When Claude Johnson was an engineering student at Carnegie Mellon University, he didn’t know Cumberland Posey Jr. was, in addition to owning the Homestead Grays Negro League Team, one of the seminal figures in the history of Black basketball.
But, now after a career path that took him from Lawrence Livermore labs, to IBM, to the NBA and Nike, Johnson heads the Black Fives Foundation dedicated to preserving and educating people about Blacks in “basket ball,” as it was first called, from the early 1900s until 1950.
And Johnson not only knows who Cumberland Posey is, he is featuring him in an exhibit he is guest curating at the New York Historical Society that opens March 14.
Due to segregation in the early 1900s, Black athletes formed their own professional leagues. Because teams have five starting players, they were called “fives.” Some of the most famous Black Five teams were the New York Renaissance, or the Rens, the Washington Bears, and the most famous remnant of that era, the Harlem Globetrotters.
But Pittsburgh, and Duquesne University feature prominently in the exhibit because Cumberland Posey also starred for Duquesne during the Black Fives Era.
One of the great stories in sports of any kind, which Johnson previously wrote about for the foundation website, involves Posey and the Monticello Athletic Club team in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
“They couldn’t practice in any quality gymnasiums because of segregation, but on that team was one of the Dorsey brothers, all great athletes. Anyway, Jim Dorsey worked as the janitor at a Whites-only Phipps Gymnasium on the North Side, and he would let the team in on Sundays,” he said. “They practiced in secret, so nobody knew who they were when they came out and started playing, and they just blew everyone away and won the 1912 league championship. So Dorsey literally held the keys to their success.”
After World War I, Dorsey became the director of the Center Avenue YMCA. As Johnson put it, “he finally got his own gym.”
Posey, at the time was a star athlete at Duquesne, captain of its baseball, basketball and golf teams, which led to another curiosity.
“If you look at the basketball roster, his name is listed as Charles Cumbert,” said Johnson. “It wasn’t because he was Black, the Holy Ghost fathers integrated the school well before 1900. It was because he was playing for these professional teams—Monticello, the Loendi Big Five, The Monarch Elks Five– making money playing against white clubs in barnstorming exhibitions. It was because he was a ‘ringer.’”
In an interesting coincidence, the current Duquesne basketball team will be in New York for the Atlantic-10 Tournament when the exhibit opens. Johnson said he hoped to arrange for them to visit, if they have an off day.
The exhibit at the Historical Society features a host of photos from the Black Fives Era, including other famous players Jackie Robinson, of the LA Red Devils, and Paul Robeson, of the St. Christopher Club of Harlem.
It also contains memorabilia including ticket stubs, event broadsheets, and an advertisement for the 1912 “Pittsburgh vs. New York” Annual Christmas Basketball Games and Dance of the Alpha Physical Culture Club, as well as vintage equipment such as leather basketballs, buckle-front shorts, and leather and wool basketball knee pads.
The exhibit runs through July 20 at the New York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West
at 77th Street, New York, NY 10024.
Images courtesy of the Black Fives Foundation, except Monticello AC photo, courtesy of Zerbie Dorsey Swain collection.
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