March Sadness: Oscar Robertson, Crispus Attucks & Indiana’s segregated past

Title and the top section of the front cover of the award-winning book by Philip Hoose, published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, October 2018.

By Brad Hicks

This is one story of a series of stories I’ll be writing over the next month while I’m on my Race School Road Trip around the United States. My goal and mission on this trip is primarily for my own education — to try and understand the history behind the issues and problems that American people have had and still have with one another as a result of having different skin colors and facial features. Some stories you may have heard before, others will be new. Some may challenge those of us with whiter skin to evaluate and examine — the history we learned, the generational preconceptions passed down to us, and the level of desire we have to change, if necessary — in regards to our neighbors, co-workers, fellow American citizens, and brothers and sisters in Christ who are black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and, otherwise, non-European.

I left my home in Arvada, Colorado, last Thursday morning, drove east on I-70 for about eight hours, and decided not to push it too late, so I stayed in Salina, Kansas, that night and took in the Denver Nuggets pro basketball game on the internet. They played the Indiana Pacers, which was a little ironic, I guess, because I was going to Indiana, my home state, the next day. This was the first night of a road trip that will take me through at least twenty states over the next few weeks.

I pulled into Dave and Jennifer Hull’s driveway in Fishers, Indiana (an Indianapolis suburb), around 7:30 p.m. on Friday. I’d be staying the night there, and Dave had a Noble Roman’s pizza (an Indiana staple food!) ready for the two of us to share that he had picked up just before I arrived. Dave and I were roommates at Evangel College in Springfield, Missouri, forty years ago, and Evangel is also where Dave and Jennifer first met. It’s always a great gift for me to see these dear friends.

One of our common loves that drew Dave and me together when we first met in college was Indiana basketball, specifically Indiana University Hoosier college basketball and the very real fever known as “Hoosier Hysteria,” which is Indiana high school playoff basketball. Dave was raised in Bloomington (home of IU), and I grew up in Richmond, Indiana, home of the mighty Richmond High School Red Devils, with hoops teams that perennially played deep into the Indiana high school playoff tournament and were always a threat to win the state title back then. We were infected with Hoosier Hysteria each year!

While in Indianapolis, I was also able to spend a Saturday afternoon drive around downtown Indy with a friend from our school days in Richmond, Don Sawyer, whom I’ve really only recently in the last few months, through Facebook discussions, gotten to know. We capped off our time together with some great Indian food and put the finishing touches on a deeply engaged conversation we’d been having all day about issues of race growing up in Richmond, a town steeped in Jim Crow segregation that had only been outlawed in the United States when Don and I were young boys in the late 1960s. Don’s father, George Sawyer, was a black attorney and civil rights leader in Richmond who aggressively helped bring an end to Jim Crow in our hometown. I hope to write more about Mr. Sawyer’s efforts in Richmond in a future story.

Once we learned what the city fathers had done to us, I was furious. To this day, I cannot forget the pain of being rejected in my own hometown.

Oscar Robertson

I’d be remiss not to mention that I attended John and Debbie Maples’ church on Sunday morning in Greenfield, Indiana, and they were so generous to treat me to brunch after the service. John is the pastor at Total Restoration Church, and due to Covid-19 restrictions, they are currently meeting in the Maples’ home for Sunday morning service, which I was privileged to be a part of! Many thanks to this lovely and kind couple.

This month, the state of Indiana is hosting the entire 2021 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball tournament. Because of Covid-19 limitations and restrictions — whereas the 68-team “March Madness” tourney is normally held in multiple cities around the country — every game (67 of them, concluding with the famous “Final Four” championship) is being played at seven different locations this year in Indiana, with the majority of the games taking place in Indianapolis. The tournament begins on March 18 and will end with the NCAA championship game on April 15. Indianapolis is so proud and, I’m sure, can’t wait to rake in the tourist cash. What a great story Indy will be able to tell for years to come.

When Don and I were driving around downtown Indy on Saturday, seeing all the NCAA tournament signage and banners and hoopla, I couldn’t help harkening back to another story that the city of Indianapolis, and the state of Indiana, hasn’t at all been proud to tell. It’s a story about another basketball tournament played in the city’s storied Butler Fieldhouse in 1955, sixty-six years ago, the same basketball arena at Butler University in Indianapolis, now called Hinkle Fieldhouse, where several of the NCAA tournament games will be played this year.

