by Claude Johnson

Ulysses S. "Lyss" Young and William "Pimp" Young.

Ulysses S. “Lyss” Young (right) and his younger brother William “Pimp” Young (left), in 1916. (Lincoln University of Pennsylvania)

hey were brothers on and off the court. William Pennington Young, sometimes known as “Pimp” to his friends, and his older brother Ulysses S. Young, known simply as “Lyss” to his pals, were an unstoppable sibling pair of African American basketball stars that played during the 1910s and early 1920s.

They also made significant pioneering contributions off the court, long after their playing days ended.

Ulysses was born in Virginia in 1894. A year later, after his hard working parents migrated tot he North in pursuit of a better life, younger brother William was born in Orange, New Jersey.

A few years later, in 1900, their parents rented a room of their home to a young couple from Virginia, the Ricks family, who had a newborn son named James. Over the years the Young brothers embraced little James as if he were their own kin, and as the older boys got involved in sports, so did their protégé.

Something in that combined household created serious athletic skills. Lyss and William attended nearby Orange High School, where they starred in football, basketball, and baseball. In 1910, while still in high school, the pair began playing semi-pro basketball for the Imperial Athletic Club, a local squad that competed against such teams as the Newark Strollers, the Montclair Athletic Club, and the Jersey City Colored YMCA. The two immediately received attention in the black sports press, including the popular and nationally circulated New York Age.

Their attraction to basketball got young James hooked on the sport too, and he soon developed his own talent. One huge advantage was having the opportunity to learn from- and train with the Young brothers. The little basketball apprentice, James Ricks, would grow up to become James “Pappy” Ricks, who would become a founding member of the New York Renaissance Big Five professional basketball team and eventually reach the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

After high school, the Young brothers attended Lincoln University in West Chester, Pennsylvania, which was not only America’s oldest historically black university but also was the closest to home for them. In college they both were once again three-sport stars. Though the brothers excelled in each sport, their first claim to fame was through football. Playing quarterback, William was named as a Negro All-American during his senior year. Ulysses, playing end, was named to the Milton Roberts All Time Black College Football Squad for the 1910s Decade.

Lincoln University Basketball Team, 1916

Lincoln University’s 1916 varsity basketball team featured Ulysses S. Young (center, seated) and his younger brother William “Pimp” Young (left, seated). Both men would later play for the famous Loendi Big Five team of Pittsburgh, and William eventually became the Secretary of Labor for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. (Lincoln University of Pennsylvania)

After graduating from Lincoln (“Pimp” was class valedictorian in 1917), the Youngs were recruited to play professional basketball in Pittsburgh by prominent African American sports promoter Cumberland Posey. Posey, historian Rob Ruck wrote in Sandlot Seasons, his landmark book that explores the city’s unique athletic heritage, “was,as much as any one man could be, the architect of sport in black Pittsburgh.”[1]

The pioneering promoter had been cultivating Pittsburgh’s black basketball talent through his operation of several different squads in the city, most prominently the Monticello Athletic Association, since the early 1910s. But with America’s imminent entry into World War I and the resulting lack of resources, Posey decided to consolidate his best talent into one powerfully built team. The result was the Loendi Big Five, a legendary combo that was sponsored and got its name from the Loendi Social & Literary Club, an exclusive African American social club in the the city’s predominantly black Hill District.

The famed Loendi Big Five basketball team of Pittsburgh, sponsored by the Loendi Social & Literary Club, 1921.

The famed Loendi Big Five basketball team of Pittsburgh, sponsored by the Loendi Social & Literary Club, 1921.

Adding the collegiate superstars from Lincoln not only helped Posey promote his new team but also sparked the Loendi Big Five’s domination of black basketball, with a dynasty that included four straight Colored Basketball World Championships from 1919 through 1923.

James "Pappy" Ricks with the New York Renaissance Big Five in 1933.

James “Pappy” Ricks with the New York Renaissance Big Five in 1933. (The Black Fives Foundation)

During those championship years, the Youngs played alongside their childhood playmate, James “Pappy” Ricks, who had blossomed into an amazing talent, before Ricks left the team to join the New York Rens of Harlem, the new professional team that was organized in 1923 by its owner, Robert “Bob” Douglas.

