The following is an excerpt from Claude Johnson's Black Fives: The Alpha Physical Culture Club's Pioneering African American Basketball Team, 1904-1923.
It is a little-known fact that Caribbean immigrants not only helped lead the emergence of basketball among blacks in the earliest days of the sport but also dominated African-American hoops in the early 1900s and throughout the 1910s. This wasn’t just on the court. West Indians were at the top of the power structure that ruled New York City’s black basketball scene—as managers, promoters, and players, in addition to sports writing—well into the 1920s. They set the agenda and the ethical framework. Their voices and influence in New York City translated into a nationwide reach. In short, Caribbean immigrants put their stamp on the game among African Americans during its earliest period of growth.
Gerald, Conrad, and Clifton Norman were at the front and center of this progression. The three earnest and forward-thinking Jamaican-born brothers founded the Alpha Physical Culture Club, America’s first all-black athletic club, in 1904. Their establishment of the club made the Normans the forerunners among blacks of what was then the brand new physical fitness movement. They were also at the root of the early evolution of basketball among people of color in the United States.
The Normans came to the United States from the Spanishtown section of Kingston, Jamaica in 1893 as children ranging in age from eight to twelve years old. The boys arrived at Ellis Island on board the passenger ship Kaffir Prince with their mother and two sisters as well as 20 other travelers. Their father was skilled in the printing trade and had once worked at the Daily Gleaner, Jamaica’s leading newspaper. However, job prospects at the time were dim throughout the economically depressed Caribbean, even for better-trained blacks. So he had left for New York City a year earlier to find work, becoming a printing press typeface compositor in Manhattan, which paved the way for his family to follow.
The boys’ upbringing taught the value of education, commitment, and community. This allowed the brothers to secure prestigious jobs that helped them mesh quickly into the elite levels of New York City’s network of first-generation Caribbean-born professionals. All three men graduated from City College of New York. In 1905, Gerald became the State of New York’s first black high school teacher. Conrad also became a public school teacher, in Harlem and later in Queens. Clifton earned an additional degree from the School of Dental and Oral Surgery at Columbia University and became a dentist.
Coming of age in New York City at the turn of the last century, the Normans were puzzled that blacks had such a universal lack of access to proper recreational facilities. “Although there were seventy thousand colored people in New York at the time, and the big city fairly teemed with athletic clubs of all kinds, recreation centers, playgrounds, settlements, schools, Turn Verein halls, and colleges, each provided with a gymnasium, there was not a single one devoted to colored people,” Conrad wrote later, looking back on that time. For example, by June 1906, the New York City Colored Y.M.C.A. Branch on West 57th Street had over 500 members, but no fitness programs nor adequate athletic facilities. “The little play room, called a ‘gymnasium,’ will soon be thoroughly fitted up for use of the Athletic Club,” a local newspaper proudly reported that year.
For several decades, America had been in love with the so-called “physical culture” movement, a popular trend also known as “muscular Christianity.” It promoted the strengthening of the mind, body, and spirit as the best approach to overall health. Yet these ideals were woefully unavailable for African-Americans, especially those living in cities, where most blacks were subjected to serious health risks from overcrowded living conditions. This overcrowding was due to the massive migration to the North by Southern blacks, who were fleeing violent racism as well as poor agricultural conditions.
During the early 1900s, the death rate for tuberculosis and pneumonia for New York City’s black population approached a staggering 25%. By contrast, the city’s death rates in modern times are less than one percent for all causes of death combined. In particular, Conrad complained, “there were no opportunities among colored people in New York for physical exercises tending to develop and strengthen the chest and lungs.” Without proper athletic facilities for African-Americans, Conrad believed, “the disease germs found them ready victims.” The problem was not just the lack of facilities, but also the lack of awareness about the connection between fitness and health. Closing this gap became the club’s mission.
Conrad was the driving force behind the Alpha P.C.C. “He had a lifelong passion for fitness,” recalls his grandson Kevin, who is a personal trainer in the exclusive Hamptons seaside resort section of Long Island in New York.
It took more than passion for the club’s founders to establish themselves in the fitness arena, considering this was an entirely new field for blacks. “To men less determined,” wrote a club representative, “the obstacles would have been insurmountable.” However, the Normans were on a mission. “We were helping our race by fortifying the bodies of our people in this, the struggle for existence, where only the fittest survive,” Conrad explained. They wished to create “an institution, identified with a positive effort for the benefit of mankind, and our people in particular, and imbued with altruism and unselfishness mixed with sound common sense.”
Those powerful ideals were not only embraced by the club’s members but also handed down through generations of their descendants. “All of us are well spoken, well educated, hard working people,” says Chris Miller, a Montana-based fly-fishing outfitter whose Guyanese-born great-grandfather, physician Henry O. Harding, belonged to the Alpha Physical Culture Club.
All of us in his line have attended college, many with graduate degrees,” Miller continues. “He has a grandson that is a police officer, a great-grandson that is a fireman, and I like to substitute teach in my off season, so there is also a strong desire to be active in our local communities.”
The Alpha P.C.C. began its operations humbly, in an extra room of a church house on West 134th Street in Harlem with “five or six members.” Most were West Indians, though the organization was open to everyone and the club’s motto was, “A Square Deal For All!” Club programs featured the latest in “scientific physical training” and “talks on physical culture.”