Founded in 1927, Crispus Attucks High School was the only school in Indianapolis designated specifically for African Americans. Its name, Crispus Attucks, was the name of an American of African and Native American descent, the first person killed in the 1770 Boston Massacre. Despite the passage of federal and state school desegregation laws, Attucks was the city’s only school with a single-race student body and remained a segregated school until 1971. Attucks had an outstanding basketball program in the 1950s and its best player was Oscar Robertson, widely considered today as the best basketball player that Indiana has ever produced. Robertson’s teams at Attucks won both the 1955 and 1956 state championships. These were the first all-black teams ever to win state titles anywhere in the United States.

Oscar Robertson lifted Indianapolis Crispus Attucks to back-to-back state championships in 1955 and 1956. Attucks was the first African American team in the nation to win a state title. Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame

For decades in Indiana before Attucks won their titles, it was a tradition for the state champion basketball team to be paraded through downtown Indianapolis with the entire team seated atop a shiny red fire truck. The long parade slowly traveled west along Market Street with thousands of locals lining the street. The fire truck would then circle the famous Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the center of town at the intersection of Meridian Street, then ceremoniously drive on to a location where players and coaches would be introduced to a throng of frenzied celebrants.

But this was not to happen for Robertson and his black teammates and coaches who had just won the state title. It had been decided by Indianapolis officials, once the Attucks team climbed atop the fire truck and headed toward the Monument, they would then be rerouted to a park closer to their segregated neighborhood near the school where they could celebrate alone with their black fans and supporters. The city’s officials made a public statement that they believed it would be too dangerous for local merchants and businesses if a large number of negroes gathered downtown all at one time. This happened in both 1955 after Attucks’ first state title and again in 1956 after their second title (and undefeated season).

Robertson himself later wrote about this experience in detail, stating: “When the final horn sounded, we could not contain our jubilation as we raced onto the court. There’s a picture of me on a ladder, cutting down the net with a mile-wide smile on my face. But our win came with a bittersweet aftertaste.

“As we climbed aboard a fire truck for the traditional ride downtown, followed by a caravan of our fans cheering for their ‘bad, bad Tigers,’ we had a strange feeling about the trip. And when we got to Monument Circle, we didn’t stop and get off and join our fans in celebration. There would be no downtown celebration. Instead, Mayor Alex Clark read a brief tribute, we took another lap around the circle, and then our parade was redirected to Northwestern Park in the black section near Attucks, where 25,000 people celebrated around a huge bonfire.

“That’s when it hit me. It seemed like it was OK for us to win for the city, and bring pride to the general population, but we were still considered second-class citizens. I hung around for a while, but I wasn’t really in much of a mood to celebrate, so I went home.

In December 1999, Oscar Robertson was named one of Sports Illustrated’s Athletes of the Century. Walter Iooss Jr. for Sports Illustrated

“Soon enough, we learned that city officials had (decided) before the finals … that there would be no celebrating downtown. Merchants and city officials were concerned that if our ‘colored’ fans were permitted to celebrate at Monument Circle, they would riot, loot and destroy businesses, shoot out the streetlights, and engage in all other sorts of unspeakable mischief.

“Once we learned what the city fathers had done to us, I was furious. To this day, I cannot forget the pain of being rejected in my own hometown. Our Attucks championship teams have since been celebrated many times, but there’s no way to bring back the innocent excitement our group of deserving black teenagers – who had earned the traditional celebration – was looking forward to at that point in time.

“The following year, when we won our second consecutive state championship, capping off an undefeated season and a record 45-game winning streak, I refused to take part in another bogus, second-class celebration, and just went home after the game. It was obvious that if basketball’s popularity discouraged racial discrimination, the public at large still had not gotten the memo. Athletic excellence might change attitudes on a personal and cultural level, but it could not, by itself, end institutionalized segregation and discrimination.” 1

Indianapolis has made attempts since 1956 to atone for its wrongful slight of Attucks’ two title teams, but I don’t know if a formal public apology has ever been made. Robertson and his nine surviving teammates from the 1955-56 Attucks teams were honored on May 23, 2015, as Grand Marshals of the Indianapolis 500 Festival parade and were celebrated in a manner denied to them sixty years prior.

