(Part 1 of a multi-part series of articles that digs into the historic first basketball game between two fully independent, formally organized African American basketball teams that took place in Brooklyn, New York in 1907.)


O n the cold Wednesday night of November 13, 1907, in the predominantly white Bushwick section of Brooklyn, New York, deep in the heart of the borough, a lively crowd of onlookers who had gathered inside a converted handball facility known as the Knickerbocker Court began to settle in as only a few moments remained before the opening tip of the first official game ever played between two fully independent, formally organized African American basketball teams.

The St. Christopher Club of Manhattan, a team affiliated with the prestigious all-black St. Philip’s Protestant Episcopal Church in Manhattan, was taking on their host for the evening, the Marathon Athletic Club of Brooklyn, connected with the Carlton Avenue Colored Branch of the Y.M.C.A. This exciting Wednesday night match-up was the first pairing in a round-robin styled series of contests between New York City’s three original African American basketball clubs. The arrangement called for each of the three squads—the Smart Set Athletic Club and the Marathon Athletic Club, both Brooklyn-based, and the Manhattan-based St. Christopher Club—to play one another twice. The ambitious organizers called this series the Olympian Athletic League.

Though it was mid-November, the weather was unexpectedly chilly. Temperatures had dropped to 40° F by game time, scheduled to begin “promptly at 8:40 PM,” which was about ten degrees below what had been the average of nighttime thermometer readings during the prior week.

Spectators arriving at the Knickerbocker hall, located on Gates Avenue just off the corner of Knickerbocker Avenue, had been eager to get inside, not only because of the weather but also because this was a meaningful social event, a gathering of friends, and a welcome midweek break from what, for most, was a busy, draining daily work routine.

This portion of a 1904 map of the borough of Brooklyn in New York City shows the elongated building at 1424 Gates Avenue just off the corner of Knickerbocker Avenue in the borough’s Bushwick section, marked “HAND BALL COURT,” known as the Knickerbocker Court, which was the site of the first game between two fully independent, formally organized African American basketball teams in 1907.[1]

Brooklyn in 1907 was a growing, industrious, and prosperous borough that, on its own, was the fourth-largest city in America. The majority of its residents were of German, Irish, or Italian heritage, and its population was exploding due to an enormous influx of European immigrants, via Ellis Island, which, to illustrate the rapid rate of growth, peaked in April of that year “when nearly 12,000 arrivals were processed in a single day.”[1a]

knickerbocker-court-1904-now

Today a parking lot covers the original location of the Knickerbocker Court, at the intersection of Knickerbocker and Gates Avenues in Brooklyn, New York, site of the first known game between two fully independent, formally organized African American basketball teams in 1907. This site shares the block with All Leadership Secondary School and is one block over from Bushwick Community High School. We want to recognize this spot one day with a formal plaque or marker, perhaps with the participation of both schools.

Brooklyn was prosperous even for African Americans, who represented about 2% of the total population. They were settled primarily along a narrow corridor that extended along Fulton Street and Atlantic Streets from Downtown and Fort Greene past Crown Heights to Bedford, Stuyvesant, and Brownsville.

Though the majority of its black men were employed in menial, heavy, or dangerous work as laborers, porters, and teamsters, a relatively large and steady number held down professional and “white collar” jobs as teachers, clerks, clergymen, and physicians. Still others, also in substantial numbers, were manufacturers, merchants, craftsmen, and caterers. Many more were skilled or semi-skilled as barbers, tailors, carpenters, painters, butchers, shoemakers, waiters, sailors, domestic servants, and cooks. Their wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters—if they weren’t “keeping house”—were most often dressmakers, seamstresses, washerwomen, and domestic servants.[2]

African Americans could find acceptable work at tolerable wages. A clerk in a Brooklyn real estate office could earn $7.00 per week, according to one notice—this was the equivalent of about $170 a week today. Race was almost always a factor. “Colored girl wanted for office; $5 per week. Call after 6 P.M. at 27 Quincy st, Brooklyn,” read a 1907 listing. “Young white man wanted for general housework: must be a good plain cook, neat and clean; four in family,” another insisted. “Waiters in hotel, boarding house, club or private family, or as porters, automobile washers or useful men in store, by two colored men. Call at 129 Willoughby st, Brooklyn,” a want ad offered.

It was a challenge to pay the rent, which was often two or three weeks worth of pay, helping to explain why folks so often teamed up to share living quarters or sub-rented to boarders. One typical apartment at 21 Lawrence Street offered “3 rooms, range and tubs, $15.00.” Another pad, this one heated, at Sixth Avenue near Dean Street in downtown Brooklyn, went for $21 a month and included, “four rooms, bath, hot water supply, all light.”

To make ends meet, African American community organizations raised money in the name of benevolence, with exceptional success. The Willing Worker’s Circle of the King’s Daughters “bids all ye lads and lasses to come ye in your calico dress to Crosby’s Hall, 423 Classon avenue, between Lexington avenue and Quincy Street, Brooklyn, on Friday evening November 29, 1907, to lend your aid toward the fund for The Brooklyn Home for Aged Colored People.”

