As the 2022 NBA playoffs ramped up, historian Claude Johnson joined The Center for Fiction for a rich conversation on an unsung history of the early days of basketball. In The Black Fives: The Epic Story of Basketball’s Forgotten Era, Johnson braids together the stories of dozens of teams—then often called “fives”—of African American players, founded before the racial integration of all-white professional leagues in the 1950s.
Laura Washington, nonprofit executive and Board member of The Center for Fiction, joined Johnson in conversation about this critical lost history. This conversation is a must-see for basketball fans and history buffs alike, challenging our notions of the sport and preserving a crucial history for generations of fans to come.
The Black Fives
By Claude Johnson
Published by Abrams
African Americans were making moves in basketball generations before the rise of the NBA. Their pioneering efforts helped popularize the sport in big cities and small towns alike, shaping the game we know and love today. From the invention of the game in 1891 to the racial integration of all-white professional leagues in the 1950s, dozens of teams—then often called “fives”—of African American players were founded and flourished. This was a time of visionary players, managers, and impresarios who blazed a trail, battled discrimination and marginalization, and created rich, meaningful events that strengthened their communities in the face of Jim Crow oppression.
Despite national headlines in the “Negro” press, barnstorming tours throughout America, and domination of their white opponents, the Black Fives Era has been forgotten, overlooked, unacknowledged, and squashed. It is barely known today . . . until now.
The Black Fives by historian Claude Johnson is a landmark narrative history that braids together the stories of these pioneers. A fiercely committed advocate, Johnson has spent more than two decades researching, preserving, exhibiting, teaching, and honoring this important African American experience to unearth what might have remained buried. The Black Fives rewrites our understanding about the true history of the game.
Claude Johnson is a historian and founder of the Black Fives Foundation. He has a BS in civil engineering and economics from Carnegie Mellon and an MS in mechanical engineering from Stanford. During a 20-year career in corporate America, Johnson held management and executive positions at IBM, American Express, NBA Properties, Nike, Phat Farm, and Benetton Sportsystem. He left to become a stay-at-home dad to his three sons, two of whom are now Division I college football players (the third is a Division I high school basketball recruit). He lives in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Photo Credit: Janette Beckman
Laura Washington is Chief Communications Officer & Vice President for Strategic Partnerships at the New-York Historical Society. As an executive in the philanthropy and nonprofit sectors, for more than 15 years, Washington has guided organizations to greater visibility and impact. She is passionate about the potential of narratives to empower and strengthen communities and support social justice.