The Black Fives – First Women’s Basketball Teams

The Black Fives
First Women’s Basketball Teams

  The term Black Fives refers to all-black basketball teams that thrived in the United States around 1904. Early basketball teams were often called “fives” in reference to the five starting players. Some of the first all-male teams were known as colored quints, colored fives, Negro fives, or black fives.

Dozens of all-black teams emerged during the Black Fives Era, in New York City, Washington, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and other cities. They were sponsored by or affiliated with churches, athletic clubs, social clubs, businesses, newspapers, YMCA branches, and other organizations.

One of the very first independently organized women’s teams was the New York Girls, formed in 1910 in Manhattan. In the early days, basketball among women was all about camaraderie and social networking. It was a chance for a young lady to expand her world not only to other parts of the city but also to other pockets of the people.

Early girls basketball teams were linked to previously established men’s fives. For example, the New York Girls were coached and managed by Conrad Norman, who was also the founder of the Alpha club. The New York Girls formed as a sister club to the pioneering Alpha Physical Culture Club men’s basketball team. Their rivals, the Spartan Girls of Brooklyn, were the sister team to the Smart Set Athletic Club men’s organization. It was common and maybe even encouraged for female players to marry male players on their counterpart teams.

The Spartan Girls of Brooklyn, an early female basketball team, circa 1910. There were dozens of female basketball teams that played during the Black Fives Era.

The Spartan Girls of Brooklyn, an early female basketball team, circa 1910. There were dozens of female basketball teams that played during the Black Fives Era.

History was made on February 26, 1910, the date of the first recorded basketball game between two independently organized all-black women’s basketball teams, the New York Girls and the Jersey Girls.

The Saturday afternoon game, played in front of a “delighted audience,” was described as “a pleasing innovation” and considered a big success.

“The players, winsome and charming in their dainty white blouses, showed up well in practice,” reported the nation’s leading “negro” newspaper, the New York Age, “but it was when the referee’s whistle started the game that the real surprise came. These lassies demonstrated that they could play!”

In a “clever and even scientific game,” the New York Girls won 12 to 3. “The New Yorkers were heavier, but the Jersey girls were more familiar with the baskets,” it was said .

NY Girls uniform were vintage era dainty white basketball blouses.

Subsequently, many other all-female, all-black teams emerged. These women’s teams were covered nationally in the Negro press, although less than their male counterparts, and despite warnings by many authorities that basketball was dangerous for women.

One expert, a male physician, declared in 1911 that, “basketball is injurious and should not be engaged in by girls or women,” adding that, “the nature of women should keep them from this dangerous sport.”

Women’s basketball teams played using the slightly altered version of the men’s rules. Most of the time there were five players per side, but in some parts of the country, particularly in the South, six players were used, three on offense and three on defense.

This disparity between so-called boy’s rules and girl’s rules caused considerable debate. “As long we use the other fellow’s rules and his ball, net and mark the floor like he does, we might just as well cut off the sixth player and make all teams five girls each,” wrote legendary sportswriter Frank Young.

There were dozens of teams, but the most dominating women’s teams that emerged from those early days were the Chocolate Coeds, the Chicago Roamers, the Germantown Hornets, and the Tribune Girls.

Subsequently, many other all-female, all-black teams emerged with names like
the Smarter Set,
the Younger Set,
Mysterious Girls,
the Cosmopolitans,
the Savoy Colts,
the Quick Steppers,
the Germantown Hornets,
the Tribune Girls,
the Lincoln Nurses,
the Club Store Co-eds,
the Chocolate Coeds,
the Defender Girls,
the St. Nicholas Girls,
the Roamer Girls,
the Kansas Industrial Girls,
the Gloom Chasers,
the Argus Five,
the Twentieth Century Girls,
the Tattlers,
the Blue Belts,
the Dauntless Five,
and the Gibraltars.

The Golden Arrows all-"black" women's basketball team

The Golden Arrows all-“black” women’s basketball team

Unidentified women basketball team, around the 1912

Unidentified women basketball team, around the 1912


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