The 1954-55 Crispus Attucks Tigers were the first Black team in the state — and the first Black team in the nation — to win a state championship. The team overcame adversaries at every turn: from having teams refuse to play them, to the city relocating their winning celebrations to predominantly Black neighborhoods, to not being truly honored until almost 50 years later.
There is more print, film, discussion and debate about Crispus Attucks High School and its history now than in the glory days of its state championship basketball teams led by Oscar Robertson (All-American, All-Pro, all-time basketball great) and the all-star faculty of that era, which boasted more Ph.Ds and M.A.s than any other high school in the city.
Not only the team, but the influence of the school and its outstanding graduates in medicine, law, academia, politics and the military — as well as its famous basketball players and musicians — will have their stories told in the upcoming 90-minute documentary by Ted Green, Attucks: The School that Opened a City
. That film will have a premiere screening on August 18 at the Madame Walker Theatre, and then broadcast on WFYI.
In the meantime, the 2007 documentary by Betsy Blankenbaker on the Attucks state championship teams, called Something to Cheer About, helps settle some continuing questions. In Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana,
published jointly last fall by The Indiana University Press and The Indiana Historical Society, the eminent Indiana historian James H. Madison, writes that:
". . .Oscar Robertson, the greatest Hoosier player of the decade (perhaps of all time) remained convinced that the City had rerouted the Attucks victory parade to keep Black fans from celebrating Downtown." After winning the same championship the team was denied the same celebrations that have been a milestone tradition of Indiana basketball.
The Downtown parade that wasn't
The reason Robertson "remained convinced" is because that's what happened. The event is recorded on film in Blankenbaker's documentary. The bonfire and celebration in Northwestern Park in the Black neighborhood of the city is shown on the film, and not only Robertson and his teammates speak about the event on camera. Ray Crowe, the legendary Attucks coach who guided the school's basketball teams to three state championships during his seven-year tenure, and later was elected to the State House of Representatives, gives his own testimony in the film:
"They tell me they had extra police watching our section and all, and when we left the [Butler] Fieldhouse and all, because they thought we'd be disorderly, and tear up the Fieldhouse and the town. They took us Downtown, around the Circle — Downtown and then out to Northwestern Park, it was called then, and had a big bonfire and to celebrate out there. Northwestern Park is in a Black neighborhood, I guess that was part of the feeling whites had, 'Let them do their own thing in their own neighborhood.'"
The background was explained in another new book called Hoosiers, to be published this fall (also by Indiana University Press) with the subtitle The Fabulous Basketball Life of Indiana by Phillip M. Hoose. Like the author of the other Hoosiers, Hoose is something of a historian himself, having won the National Book Award for his Claudette Colvin: Two Trials to Justice. A graduate of Speedway High School and I.U., Hoose gives the background of the Attucks parade to the Black neighborhood park:
"'The week before the Finals, I got called into the Indianapolis school superintendent's office,' Attucks Principal Dr. Russell A. Lane later recalled. 'There were representatives from the mayor's office and from the police and fire departments. The mayor's man said 'Well, looks like your boys are going to win next week.' I said "We think so.' He said 'We're afraid if they do, your people will break up the city and tear down all the lampposts.' I said 'There will not be one incident.'"
Bob Collins of The Indianapolis Star was the first white sports writer to recognize the greatness of the Attucks team, while some others could not abide the idea of "players with 'jumping jack legs'" (as Jep Cadou, then-sports editor of The Indianapolis Star once wrote) nor could the readers, who demanded Collins be fired, called him a Communist, and drove by his house at night honking horns and yelling racial epithets. Oscar Robertson told Zak Keefer of The Star last year "People really resented him [Collins] for writing about us. I can't tell you in a few words how much he meant to our team at that time."
"That parade was the shame of the city," Collins later told Hoose.
It remains a sensitive subject.
Someone told me they had thought Murray Clark, nephew of Alex Clark, who was mayor at the time of the Attucks championship, had written an op-ed piece about the parade. Kelly Eskew, a professor of Business Ethics at Indiana University — and author of a perceptive M.A. thesis on Indiana basketball — asked her friend Clark, a nephew of Alex, if he recalled writing such a piece. Murray Clark responded in an email to Eskew that
"... Alex Clark judged a man not by the color of his skin but by his character. Alex ...was an intelligence officer in Patton's 3rd Army. He was shot twice, captured once ...He won a Purple Heart, Silver Star, and 2 Bronze stars ...He was a great man. He is the prototype of the Greatest Generation Tom Brokaw wrote about."
I have no reason to doubt a single word of that. Mr. Clark goes on to say that:
"The story perpetuated by Mr. Robertson over the years seems to have developed a life of its own. I suspect it began when Mr. Robertson, understandably and justifiably, remarked about the prejudice of the day. The fact that Alex over time has become a part of the tale is not right. Can I say the story is inaccurate? I wasn't alive then nor do I recall ever talking to Alex about it. My dad thinks it is bunk."
That is the "counterstory" that perhaps Prof. Madison heard.
One subdivision of the counterstory is that no one from the mayor's office was at the meeting when the Attucks principal was called in to inform him of the parade route. It seems hard to imagine that a decision of that political magnitude was made without the mayor's knowledge.
But why is it so shocking to think that anyone in the all-white city government of the 1950s made such a decision? During that era, Blacks were not allowed to eat Downtown, nor go to a movie Downtown, so why would City officials invite them to celebrate Downtown?
