Johnson brings the history of “The Black Fives” back to Pittsburgh

by Thomas Leturgey

Pittsburgh and the New Pittsburgh Courier, in particular, played key roles in the advancement of early basketball in the United States. That reminder came courtesy of author Claude Johnson, who visited the Senator John Heinz History Center on Friday, February 10 to talk about his book, “The Black Fives: The Epic Story of Basketball’s Forgotten Era.”

Johnson was hosted by Samuel W. Black, director of the African American Program at the Heinz History Center. The discussion, which boasted about 140 attendees, explored the early 20th century, and the lives of Cumberland Posey Sr. and Jr., two of the most admired men of their day.

University of Pittsburgh Professor and author Rob Ruck, who co-authored “Rooney: A Sporting Life” about Steelers founder Art Rooney, introduced Johnson by saying, “Rob stumbled upon a story, a neglected, forgotten story that has significance.”

Johnson said Ruck was about those who encouraged him to delve into what he found to be a rich, basketball and entrepreneurial history. Johnson said at the time, he didn’t know how to research works such as “The Black Fives” and wasn’t sure how to write a book. Through the process, he found a way to create a 480-page book with some 1,300-plus notations.

“It was a full-circle moment,” Johnson said of speaking about the book in Pittsburgh “at a Starbucks on Forbes in the 90s.” Johnson had gone to Carnegie Mellon University here and befriended Ruck.

Johnson, who lives in Connecticut, previously worked for the National Basketball Association and helped with an 800-page encyclopedia on the league. That project had very little on the turn-of-the-century basketball history; and he was surprised to see more about its history in Arthur Ashe’s 1988 book, “Hard Road To Glory.” “I discovered gold,” said Johnson. “A gem on the beach.”

In his earliest research, Johnson found that the starting five on a basketball team consisted of two guards who were to play defense, a pair of forwards who moved the ball down court, and a center who played closest to the basket and was supposed to be the primary scorer. “And there was a jump ball after every basket.”

Johnson spent holidays, vacations and other days working on the project. He has amassed a treasurer trove of early historical memorabilia that he hopes to donate to a museum some day.

The Black Fives tells the story of basketball, from the first day a basket was erected in a gymnasium at 10 feet because that was the height of the walkway used, with specifics from 1904 to 1950 when the National Basketball Association integrated players.

And, of course, there is a Pittsburgh connection.

The Steel City was an early hub for hoops. Along with New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, the sport gained popularity with Black players, primarily in the northern states.

Cumberland Posey, Sr., who Johnson wrote: “unquestionably, Pittsburgh’s most outstanding African American citizen” during these times. Posey and his wife, Angelina moved to 13th Street in Homestead from Ohio to be close to the Three Rivers. Posey, Sr. became a well-respected businessman and the first African American licensed engineer of riverboats. He earned the title “Captain” and worked alongside the likes of Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie. 

Posey, Sr. invested in and was the first President of the Pittsburgh Courier, from 1910 to 1924.

Cumberland Posey, Jr. “opted to play sports” and excelled in baseball, basketball and football. He led the Homestead High basketball team to a championship in 1908, and played at Penn State. Posey went on to lead all Duquesne University scorers for three years. “There is no evidence that he ever enrolled,” said Johnson. Regardless, Posey–under his real name–has been inducted into the Duquesne University Hall of Fame.

Posey, Jr. earned a degree in pharmacy from the University of Pittsburgh and met another up-and-coming figure in the world of Pittsburgh sports: Art Rooney, Sr.

Posey founded the Monticello Athletic Association. On March 8, 1912, the team shocked the basketball world by defeating players from Howard University 24-19 at the Washington Park Field House, the location of the former Mellon Arena in the lower Hill District.

The team “became a sensation,” said Johnson. They would travel to events that included orchestras and dancing after the games. Johnson believes it might be among the first time music was incorporated along with sporting events. “It gave a beat to the game.”

Posey also formed, operated and played for the Leondi “Big Five,” which became the most dominant team through the mid 1920’s. That team, with Posey, won four Colored Basketball World Championships.

Johnson talked about how the black teams of the time often played against those made up of Jewish players. In fact, they started to barnstorm together in far-off lands like Chicago.

The “Black Fives” era also helped popularize the Harlem Globetrotters.

Johnson also talked about the “Black Fives Foundation,” which is a non-profit entity that works to help make a difference in the legacy of early basketball. Just last year, the organization recognized Will Anthony Madden, another innovator of early basketball who died in 1973 and was buried in an unmarked grave. Through the Black Fives foundation, a headstone was delivered in the New Jersey grave nearly 50 years after his death.

Although Johnson didn’t touch on it much, Posey Jr. also played for the Homestead Grays, beginning in 1911, became its coach and owner of the team. Posey built them into a dynasty from 1937-1945. Always a fierce competitor, Posey was involved in some capacity with the Homestead Grays for 35 years.

He was also a member of the Homestead Board of Public Education for a decade.

It was Posey’s friendship with Art Rooney that allowed the Homestead Grays to play some of their games at Forbes Field. Rooney was one of the pallbearers when Posey died in 1946 at the age of 55 after a long bout with cancer.

Posey was elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006 and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016, but he has not been recognized by the NBA.

Johnson met with participants–including some of Posey’s descendants, as well as those of Connie Hawkins–after the discussion and sold out of the book inventory. “The Black Fives: The Epic Story of Basketball’s Forgotten Era,” is available wherever books are sold.

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