‘The Black Fives’ Tells the Monumental History of the Black Pioneers Who Revolutionized the Game

Historian Claude Johnson has spent more than two decades researching and honoring the history of some of the game’s more revolutionary pioneers. Following the racial integration of professional leagues in the 1950s, dozens of African American teams, which were often called “fives,” were founded. In his new book, THE BLACK FIVES: THE EPIC STORY OF BASKETBALL’S FORGOTTEN ERA, Johnson rewrites our own understanding about the true history of the game, while spotlighting those who helped revolutionize basketball as we know it today.

From the visionaries to the managers and all of those who helped blaze a trail while battling discrimination, the Black Fives helped strengthen and uplift their communities during Jim Crow.

Below is an excerpt from Johnson’s new book, which you can purchase here:



FEBRUARY 19, 1937, was a big night in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. That’s because  the Oshkosh All-Stars, a local all-White basketball team, were on the eve of  playing in a “World Series of Basketball” that would put the small city and the  state of Wisconsin on the national professional hardwood stage. 

Their opponents were the all-Black New York Renaissance Big Five. One  would think that in the Midwest, during the Great Depression, and during Jim  Crow, that the appearance of an African American team in an all-White town  would be of concern. But actually, the Rens were universally considered the  champions of basketball, and Wisconsin residents were some of the country’s  most passionate basketball fans. So they eagerly welcomed the visitors. 

Wisconsin was not new to interracial basketball. The Renaissance Five  had begun visiting Wisconsin in 1934. That year the Milwaukee Raynors, an  all-Black club, barnstormed the state from their home base of Milwaukee. The  Milwaukee Colored Panthers were also popular, and the all-Black Chicago  Crusaders toured through Wisconsin during the mid-1930s. 

Formed in 1931, the Oshkosh All-Stars had played the Rens for the first  time in February 1936 in a two-game series. The games drew so many specta tors that local promoter and Oshkosh team manager Lon Darling decided to  do it again in 1937. This time the two squads staged a five-game series to be  played in Oshkosh, Racine, Green Bay, Ripon, and Madison. Darling declared  that the winner of the series, which the papers dubbed the “World Series Of  Basketball,” would be considered the world’s champions of basketball. 

“It was a money-maker,” recalled former Renaissance Five star and future  Basketball Hall of Fame member John Isaacs. Each venue saw huge attendance,  and in local newspapers, race as a point of difference was rarely mentioned. It  seemed to matter only as a descriptive term. Prejudice was, if not trumped, at least mitigated by love of the game. According to Isaacs, on this trip the Rens  were able to stay in hotels and eat at restaurants like everyone else. “We had  trouble when we first started with all these white All-Americans, and when  we first started playing them, damn near every night we had to knock one  or two of them out,” said the Rens travel secretary and road manager, Eric  Illidge, many years later. “For two or three years straight, two or three jaws  were broken,” he continued. “Every night, every GAME we played, we had a  fight, not with the customers but with the players themselves—they couldn’t  stand us beating them,” said Illidge, whose only concern was keeping the score  down so they would get invited back. “I had two fighters on the team, they  broke about four or five different jaws, Pop Gates and Wee Willie Smith” he  explained. “And we kept doing it until everybody respected us.” Illidge had no  regrets. “My job with the Renaissance was easy and I’ll tell you why, we had  the best team at that time in basketball,” he said. “We was the biggest drawing  card in basketball.” His duties included making sure players would “leave on  time, be at the game on time, check the gate receipts, collect the money, give  them their lunch money, in fact, I took care of all the business.” Yet, Illidge  was always prepared for inevitable trouble. Often, the cash accumulated so  fast that he had to wire it back to Harlem using Western Union, unless it was  close to payday. “All this goddamn money in my pocket,” Illidge said. “One time  in Louisville some guy came and grabbed me and tried to take my money off  of me, but, he was so scared,” Illidge laughed. “I had my pistol in my pocket,  and I stuck it in his jaw, and he flew!” 

While the Rens faced all kinds of challenges on the road, none were as  bad as what happened to the New York Harlemites, an African American  barnstorming squad based in St. Louis. While driving toward Chester, Mon tana, on February 6, 1936, for a scheduled game, they encountered a blizzard.  Their car broke down and “the entire party was forced to get out and walk  to a farm house three miles away,” according to the Fort Benton River Press.  “The lowest reading of the thermometer was approximately 42 degrees below  zero” that week, the paper reported. They were rushed to nearby Shelby for  medical attention treatment of “frozen faces, feet and hands.” They continued  playing on schedule into March, when it was reported that the players, whose  frostbite injuries had “necessitated their playing with their hands taped, are  again able to play without bandages.” About 260 people showed for the game,  which the Harlemites won, 44-43, and “the colored artists performed perfectly despite the loss of their classy forward who died at Shelby when gangrene set  into his hands after they were frozen near there during the recent blizzards.”1 The twenty-six-year-old professional basketball player, Benson Hall, had lost  his life after being sent home “because his mother back in St. Louis refused  to let them amputate parts of his body,” according to the daughter of Donnie  Goins, one of his teammates.