The Committee for Improving the Industrial Condition of Negroes in New York, was stewarded by African American civic leaders Charles W. Anderson and Samuel R. Scottron as well as “many of the strongest and best white and black citizens of this city.”[3] Progress was incremental. “Their greatest victory so far has been won in securing recognition for Afro-American skilled workmen.”

Yet, black Brooklynites still managed to get their copies of the New York Age, the country’s leading African American newspaper, for 5¢ apiece, distributed every Thursday from a newsstand at 168 Willoughby Street in the borough’s Fort Greene section. One year subscriptions were available for $1.50. Those with extra funds to invest could purchase a share of stock in the growing newspaper company for $10.

For some African American women, hair care was as basic a necessity as the rent. If desired, for only 50¢, one could order by mail a compound called Wonderine, for “colored skin made lighter.” For 35¢ per bottle at any druggist, Kink-Ine Hair Dressing, “a delightful perfumed tonic prepared largely for the use of colored people” and endorsed by “Madam Robinson, the Famous Black Patti, Queen of the Opera,” could make “harsh, stubborn, kinky, curly hair soft, silky, and glossy.”

Though only the highest income earners could afford one, a beautiful new Steinway piano was theirs for $85, or about $2,000 in current coin. For the even wealthier sum of $200, one could buy a Victor Victrola, the top of the line “talking machine,” a “triumph of modern mechanism and invention,” with which “you could get the effect of a whole brass band from it, or as fine and mellow a tone as you wish.”

The ultimate in luxury was an overseas voyage. On the night of this historic African American basketball game, the transatlantic steamship R.M.S. Carpathia, only four years old and carrying 2,273 passengers, wired ahead that she was on schedule to arrive at the Port of New York in a week’s time, having sailed from Fiume (now called Rijeka, Croatia) for an 18-day journey that had already taken her around the Azores via Trieste, Palermo, Naples, and Gibraltar, her last European port, which she had departed three days earlier. Carpathia was the first vessel built exclusively for second and third class travel, with a one-way cabin rate from Liverpool to New York City of $12.50, or the equivalent of about $310.00 today.[3a]

Just to take such a journey, even in third class, required appropriate attire. Children’s shoes from Best & Co. cost $2.50 to $3.25. A woman could acquire “beautiful dresses at a fraction of the value,” for $198. She could have a lovely fur lined coat for around $25, or an imported Hudson seal version for $89. A man could “know real comfort” by getting his shirts made to order, for $2.95. His accompanying handsome silk necktie cost around 50¢. Fall suits for gentlemen ranged from $15 and up at most clothiers, and a topcoat was his for $25.[4]

There were actually numerous blacks who could take such trips and acquire these goods. In fact, it bears significance that this historic game was organized in Brooklyn. By 1907, the borough had been the refuge of well-to-do African Americans for several generations. “As soon as Negro men amass a comfortable fortune,” the New York Times observed in 1895 about the exodus of blacks from Manhattan, “they move from this city across the East River, because they can find in Brooklyn more economical and satisfactory investments.”[5]

For most blacks though, such luxuries remained out of the question. To compensate somewhat, entertainment played an important role for providing rest, relaxation, and recreation. There wasn’t much left after paying for the basics, so if a person was going to spend money on an evening of fun at a social event then it had to be worth it. Especially for something so new to blacks as “basket ball,” a sport that gym teacher Edwin Bancroft Henderson had introduced to African Americans on a wide scale, organized basis for the first time only three years earlier, toward the end of 1904, among his students within the racially segregated public schools of Washington, D.C.

Since then, Henderson’s teams had scrimmaged on playgrounds, in school yards, during physical education classes, and in intramural settings, but not against teams from outside organizations. “Basketball was at first considered a ‘sissy’ game, as was tennis in the rugged days of football,” he later said about his introduction of the game.

Nevertheless, the fact that basketball was a novelty among African Americans benefited the Brooklyn organizers—there were no prior standards against which to compare, and everyone was still learning—players, coaches, managers, and officials, as well as spectators and reporters. Many of those in attendance were novice fans who had never seen a full basketball game. For them, it was one of the most interesting sporting events they had ever experienced. Others came just to see their friends and relatives perform. Some were there solely to enjoy the social mingling.  All were enthusiastic, supportive, and forgiving.

Yet there was a realization among the spectators who had trekked over to the Knickerbocker Court that evening, that all of this was about something bigger.

Getting there from nearby Stuyvesant required a walk of a mile or two. From further away—downtown Brooklyn, Fort Greene, Bedford, Crown Heights, or Brownsville—it was better to pay a nickel and catch a streetcar on the Greene and Gates Avenue Line along Gates, or on the Union Avenue Line down Knickerbocker Avenue, or one connecting to those routes. Spectators coming from Manhattan could ride the elevated trains of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit System—known as the BRT—from Park Row near City Hall across the Brooklyn Bridge to the Myrtle Avenue Line before disembarking at the Knickerbocker Avenue station in Bushwick, five blocks from the game site. They could also hop on the Myrtle Avenue Line at the Fulton Landing after crossing the East River by ferry.