If I had been in the city government then, I imagine I would have made the same decision, based on the same factor: ignorance — ignorance of whites about the Black community. I didn't realize my own ignorance until some years ago I saw a documentary called Indy in the Fifties
, made by a TV program here called Around Indiana. Interviews with a number of people who lived here in that era, including myself, were edited around particular subjects. In one section people who had been in high school at the time were asked what it was like for them going Downtown. I said my friends and I loved to go Downtown when we were in high school; the next cut was Oscar Robertson saying "We were afraid to go Downtown."
I didn't know that. It didn't occur to me or my friends, though we thought of ourselves as "broad-minded" (we weren't familiar with the term "liberal.")
As Hoose points out "For many whites, Attucks was above all a mysterious place. Few whites knew where the school was; many, not knowing any better, called it "Christmas Attucks." (Patricia Payne, director of the Crispus Attucks Museum, told me recently, "Some still do.")
Bob Collins wrote that, "The success of Attucks basketball integrated the high schools of Indianapolis. They became so dominant that the other schools had to get Black basketball players, or forget about it."
Perhaps some future New History of Indiana will note that Attucks was not only the first Indianapolis School to win a state basketball championship, it was the first Black high school in the U.S. to win a state championship. It might add that Robertson was co-captain of the 1960 U.S. Olympic team that won a gold medal, was an NBA star with the Cincinnati Royals and won an NBA championship with The Milwaukee Bucks; that one of his records will never be broken — he averaged a triple-double for an entire season. Surely, part of Indiana history is that Attucks — along with two other Hoosier Black schools, all parochial schools and The Indiana School for the Deaf — was not allowed to be in the Indiana High School Athletic Association or to play member teams until the mid-1930s, and was not allowed to play in the state tournament until the pressure of a lawsuit in 1942 and recognition that Black men were fighting and dying for their country in WWII.
I was not surprised that Blankenbaker's film was not well-received here when it came out in 2007. Full disclosure: Blankenbaker is a friend of mine, who I met when she produced a documentary based on my memoir New York in the Fifties.
Since I moved back here in 2011, I have asked a number of local institutions to show the film, but the only place that showed it was The Vonnegut Museum. Bill Hampton of the championship Attucks team was on the panel that discussed it afterward.
Betsy's film begins with a montage of dancing flames over images of hooded Klansmen, white students picketing a school with signs that "I Won't Go to School With Negroes," and the voice of Willie Merriwether, a forward on Oscar's team, saying "The KKK wanted to make sure Blacks were separate from whites, so in 1927 the city of Indianapolis opened Crispus Attucks High School."
The statement was technically not correct, since The Klan didn't need to do it: as Madison noted in A Lynching in the Heartland, "Between a quarter and a third of all native-born white Indiana males belonged to The Klan in 1925."
Backed by The Chamber of Commerce, the school board recommended in 1922 construction of a separate high school for Blacks be constructed in the city.
In the 1950s — until Attucks started winning — there were still no Indianapolis teams that wanted to play them. As Betty Crowe, the wife of the coach said, "We had to travel way up north, and then way down south in the state to find schools that would play us." They played tiny schools like Smithville and Hope. Bill Mason, one of the players said in Something to Cheer About "We played these little schools in farm towns. We were a rarity. It was like the Harlem Globetrotters coming to town. Some of them had never seen a Black person before."
Coach Crowe said, "After other schools saw what kind of following we had and the crowds we had at our games and the money it was making, they wanted to play us." Gate receipts were split at Butler Fieldhouse, with 10,000 fans coming to see Attucks play.
The recognition they deserved
In 2000, Blankenbaker got the Pacers to honor Ray Crowe and the Attucks championship teams during halftime of a game. The day before, Robertson called to say he couldn't make it, since his wife had pointed out that the next day was Easter Sunday. The Pacers wanted to cancel the event but Betsy explained that the other players and Coach Crowe were all set to arrive, so the ceremony was held, the team was honored. That was the first time the championship team was publicly honored by the city.
Since then, there have been other honors.
Last May 22, Robertson and eight surviving members of his Attucks team were Grand Marshals in the Indianapolis 500 Festival Parade. Robertson agreed only when he was assured that all his teammates as well as the cheerleaders could participate with him. He made the same demand for his teammates to get equal billing in Something to Cheer About, and in film footage of the championship game, each of the starting team is announced by name as he scores.
Since The Pacers were the first in the city to publicly honor the team for their championships, it would seem appropriate that they honor the Attucks teams as they honor the movie Hoosiers team modeled on the legendary Milan's championship team of 1954 with throwback jerseys that say "Hickory" (the name of the Milan team in the movie). How about "throwback' jerseys that say "Attucks" or "Tigers" to honor the team that became the first Black high school basketball team in the United States to win a state championship – a team whose story will be told again as part of the highly anticipated new documentary film on The School that Opened a City?
How's that for an "Indiana basketball story?" How's that for "impacting a community?"
I realized from researching this article that the state championships Attucks won were only part of their impact on the city. That team helped make us begin to be aware of the racial injustice here that I was ignorant of in high school. How much more are we ignorant of today? We owe a great debt to that Attucks team, for giving us Something to Cheer About
, and more importantly, for opening our eyes to more than sports, to issues that our city and our country need to recognize and address, now and throughout our lifetime. Attucks is is truly the school that changed a city. That is a better part of our past, but the future holds even greater challenges. After we've applauded Attucks — and ourselves for finally recognizing them — what do we all do next, together? Read the headlines. Time is running out.
Movie Night: Something To
Cheer About with Dan Wakefield
Wednesday, Aug. 10, 6 p.m.
Indy Reads Books,
911 Massachusetts Ave. FREE