Indiana’s segregated past

Though I had read years ago that, in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was prominent in Indiana, I came across this piece of information when I was researching this current story:

“At its peak (the decade of the 1920s), the Klan counted among its members the governor of Indiana, more than half of the state legislature, and an estimated 30 percent of all native-born white men in the state. More than 250,000 Hoosiers swelled the Klan’s ranks – some because they believed in its anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic message, others because being on good terms with the Klan was necessary for their business or political aspirations – making it the largest Klan organization in the country.” 2

What I honestly did not know was that Indiana maintained well-established Jim Crow laws that were not eradicated until the civil rights acts of the 1960s. I’ll close this article with an excerpt from an article I found on espn.com about the Crispus Attucks state championship basketball teams in the 1950s. It simply makes me sad, and, at the same time, I feel naive that I’ve only arrived at these facts quite recently. We weren’t taught this in school. I truly thought this kind of discrimination, for the most part, only occurred in the southern states of America by the time the mid-20th century had rolled around. Wayne Drehs writes on espn.com:

“Former Milan High School guard Bobby Plump, who hit the championship-winning shot on which the film Hoosiers was based, said: ‘What (Crispus Attucks players) were able to accomplish is as significant as anything that’s ever been done in this state’s illustrious basketball history. There’s nothing that I can say, there’s nothing you will hear, there’s nothing you can write that can possibly get to the depth of what they had to go through to accomplish everything they did. If any of the great Indiana teams had to bear the responsibility that those young men had to bear every day, in every game, in every place that they went, I doubt any of them would have been as successful as Crispus Attucks. I will forever admire every one of them. It is without question a story more people need to know.’

“They remember being told they could sit here but not there. They remember learning there were theaters for whites and theaters for blacks. And they remember thinking this was normal; it was an accepted way of life. Back then, Indianapolis was a ferociously segregated city, traced back to the days of D.C. Stephenson, the Ku Klux Klan grand dragon who lived in the city in the early 1920s. It was Stephenson and several Klan-supporting politicians who proposed a segregated high school for black students. … But because the school had no white students, the Indiana High School Athletic Association ruled that Attucks was not a public school and thus that the association would not grant Attucks membership. Not until 1933 were member schools even allowed to play against Attucks. And not until 1942 was Attucks granted membership and welcomed into the state basketball tournament.

“Even then, Attucks’ home gym was too small to host games, so the Tigers always played on the road. And because many of the all-white Indianapolis schools refused to play Attucks, many of those games were played in small towns outside the city. There, the Tigers were the high school version of the Harlem Globetrotters, an entertaining curiosity that filled gyms and amazed fans but who struggled to find a place they were welcome to eat after the game.

“It was a very prejudiced town and a very prejudiced time,” said Betty Crowe, an Attucks graduate and the widow of (Attucks’ coach, from 1950-57) Ray Crowe. “You couldn’t eat in certain restaurants; you couldn’t sit in certain movies. But you learned to overcome it. You learned not to use that as an excuse. You knew you just had to do better.'” 3

Final thought: What might I have inherited in my unconscious belief structures about black people from my white parents and grandparents, who were all living and active in Indiana society and culture during the early to middle years of the 20th century when prejudice, discrimination, and white supremacist attitudes were just … normal? I really want to know.
____________________________________________________________________________________

1 Robertson, Oscar. “How an all-black high school team starring Oscar Robertson changed Hoosier Hysteria,” Black History Always, https://theundefeated.com, March 24, 2017.

2 Drehs, Wayne. “The Forgotten Hoosiers, ” https://www.espn.com, February 24, 2009.

3 Fischer, Jordan. “The History of Hate in Indiana: How the Ku Klux Klan took over Indiana’s halls of power,” WRTV Indianapolis, https://www.wrtv.com, August, 13, 2017.

Published by Louder For Malchus

Hi! Brad here. Avid learner, nature nerd, sports-stats geek, publisher, writer, editor, and a Christian. I try to pay attention ... for a word that God might be saying to me. I keep my inner sense attuned for something "prophetic" or "numinous" in good writing, film, music, art of any kind, in all created nature, in spirited conversation, in prayer, or simply in my quiet thoughts. "Louder For Malchus" is about paying attention so we might truly hear. I believe that we only really live "by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God," wrote the Deuteronomist whom Jesus quoted. Then, once heard, obey, become, and do. He doesn't speak to amuse and entertain.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: