The earliest period of large scale organized participation in basketball by African Americans began in 1904 when black Harvard-educated physical education instructor Edwin Bancroft “EB” Henderson introduced the game to his students in the racially segregated Washington, D.C. public school system.
Henderson taught basketball as a recreational activity for developing mind, body, and spirit during idle winter months. It was not an instant success. “Among blacks,” Henderson wrote in 1939, “basketball was at first considered a ‘sissy’ game, as was tennis in the rugged days of football.”
Still, within a decade there were dozens of African American teams, representing athletic clubs, churches, businesses, Colored YMCAs, schools and colleges, newspapers, military units, social and fraternal organizations, and neighborhoods. At first they were strictly amateur, playing for camaraderie and club spirit as well as to promote health awareness, community building, and what was known as uplift of the race–the promotion of self-esteem among blacks.
Edwin Bancroft Henderson, known as the “Grandfather of Black | Basketball” | 1911 | Reproduction
Edwin “EB” Henderson organized and played for the Washington 12th Streeters, whose home court was at the Twelfth Street Colored YMCA. Henderson successfully petitioned nearby Howard University to adopt the 12 Streeters as its first varsity basketball team.
Twelfth Street Colored YMCA basketball team (Washington 12th Streeters), featuring Edwin Bancroft Henderson | 1910 | Reproduction
Howard University’s first varsity basketball team | 1912 | Reproduction
Advertisement for the Smart Set Athletic Club, basketball game and dance | 1911 | Reproduction
George Lattimore, founding manager of the Smart Set Athletic Club | Ca. 1910 | Reproduction
Lester Walton, New York City sports journalist and future United States Ambassador to Liberia | Ca. 1911 | Reproduction
In 1906, the Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn became the first formally organized independent African-American basketball team, led by George Lattimore. The Smart Set A.C. won the first Colored World’s Basketball Championship, a phrase coined by Lester Walton, a sportswriter with the New York Age, a leading African American newspaper.
Conrad Norman, founder of the Alpha Physical Culture Club | Ca. 1911 | Reproduction
In the early 1900s, the mortality rate from tuberculosis and pneumonia among African Americans in New York City was 25%, due to unhealthy overcrowded living conditions. Black leaders like fitness-minded community organizer Conrad Norman believed that programs encouraging lung exercise would help. To address these concerns, Norman organized the Alpha Physical Culture Club in 1904.
Alpha Physical Culture Club Basketball Schedule, 1915-16 Season | 1915 Postcard
New York Girls basketball team | 1910 | Reproduction
The Alpha Physical Culture Club formed a basketball team in 1907, the Alpha Big Five, on which Norman played. He was also the coach and manager of the New York Girls, the sister squad of the Alpha Big Five, which in 1910 became the country’s first female all-black independently-run basketball team.
Advertisement for Christmas Night basketball games and dance at the Manhattan Casino | 1912 | Reproduction
Basketball team, Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn | 1911 | Reproduction
Alpha Physical Culture Club basketball team, representing America’s first all-black athletic club | 1910 | Reproduction