings by many authorities that basketball was dangerous for women.
One expert, a male physician, declared in 1911 that, “basket ball is injurious and should not be engaged in by girls or women,” adding that, “the nature of women should keep them from this dangerous sport.”
Men were protective of women, even when women were merely spectators at men’s games. “Basketball players, especially some in Chicago, please take a bath,” begged a black sports journalist in 1928.
In a recent game, he complained, “a local squad took the floor for limbering up practice and the odor was so fierce that several women became deathly sick.” The offended writer had a simple demand. “Leave the stockyards odor over in the stockyards, please,” he wrote.
African American women’s basketball teams played using the slightly altered version of the men’s rules. Most of the time there were five players per side, but in some parts of the country, particularly in the South, six players were used, three on offense and three on defense.
This disparity between so-called boy’s rules and girl’s rules caused considerable debate. “As long we use the other fellow’s rules and his ball, net and mark the floor like he does, we might just as well cut off the sixth player and make all teams five girls each,” wrote legendary African American sportswriter Frank Young.
As female Black Fives got better, dainty white blouses and bloomers gave way to form fitting basketball jerseys and matching shorts.
The most dominating women’s teams that emerged from those early days were the Chocolate Coeds, the Chicago Roamers, the Germantown Hornets, and the Tribune Girls.
We’ll explore each of these teams in more detail throughout December, Black Women’s Basketball History Month, as our series on female Black Fives continues.