The Black Fives exhibition  (on view at the New-York Historical Society March 14 – July 20, 2014) will explore the pioneering history of the African American basketball teams that existed in New York City and elsewhere from the early 1900s through 1950, the year the National Basketball Association became racially integrated. Just after the game of basketball was invented in 1891, teams were often called “fives” in reference to their five starting players. Teams made up entirely of African American players were referred to as “colored fives,” “Negro fives,” or “black fives,” and the period became known as the Black Fives Era. From its amateur beginnings, dozens of all-black professional teams emerged during the Black Fives Era in New York City, Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlantic City, Cleveland, and other cities where a substantial African American population lived.

Photo of the New York Rens professional basketball team, with inset of owner Robert “Bob” Douglas, ca. 1933.

Photo of the New York Rens professional basketball team, with inset of owner Robert “Bob” Douglas, ca. 1933. Courtesy of the Black Fives Foundation.

As much about the forward progress of black culture as a whole as it is about the history of basketball, the exhibition is a collaborative partnership between the New-York Historical Society and Claude Johnson, a historian and author who is the founder and executive director of the Black Fives Foundation. Drawn primarily from the Foundation’s collection, the exhibition will feature artifacts, memorabilia, photographs, ephemera and other historical materials from the Black Fives Era.