A collage of photographs and images relating to the Alpha Physical Culture Club of Harlem

A collage of photographs and images relating to the Alpha Physical Culture Club basketball team.

Location: Harlem, New York City
Home Court:
Manhattan Casino
“Alpha Big Five”
Burnt Orange, Slate Gray, White
Conrad Norman

The Alpha Physical Culture Club basketball team, known as the Alpha Big Five, was formed in 1907 under the sponsorship of the Alpha Physical Culture Club, which was America’s first all-black athletic club.

The club itself was formed in Harlem in 1904. Most of its members were Caribbean immigrants, including Jamaican-born club founders Conrad and Gerald Norman.

In addition to basketball, the Alpha club competed in several other sports including track and tennis.

The official logo of the Alpha Physical Culture Club of Harlem

The official logo of the Alpha Physical Culture Club of Harlem.

The club founders picked the name “Alpha” because they saw themselves as pioneers in the field of physical culture (as “fitness” was called then), which was seen as a possible solution to the high incidence of tuberculosis and pneumonia among blacks in large, overcrowded industrial centers like New York City.

The mortality rate for these illnesses among black people approached 25%, and it was widely recognized that exercise could help reduce the spread of such diseases that thrived in foul conditions.

Yet, racial segregation left black Americans with precious few athletic facilities to use. So when the Alpha Big Five played it was about more than just basketball.
The Alpha Physical Culture Club had its own small exercise gymnasium inside its clubhouse, located in a wholly owned Harlem brownstone, made possible by dues paying members.

Alpha Physical Culture Club Game Jersey

Authentic reproduction of the Alpha Physical Culture Club basketball game jersey.

Their membership included physicians, dentists, lawyers, teachers, musicians, clerks, government employees, real estate men, brokers, and students.

The club concluded that its standards were “as high as in similar white organizations” and that its members “belong to the best class of colored people in New York and surrounding cities.”

They advocated strict adherence to the principles of amateurism and included anyone young or old who embraced them.

“Physical culture knows no age limits,” said co-founder Conrad Norman.

The club had a strong allegiance not only among West Indians but also among American-born blacks, and its motto was, “A Square Deal For All!”

The Alphas were founding members of the first black club basketball league, the Olympian Athletic League, which was formed in 1907.

For a decade the Alphas enjoyed an intense inter-city basketball rivalry with Brooklyn’s Smart Set Athletic Club and another Harlem-based team, the St. Christopher Club, as well as other club teams in the region.

Like many Black Fives Era men’s basketball teams, the Alpha Physical Culture Club had a sister team called the New York Girls. The New York Girls were one of America’s first all-black women’s basketball teams. The Girls were managed and coached by Conrad Norman.

Like many Harlem-based teams, the Alphas played their home games at the spacious Manhattan Casino in Harlem.

With players that included George “Headacheband” Capers, William Goode, Archie Thomas, and Conrad’s younger brother Cliff, the Alphas were consistently one of the best all-black basketball teams in the country.

Their best season was 1912-13, when they claimed the Colored Basketball World’s Championship.

The Alpha Physical Culture Club is a great example of how a small group of people can come together as pioneers to create a new reality in the face of adversity and obstacles, despite having no mentors, no road map, and no guidelines other than their unyielding passion and commitment to a definite major purpose — to help black America conquer its severe health issues through exercise and sports.

They also had a definite plan to go with their purpose, which allowed their sizable financial success that in turn enabled the Alpha Physical Culture Club to make a significant difference in their community.

For more information about the Alpha Physical Culture Club please see these related articles and posts.