There weren’t just a handful of fans. “More than 100 enthusiastic person’s” showed up for the game. Seated and standing, rooters for both the St. Christophers and the Marathons surrounded the basketball court at floor level and in raised bleachers. The venue itself was a high-ceiling one-story wood-frame gravel-roofed structure built modestly in 1900 at a cost of about $1,000, equivalent to roughly $27,000 today.

New Buildings, Knickerbocker Handball

“The new court is well constructed and has a finely polished floor of selected hardwood,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported on January 28, the day after its grand opening. “Three large skylights furnish ample light,” the report continued, adding that, “a gallery is being built around the court capable of accommodating three hundred spectators.”[6]

Knickerbocker Handball Opening

The grand opening in 1900 of the Knickerbocker Court, a new handball facility in Bushwick, made headlines in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper. It would soon be used as a basketball court for the fledgling all-black Olympian Athletic League.

Though set up for basketball that particular night, the 25-foot-wide and 84-foot-long establishment was originally built–and was normally used–for handball. It was home to the Knickerbocker Handball Club of Brooklyn.  Handball enjoyed tremendous popularity in the borough at the turn of the last century, especially among immigrants from Ireland, and it was affectionately called “the oldest Irish pastime known.” Brooklyn was dotted with courts like these, nicknamed “handball alleys.”

The roll call at Knickerbocker Handball Club meetings included the surnames Shea, O’Donnell, Connelly, Sheehan, O’Connor, Murphy, and McElroy, among others. Its owner was an Irishman and former saloon-keeper named Peter Shannon, who, in a true measure of just how popular handball had become, tore down his once-popular pub, Shannon’s Saloon, to make way for the new pastime paradise, which he named Shannon’s Court. The same plot of land at Knickerbocker and Gates also contained a 35-foot-wide residential property adjacent to the court structure, equally as long. Within a few months of the pub’s demolition, the entire parcel was sold for $6,500, after which the Shannon’s Court handball section was renamed the Knickerbocker Court.  Its grand opening on July 10, 1900, was said to be “the largest that has ever taken place on any hand ball court in this city.”[7]

Yet, times were changing. Throughout the New York City metropolitan area, four-wall handball was losing in popularity to a much more accessible single-wall version of the game being played outdoors. That style has endured to this day as a recreational option at most of the city’s playgrounds.

Facing shrinking demand for indoor handball, the Knickerbocker Court began renting to outside groups like the Irish American Democratic Union and the Ladies Liberty Association, which held meetings and gatherings there, and now to the African American basketball team of the Marathon Athletic Club, newly minted hosts of this new-fangled indoor game.

Moreover, it was telling in 1907 that an Irish-American handball club would rent its building to blacks, and equally telling that the African American organizers of the Olympian Athletic League basketball series were using a white-owned converted handball court to stage their games. The pressure on white owners to make ends meet, coupled with the demand for black basketball, would soon trump any social tensions. This would be an ongoing theme among African American promoters of the game for decades to come.

The Marathon A.C. was the athletic arm of the Carlton Avenue Colored Branch of the Brooklyn Young Men’s Christian Association. The Carlton Y, which operated out of a three-story brownstone on 405 Carlton Avenue between Fulton Street and Greene Avenue in Fort Greene, was the borough’s first so-called “Colored Branch,” opening in 1902.  Such branches were a logical—though awkward—product of the times. “There is a white Young Men’s Christian Association and a colored Young Men’s Christian Association,” President William Howard Taft would explain in a 1911 address to an enthusiastic audience of African American students at Howard University. “You are more comfortable to have your own club limited to your own race, as perhaps the white young men are more comfortable in having theirs limited to their race, but they are both nevertheless all under the broad roof of charitable and uplifting Christianity, and you ought to take pride, as you do, in having contributed and labored and worked for this association.”[8]

Like many early Colored Y branches, the Carlton Y.M.C.A. had sitting and reading parlors, a game area with billiards, and living quarters with several furnished rooms, yet it lacked a gymnasium. Despite this obstacle, the branch organized the Marathon A.C. during the summer of 1906, and it didn’t stop the club’s president, Clarence E. Lucas, from persuading Carlton Y members to pursue competitive sports, including efforts in track, field, baseball, and now … basketball.

(This concludes Part 1 of our multi-part series of articles to be continued. Please stay tuned for Part 2.)


[1] Atlas of the borough of Brooklyn, City of New York, 1904, Vol. 3, Double Page Plate No. 28; Part of Ward 28, Section 11.
[1a] New York City Arrivals, Port of New York
[2] A Ghetto Grows in Brooklyn, Connolly, Harold X. (New York: New York University Press, 1977).
[3] New York Age, 21 November 1907.
[3a] Expected Arrivals, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 13 November 1907.
[4] Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Abraham & Strauss advertisement, 21 November 1907.
[5] The New York Times, 14 July 1895.
[6] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 10 January 1900 and 29 January 1900.
[7] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 9 July 1900.
[8] “News From The Capital City,” New York Age, 25 May 1911.