One unsung black sports pioneer stands out among dozens who paved the way during the Black Fives Era, and that’s a remarkable brother named Hunter Johnson.
Johnson was what they used to call an “athletic trainer.” This was a highly esteemed and important position, and he was way ahead of his time.
In the early 1900s, Johnson was the official trainer of the Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) and University of Pittsburgh football and track teams. At that time, they were elite among college sports programs.
Johnson was an expert at conditioning and physical fitness. He would later train long jumper and Pittsburgh native DeHart Hubbard to become the first black individual gold medalist, at the 1924 Olympics. (Hubbard is enshrined in the U.S.A. Track and Field Hall of Fame.)
To put Johnson in context, consider how many African American athletic trainers there are today in major sports.
For example, a quick peak at the member directory of the National Basketball Athletic Trainers Association (NBATA) reveals that only 8 out of 30 athletic trainers in the N.B.A. are of African descent.
I’m not saying that most of the N.B.A’s athletic trainers have to be black just because most of its players are black. But 8 out of 30 isn’t 75%.
Back to Johnson.
In 1915, he decided to leverage his considerable experience and reputation in sports to create something for the African American community of Pittsburgh.
He formed the Scholastic Athletic Association, and it was based in the city’s predominantly black Hill District.
His organization, which competed in track and basketball, was comprised of black athletes who were current or former students at local schools and colleges and soon became known as the “Scholastics.”
Their basketball team featured top young stars Frank “Frankie” Johnson, Chris Dorsey, Ray Anderson, and Gerald Allen.
Johnson was not afraid to recruit straight from high school if the talent was there. A local white newspaper reported that the Scholastics were “greatly strengthened by the signing of Forest Meshaw of North Braddock High School, where he has been starring for the past two years.” Pittsburgh’s public school system was integrated in the 1800s, a rarity among American cities.
The Scholastics were one of Pittsburgh’s best African American basketball teams until they were absorbed into the more famous Loendi Big Five squad, helping shape that team into a black basketball dynasty after World War I.
Johnson was later associated as a trainer and coach with the Monticello-Delaney Rifles, the Pittsburgh Independents, and the St. Christopher Club of Harlem.
After winning his gold medal, Hubbard had this to say about Hunter Johnson:
Hunter is quiet and seldom talks. When he speaks, men listen, because he knows whereof he speaks. Few Race people know of his work. Those who do, praise him. Here is a man who has devoted his entire life to developing athletes who have upheld the fame of the race. In return he gets nothing. That is the real spirit of self-sacrifice that will place the Race in front. Would that theer were more men like Hunter Johnson!
And yet, to truly understand this man and what was going on in America back then during the Black Fives Era, one must note that during all of this time Hunter had another job — he was also a butler.
He had a definite major purpose. His vision was clear. He was determined. He enlisted the help and support of others. He was passionate and came from his heart. Johnson knew how to make history now.
(Scholastic team photo courtesy of the Zerbie Swain Collection. Hunter Johnson photos courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, respectively.)