Location: Harlem, New York City
Home Court: Parish House Gym, St. Philip’s Church
Nickname: “The St. C’s”
Colors: Varsity Red, Black
Manager: Will Anthony Madden
The St. Christopher Club was an African American basketball team that played during the early part of the Black Fives Era. The club got its start in 1896 as a bible study group formed to help keep young African American males off the seedy streets of what is now midtown Manhattan.
St. Philip’s Protestant Episcopal Church, one of the most prominent black churches in America, put the organization together. The church was located on West 25th Street, in the middle of what was then a predominantly African American neighborhood called the “Tenderloin.” The Tenderloin was overrun by mostly white-owned establishments where gambling, liquor, vice, and its related crimes were so rampant that the district was known as “Satan’s Circus.”
The St. Christopher Club was meant to prevent moral decay by offering an inspirational alternative. In 1905 the club shifted its focus from preaching the virtues of morality to teaching to value of physicality by staging athletic activities and related social events. Along with boxing and track, the club also formed a basketball team.
As an athletic and social club, the St. Christopher crew were known simply as the “St. C’s.”
The St. Christopher Club basketball team began competing with other local teams in 1907, when they helped found the all-black Olympian Athletic League, setting off a decade-long inter-city basketball rivalry with the Alpha Physical Culture Club of Harlem and the Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn.
Backed by the church and its large, enthusiastic congregation, the St. Christopher Club spared no available resources in creating a top quality team. They hired an experienced coach, used advertising, embraced innovative promotional ideas, and challenged big time teams in other cities.
Soon the St. C’s knowledge of “scientific basketball techniques” and their methodical work ethic were so dominant and that the team was nicknamed “The Red and Black Machine,” in reference also to the club’s popular newsletter called the Red Raven.
During the 1910s the St. Christopher Red and Black Machine won four Colored Basketball World’s Championships before and during World War I.
During the same period, starting in 1910, St. Philip’s pastor, the Reverend Dr. Hutchens Chew Bishop, was almost singlehandedly leading the migration of African Americans from midtown Manhattan to Harlem.
This was touched off when Bishop purchased a church on 134th Street that became the parish’s new home, and a large tract of apartment buildings on nearby 135th Street. Bishop’s skin complexion was so light that the property sellers had no suspicion of his African American ethnicity, and he didn’t bother to volunteer this information.
That’s because Harlem, considered a suburb of Manhattan at the time, was predominantly white, and its residents didn’t like the idea of black people entering their neighborhood. Harlem’s irate business owners and homeowners’ associations were already openly busy leading “Keep Harlem White” rallies in the streets.
Bishop promptly moved his entire congregation uptown and that, along with the help of a few other important factors, is how black Harlem was born.
So, when the St. Christopher Club’s basketball team played it was about more than just basketball.
The team’s best season may have been the 1918-19 campaign. That lineup featured former two-time Rutgers University football All American Paul Robeson, future Basketball Hall of Fame members Clarence “Fats” Jenkins and James “Pappy” Ricks, and former Hampton Institute star center Charles Bradford.
The St. Christopher Club is a great example of how a single idea behind a definite major purpose can transform a community and assume a life of its own once it takes hold through the implementation of specific plans.