Lectures on fitness, hygiene, and morality were groundbreaking at the time, when most people had no idea about health and wellness. “There is little question that one of the Negroes’ weak points is physical,” race leader Booker T. Washington wrote in 1900. “Especially this is true regarding those who live in the large cities, North and South,” he continued. “But in almost every case this physical weakness can be traced to ignorant violation of the laws of health or to vicious habits.”
It didn’t help that this obliviousness was widespread among most Americans in general, regardless of race. “If your work is hard manual labor, nothing will do you more good than two or three glasses of beer a day,” the New York Times declared in a 1904 article listing rules of healthful living. Despite this advice, many blacks knew better, especially newly arrived Southern migrants. “Most of the lynchings in the South,” Washington told a Brooklyn audience in 1906, “have been the result of whiskey and ignorance.”
Even without alcohol, countless previously rural newcomers became disoriented by the unfamiliarity they faced in the big cities of the North. In what Washington called “the gospel of the toothbrush,” many such novices to urban living had to be taught how to use “toilets, showers, bedding, kitchen appliances, and garbage cans.”
By the spring of 1906, the Alpha P.C.C. had 35 determined dues-paying members including physicians, dentists, lawyers, teachers, musicians, clerks, government employees, real estate men, brokers, and students—and “none was admitted who would in any way retard its progress.” That year, using membership dues and fees from receptions, dances, and physical culture exhibitions as reliable sources of income, the organization raised enough funds to lease a Harlem brownstone as its clubhouse.
The structure was outfitted with a small, but “well-equipped” gymnasium—to appreciate its size, imagine an exercise room or fitness center by today’s standards. Though small, this gym was the difference-maker for the club. “The members are put through exercises with the dumbbells, Indian clubs or wands,” a reporter for the New York Age was told. Indian clubs were wooden batons weighted at one end, in varying sizes and weights.
Though dumbbells are still in use today, Indian clubs and wands are long gone from weight rooms and gyms. However, these fitness devices were once the primary method for building upper body strength. Made in various weights and sizes, they were usually used two at a time, one in each hand, either individually or exercising as part of a group. A workout routine using Indian clubs was considered modern, and included an elaborate series of specially devised movements that were often set to music.
The Alpha P.C.C. gym had a complete assortment of equipment and gear, offering a full menu of fitness activities. “These drills are scientifically arranged so as to use and develop every part of the body,” the Age explained. Indeed, Alpha club members seemed to be in exceptional physical shape, judging from their appearance in team and organizational photos from that time.
Best of all, membership in the Alpha P.C.C. was affordable. “You have to pay from $30 to $50 for such courses in the private white gymnasiums,” the club pointed out.
The newly acquired clubhouse was down the street from their original churchyard location on West 134th Street, at the same spot in Harlem where the Lenox Terrace housing complex stands today. It had a reading room as well as some of the comforts of home. “Music is provided in the gymnasium by the club’s piano, and the whole place is lighted by electricity.” An African-American dentist named Douglas Onley, who kept his office there and was appointed as chairman of the club’s executive committee, owned the building.
Manhattan’s network of skilled and professional West Indians was essential in helping the Alpha P.C.C. expand beyond itself. Not by coincidence, just prior to founding the club in 1904, the Normans were sharing a four-family Caribbean boarding house on West 16th Street in the predominantly black section of midtown Manhattan known as the “Tenderloin District,” with a young soon-to-be-married divinity school student named Everard Daniel.
Daniel, a tall light-complexioned man of African descent, was a native of St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies (now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands). The house was a few blocks from the New York General Theological Seminary on Ninth Avenue where he soon would be ordained as a deacon, before being appointed as the assistant minister at St. Philip’s Protestant Episcopal Church.
St. Philip’s at that time was perhaps the most prestigious African-American church in the country. It stood on West 25th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, at the lower end of the notorious “Tenderloin.” This district stretched roughly from West 14th Street up to West 57th Street, between Sixth and Tenth Avenues. The sidewalks and alleyways of the Tenderloin were normal by day, but at night they were rife with vice and crime, to such an extent that it earned the nickname “Satan’s Circus.” The church’s neighbors on West 25th Street included factories, skilled trade shops, distributors, storage sheds, and busy supply yards during business hours, but a different scene emerged after sunset, with one observer noting that that street alone was “infested” with over a dozen brothels.
At the time, the vast majority of New York City’s blacks lived in this section. Harlem was still a predominantly white neighborhood, but this would soon change. In 1910, St. Philip’s would move its church to West 134th Street in Harlem, helping touch off a mass exodus of African Americans who followed the congregation uptown. This didn’t go over too well with the new neighbors. “The Negro invasion must be vigilantly fought, fought until it is permanently checked,” the Harlem Home News newspaper would warn in 1911, “or the invaders will slowly but surely drive the whites out of Harlem.”
The fact that the Normans established their clubhouse in Harlem ahead of this trend, under the prevailing hostile conditions toward people of color, speaks to their courage, leadership, and vision. Their timing was also uncanny. The brothers finished setting up their Harlem clubhouse in 1906 soon after Everard Daniel—now Father Daniel—was put in charge of the St. Christopher Club, a young men’s fellowship that was an offshoot of St. Philips’ community ministry.
The “St. C.” club was formed originally as a bible study group for the neighborhood’s black male youths, to “save them from the many enticements to wrong doing which surrounded them.” However, as soon as Daniel got there, he shifted the organization’s focus toward competitive sports. Its membership grew rapidly after that, and the St. Christopher Club would soon become one of the most powerful forces in African-American athletics—with Daniel as its influential leader.
All images courtesy of Black Fives, Inc.