Getting back to the Rens, just in case, their team bus, a custom-made REO Speed Wagon, had two potbelly stoves on board for heat. These also  served to dry their sweat-soaked woolen uniforms when it was too cold to  let them air-dry with the windows open. “The bus was your home, when you  come to think of it,” said Isaacs in 1986. “The hard part wasn’t the playing,  it was the traveling.”3 Still, according to Isaacs, the Rens’ game strategy was  always the same. “Get ten points as quickly as you could, because those were  the ten points the refs were gonna take away.”  

Meanwhile, the Oshkosh All-Stars were trying to build a case to join the  National Basketball League, a proposed new circuit of teams from the Midwest  representing both large and small companies, from the Akron Firestones and  Akron Goodyears to the Indianapolis Kautskys and Richmond King Clothiers.  This league was still only just an idea at the time. The All-Stars lost that 1937  series with the Rens, three games to two, but Bob Douglas agreed to a return  engagement, a two-game series in March 1937. 

Ever the shrewd promoter, Darling declared that those two extra games  would extend their previous “World Series” to seven games. In other words,  if the All-Stars won both, they would be the new world champions, instead of  the Rens. The All-Stars managed to pull it off, and the following season the  NBL added Oshkosh as a founding member. 

Beyond delighting Wisconsinites, the series between the All-Stars and  the Rens served a purpose for basketball fans around the country: It helped to  determine which top-notch team was truly the best. For a long time, any team  (like Will Madden’s Incorporators) could claim they were “world champions,”  and often the public was understandably confused. Behind the scenes, promot 

ers took notice. A team’s won-loss record might speak for itself. But no hard  stats could prove the greatness of a barnstorming team without a doubt. Which  was why Edward W. Cochrane, a Chicago Herald-American sports editor,  came up with the idea for a World Championship of Professional Basketball.  “At the time there were no less than a score of professional basketball teams, all advertising themselves as world’s champions,” Cochrane remembered in  1941. The annual tournament was born “out of the chaos of these conflict ing claims,” he said. So, they decided to settle the chaos once and for all. The  clear-sighted inclusion by the Herald-American of all-Black teams from the outset gave legitimacy to the tournament as well as to pro basketball itself.  Twelve teams were invited to the inaugural tournament in 1939, the best  pro teams in the country, including the New York Rens, Oshkosh All-Stars,  Harlem Globe Trotters, and New York Celtics. It tipped off on March 26, at  the 132nd Regiment Armory in Chicago, a cavernous drill hall, where eight  thousand fans saw the Rens defeat the New York Yankees 30–21. The follow ing day, the Rens took down the Globe Trotters, 27–23 at Chicago Coliseum,  a historic structure that had been the site of six Republican National Conven tions and the home of the Chicago Blackhawks early in their existence. Bob  Douglas and his Renaissance Five had made it to the final, which was played  on March 29 against their familiar rivals, the Oshkosh All Stars. New York  triumphed, 34–25, making headlines across the country. But when champi onship jackets were awarded to the players, star guard John Isaacs famously  borrowed a razor blade from a teammate and carefully removed the stitches  that attached the word colored off of the back of his, so that it read, simply,  world champions. 

John William Isaacs, aka “Boy Wonder,” a bruising, powerfully built six-foot,  three-inch, 190-pound guard, was a star player from East Harlem. He led  his Textile High School squad to the 1934–5 Public School Athletic League  championship, with a defeat of New York City powerhouse and defending  PSAL champion DeWitt Clinton High School. Following a successful 1935–6  season, Textile lost in the city PSAL playoffs when Isaacs, being twenty years  old, was ruled ineligible to play in high school.”4 

Being ineligible had its perks. Isaacs played games with the St. Peter  Claver Penguins, a Brooklyn-based “colored” team that featured Puggy Bell, a  future pro teammate, and in the fall of 1936, he appeared with the New York Collegians, another all-Black squad.5 These brief stints not only proved that  Isaacs could play at the next level, they also caught the eye of Bob Douglas. 

Excerpt from the new book THE BLACK FIVES: THE EPIC STORY OF BASKETBALL’S FORGOTTEN ERA by Claude Johnson published by Abrams Press

Text copyright © 2022 Claude Johnson