From all the hoopla surrounding the arrival of the Brooklyn Nets to the new Barclays Center, one would think that they are the first significant basketball team the borough has ever seen.
Not so. Brooklyn was home to a historic basketball first, way back in 1906, when the the Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn, an African American social and sports organization, launched the first formally organized and independently run all-black basketball team.
The team, nicknamed the Grave Diggers because of their on-court dominance, played their first game in 1907 as part of a dynamic all-black Olympian Athletic League.
It was the beginning of the Black Fives Era, the period of prior to the racial integration of the National Basketball Association, during which dozens of all-black teams emerged and thrived in New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.
Smart Set basketball games included music and dancing until well past midnight. “Never in the history of Brooklyn, has such a galaxy of colored persons assembled under one roof,” exclaimed the New York Age, a leading African American newspaper, one such event.
The Smart Set Athletic Club won the Olympian Athletic League championship title during its only two seasons, and they also won the first two Colored Basketball World Championships, for 1907-08 and 1908-09.
Smart Set members came from a tight knit clique of well-educated, affluent, “old-money” African Americans who resided in what was then the predominantly white Stuyvesant Heights section of Brooklyn.
Brooklyn’s prominent blacks worshiped at St. Augustine’s Protestant Episcopal Church, a large black congregation whose windows overlooked Fort Green Park.
According to census records, the only other African American residents on the blocks where most Smart Set members lived were servants.
Nevertheless, the Smart Set Athletic Club was a powerful uniting force in the overall African American community of greater New York City.
These players weren’t just playing for amusement:–they dominated the league.
The Smart Set featured a talented lineup that included Hudson “Huddy” Oliver, who later played for the championship Washington 12th Streeters and then became a prominent surgeon, Charles Scottron, a grandson of famous African American inventor Samuel Scottron who later played for the New York All Stars, Ferdinand Accooe, who also later played for the All Stars, and Edwin “Teddy” Horne, later the father of world famous entertainer Lena Horne.
The Smart Set basketball team played its home games at the Fourteenth Regiment Armory in Brooklyn, in Park Slope.
This venue was so large that the club could stage other sports, including track and field and tennis teams, at the same time in events that were billed as “athletic carnivals.”
By featuring popular music played by the Excelsior Brass Band or the J. Nimrod Jones Orchestra, these carnivals were huge social affairs that became larger-than-life.
Smart Set events were open to all and attended by everyone.
“The successful manner in which the program was conducted, the interest shown by the onlookers, as well as the high character of the events argue well for big meets between colored athletic clubs in and about Greater New York in the future,” the Age continued.
“There is no doubt that the public will loyally support athletics when conducted under the proper auspices.”
Sports promoter J. Hoffman Woods was the club’s president and general manager, and George W. Lattimore was his assistant manager, though he was a driving force behind the scenes.
The group’s mentor was the black inventor and businessman Samuel Scottron, the patent holder for many now-common items like the curtain rod, and the patriarch of one of the first African American families in Brooklyn.
The Scottrons didn’t wait for events to happen – they created them. “The Negro has advanced rapidly and seemingly beyond all comparison,” Scottron once explained, “but it remains for him to show that he is contributing to the force that moves things!”
Like many Black Fives Era men’s basketball teams, the Smart Set Athletic Club had a sister team called the Spartan Girls Athletic Club. The Spartan Girls were one of America’s first all-black women’s basketball teams.
The Smart Set Athletic Club is a great example of how a small group of people came together as pioneers to create a new reality in the face of adversity and obstacles, despite having no road map and no guidelines other than their unyielding passion and commitment toward creating camaraderie and inspiring new standards of social achievement through exercise and sports.
They also had a definite plan to go with their purpose, which allowed their sizable financial success that in turn enabled the Smart Set Athletic Club to make a significant difference in their community.
This article is adapted from www.blackfives.com. For more information about the Smart Set Athletic Club, please see these related articles and posts. Claude Johnson is an author, historian, and the founder/CEO of BlackFives.com, a leading resource in honoring and promoting the pre-1950 history of African American basketball teams and its pioneers. He tweets @claudejohnson.