Meanwhile, Posey simultaneously owned and operated the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League. William served double-duty under Posey by also playing baseball for the Grays as a catcher. After the Loendi team folded in 1925, he began coaching a local amateur basketball team, the Holy Cross Athletic Club, before retiring from the game to focus on baseball with the Grays. “Pimp” stayed on as a player and as a catcher’s coach for over a decade, and he is credited with helping develop Josh Gibson and Roy Campanella into Hall of Fame baseball players.

Ulysses went back to Lincoln University, where he served as head coach of the school’s legendary varsity football team and as the college’s athletic director, from 1923 until his untimely death in 1927. The legacy of “Lyss” Young, a “Lincoln immortal,” was his great interest in molding student athletes and in the development of intramural activities on campus. In eulogizing him, the Lincoln News recalled that “Lyss” had the ability to “make athletes” and to “depict football as a symbol of life,” while having an “unlimited loyalty for his Alma Mater.”

William and Ulysses were well-loved in Pittsburgh. “Many a time the incomparable Young brothers—’Lyss and ‘Pimp’—paraded through these columns,” wrote famed Pittsburgh Courier sports columnist W. Rollo Wilson in 1950. “Going to Pittsburgh during World War I, ‘Pimp’ will be remembered as a catcher for the Homestead Grays and the late Cum Posey’s teammate on the Loendi basketball team,” Wilson recalled. “Twenty-five, thirty years ago, they were the most feared pair on ANY floor five in the country!”

As a regular job during his sports career, William “Pimp” Young had worked in personnel and labor relations for Lockhart Iron and Steel Co., a local mill, helping assimilate African American migrants from the South, just as his parents had done. He was “completely at ease while talking to either the most illiterate disadvantaged Negroes or whites, Ph.D.’s, or those in-between the two extremes,” wrote the Pittsburgh Courier.

Young’s charisma pushed him towards politics. He joined the Republican Party and was elected as a local precinct committeeman in the mid-1930s. From then on, “Pimp” remained in public service and civic affairs for the rest of his career, which included stints as editor of a local black newspaper, the Pittsburgh American, as a board member of the Pittsburgh YMCA, and as president of the prestigious all-black Loendi Social & Literary Club.

In 1963, Young was appointed as Secretary of Labor and Industry for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by Governor William W. Scranton. While in office, he was a member of the Pennsylvania delegation at the historic 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco. As a floor leader, Young helped organize the famous protest by African American delegates against the nomination of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater as the party’s presidential nominee.

William Young, 1964

Pennsylvania Secretary of Labor and Industry, William P. Young, as a delegate to the 1964 Republican National Convention. (Jet Magazine)

Goldwater’s proposed policies were so unapologetically “anti-Negro” that the convention was “what many Negro observers called the most hate-filled gathering in GOP history.” The support of white delegates for Goldwater was overwhelming. “The floor of the convention seems like downtown Birmingham,” one witness reportedly said. But rather than allowing themselves to be chased away from the proceedings inside the Cow Palace, the African American delegates, only 43 out of a total of over 1,000, were determined to be heard. “Instead of walking out, we’ll walk around,” said Young, from the floor. At one point, his suit was set on fire by several Goldwater delegates.[2]

At that point Sandy Ray, a minister from New York, made the statement, first published in Jet Magazine, that not only captured this pivotal political moment in the evolution of the Republican Party with brilliance and foresight but also foreshadowed the subsequent exodus of blacks from the GOP. “If we sit quietly and allow this band of racists to take over the party, we not only signal the end of the party of freedom, we also help to bring about the total destruction of America through racism,” Ray exclaimed. “This party is at the crossroads. The Party of Lincoln has become the party of extremists, racists, crackpots, and rightists.”[3]

Young held his appointed Pennsylvania cabinet post until shortly before his death in 1968. “He was a public official of the highest caliber,” said Scranton of the man by then known as “Pep” Young. According to the Department of Labor and Industry, he “was regarded in the Pittsburgh area as a pioneer in improved race relations.”

Ulysses and William Young, two brothers who were not only African American basketball trailblazers but also community and cultural pioneers who took their games far beyond the courts and fields to make a meaningful difference in the lives of countless others.

[1] Sandlot Seasons, Ruck, Rob (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987).
[2] Jet Magazine, 30 July, 1964, p. 24.
[3] Jet Magazine, 30 July, 1964, p. 25.