Though successful play-for-pay African American basketball teams like the New York All Stars, Monticello Athletic Association, New York Incorporators, and Loendi Big Five had achieved success and popularity during the 1910s, the idea of true professionalism among black teams in the game had still not been fully embraced.
As the decade ended, the state of the game was in flux. Amateur organizations worried about the infiltration of money. Semi-pro teams worried that players paid on a game-by-game basis could jump from team to team. World War I had forced most professional basketball leagues and independent barnstorming teams–whether white or black–to suspend or limit operations because so many venues were repurposed for military use. The National Prohibition Act of 1919 reduced the number of available venues still further, either through overpricing or through the demise of those that had relied too heavily on alcohol sales.
Advertisement for the Commonwealth Sporting Club, home court of the Commonwealth Big Five, the first fully professional African American basketball team | Ca. 1922 | Reproduction
James Van Der Zee, American, 1886-1983 | Commonwealth Big Five [Basketball Team Wearing Monogrammed Sweaters] | 1922-1923, Gelatin silver print | Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of James Van Der Zee Institute, 1970
In 1920, two white businessmen, the brothers Jess and Ed McMahon, former assistants to leading big-time boxing promoter Tex Rickard at Madison Square Garden, opened the Commonwealth Casino and Sporting Club, a prizefighting venue, at East 135th Street and Madison Avenue. The men were well liked in Harlem because they allowed mixed race bouts, which Rickard prohibited.
In 1922, the McMahons formed a new African American squad, the Commonwealth Big Five. Its players were signed to individual season-long guaranteed contracts. Though the team’s roster was filled with recognized stars, the McMahons avoided play-for-pay criticism by never pretending that the players were amateurs. In its second season, the Commonwealth Five won the 1923-24 Colored Basketball World’s Championship. “If we must have professionals, let them be out and outers,” wrote Amsterdam News sports columnist Romeo Dougherty in 1923.
Announcement, Renaissance Ballroom Matinee Dancing Class, January 20, 1927, showing slogan, “Everyone Confess, Renaissance Is The Best” | 1927
Announcement, Buffalo Jr.’s Presents Club Sunday at the Renaissance Casino | Ca. 1930s
Renaissance Ballroom, “The Aristocrat of Harlem,” souvenir photograph holder | Ca. 1930s
Greetings from Smalls’ Paradise, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Corner of 136th Street and Seventh Avenue advertisement (Verso of Souvenir Program, Renaissance Casino, December 12th, 1938) | 1938
In 1921, the Renaissance Theatre announced its grand opening, proclaiming that it was “built by colored capital and owned and managed by colored people.” The facility, fashionably located on Seventh Avenue between West 137th and West 138th Streets in Harlem, seated 950 patrons and cost $175,000 to complete. A ballroom portion of the entertainment complex, suitable for banquets, assemblies, concerts, and dancing, with a balcony and box seats, would be completed the following year at the corner of West 138th Street.
Exterior view of the Renaissance Casino & Ballroom, Harlem, New York, from Seventh Avenue | Ca. 1920s | Reproduction | Frank Driggs Collection, Getty Images
In 1923, African American basketball promoter Robert “Bob” Douglas, a passionate sportsman who was one of the game’s greatest visionaries, sought a dedicated home court for the Spartan Braves, his Harlem-based all-black basketball team. The Spartans were contenders for the Colored World’s Championship title. Douglas asked William Roach, owner and manager of the Renaissance Theater and Ballroom, for permission to use his building for basketball games in return for renaming his team the New York Renaissance Big Five, eventually nicknamed the New York Rens.
Having secured a dedicated home court, Douglas offered his players guaranteed season-long contracts, making them the first black-owned, fully professional basketball team. He then signed away the Commonwealth Big Five’s best players and won the 1924-25 Colored Basketball World’s Championship title.
American Sports Publishing Company, New York | Spalding’s Athletic Library Official 1924-1925 Basketball Guide | 1924
A.J. Reach Company, Philadelphia | Philadelphia Panthers team photograph and profile | Reach Official Basketball Guide 1924-1925 | 1924
With the near monopoly by the New York Rens of top black basketball talent, it was difficult for other prominent independent African American teams like the semi-pro Philadelphia Panthers to survive. The Panthers team folded after the 1928-29 season, following the acquisition by the Rens of its biggest star, Charles “Tarzan” Cooper.
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