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Editor’s Note: The following oral history appeared in the March 2005 issue of Indianapolis Monthly, on the 50th anniversary of Crispus Attucks’s first Indiana high-school basketball championship. It was noted in the 2005 edition of the Best American Sports Writing anthology.
Imagine the shame of Indianapolis basketball fans in 1955. Going into the season, Indiana's most populous city and the annual host of its high-school basketball finals had, in the tournament's 44-year history, never produced a champion. This in a state whose cities, towns, and neighborhoods forged their identities on basketball scoreboards, whose citizens walked on air when their teams won and felt the crush of ignominy when they lost. Back when basketball was religion, winning it all was heaven.
The rest of the state reveled in the capital city's suffering, especially when, in 1954, tiny Milan High School, representing a town of little more than 1,000 people, managed to capture the crown. Though Indianapolis accounted for nearly a quarter of the state's population, it was rural Indiana that owned the myth of Hoosier basketball's soul: hoops on barns, cracker-box gyms and, above all, underdogs.
But Indianapolis had more than basketball failure to be ashamed of. When the Ku Klux Klan came to dominate local politics in the 1920s, it laid the groundwork for social policies that kept the city racially divided well into the 1950s. As the Great Migration brought African Americans from the South to Indianapolis in search of jobs, an entrenched system of de facto segregation and discrimination relegated the majority of the newcomers to a few crowded ghettos and slums, mostly on the near-west side. With a thriving business district along Indiana Avenue surrounded by neighborhoods outside of which blacks were rarely welcomed, Indianapolis's African-American community was virtually a city within a city. And Crispus Attacks, founded in 1927 when the Indianapolis School Board decided that all black students should be educated separately, was its high school.
Yet if Indianapolis blacks were mostly excluded from the mainstream of Hoosier life, they participated fully in one Hoosier tradition: the passion for basketball. The Tigers of Crispus Attacks were the black community's pride and joy. And when, on March 19, 1955, Attacks defeated Gary Roosevelt, another all-black school, to bring home the state championship, they became legend—the first team from Indianapolis, and the first all-black team in state history, to win it all. Indeed, though the players didn't realize it at the time, it is now believed that Attacks was the first all-black team to win a state-championship tournament in any sport, anywhere in the country. At the Division I college level, the five black starters of Texas Western University wouldn't achieve a similar feat for 11 more years.
In the days after the tournament, it was clear that Attucks's achievement meant different things to different people. "Hail to the Champion," proclaimed The Indianapolis News. "Indianapolis joins with Crispus Attucks in the state championship celebration that has been so long awaited." Indianapolis Star sports columnist Jep Cadou Jr. boasted, "They said no Indianapolis team ever could win this championship. The Tigers listened and smiled." The City Council issued a resolution, and country clubs hosted steak dinners for the team.
Meanwhile, The Indianapolis Recorder, the city's African-American paper, reminded its readers that Attucks had scored an upset over Jim Crow: a "triumphant climax to the dramatic battle of Negro schools through the decades." As the Recorder suggests, for Crispus Attucks victory had been a long time coming. Shut out of the Indiana High School Athletic Association until the mid-1940s, Attucks, in the early years of its program, had difficulty even finding schools to play. Most of its team members grew up in relative poverty, and its gym was too small to accommodate its fervent fans. It took a driven coach, the late Ray Crowe, and an unprecedented assemblage of basketball talent, led by all-time great Oscar Robertson, to push Attucks past the obstacles and into the winners' circle. But once they arrived, they remained: In 1956, Attucks became the first team to go undefeated while winning the championship. In 1959, they won it again.
Along the way, they got respect from a city that had spurned them. And in the end, they wrote a new chapter in the book of Hoosier basketball lore—one in which underdogs could be kids from urban ghettos, could grow up shooting in alleys and parks, could be black and be a vital part of the glory of the game.
Although state law opened all schools to African Americans in 1949, most black high-school students in Indianapolis remained at Attacks because they lived nearby; even black students living in other districts chose to enroll in Attacks because it was still regarded as the city's "Negro" high school. And just a few blocks away, the dirt courts of the Lockefield Gardens federal housing project were incubating some of the best basketball talent Indiana has ever seen.
Al Spurlock (assistant coach, Attucks): When I started teaching in Indianapolis, I had to teach in black schools because I couldn't go anywhere else. I didn't become too friendly with white people, because if we had gone downtown and wanted to stop for a cup of coffee, there was the potential embarrassment that the place wouldn't serve me.
Harold Stolkin (businessman and Attucks booster): Still, the atmosphere in Indianapolis in the '50s wasn't nearly as bad as it was during the years of Klan dominance in the '20s. My dad used to take me over to the corner of Meridian and Vermont streets to watch the Klan parades. I remember being in awe of them marching down Meridian Street in hoods and gowns.
Stanford Patton (forward, Attucks): My situation, like the rest of them, wasn't the best. Things were real bad for us—a lot of poverty, no hope. We knew we were segregated. We knew where we could and couldn't live. We knew where we were wanted and weren't wanted. We were living in a caste system.
Sam Milton (guard, Attucks): In the South, my parents had worked on farms, and during the winter when there was no crop, you still stayed on the boss man's farm. So in the summer, even after you'd done the crop, you wouldn't have no money because you still owed him for staying all winter. Indianapolis was a lot different. Here you could at least make your own living. But you still kind of knew where you couldn't go. And you accepted that. We thought we was living good.
Oscar Robertson (forward, Attucks, pictured): When you were poor, black, and from Indianapolis, there were three things you did: go to school, go to church, and play sports. You had no money for anything else. My father made a hoop I could roll out of the garage, and I'd go in the alley to shoot at it.
Bill Hampton (guard, Attucks): Nobody had anything. But everybody played basketball. If you didn't have a rim, you'd cut the bottom out of a bushel basket. We'd play with a basketball until the air was out of it, then we'd stuff it with rags, sew it back up, and play with it some more.
Spurlock: A lot of the guys played in the Dust Bowl—courts made of dirt. In the dry season, when they played, a cloud of dust would rise up. You'd see shots that would amaze you. They held a tournament at the end of every year to find the Dust Bowl champion, and those teams could match up with any high-school team in the city.
Robertson (pictured): A lot of us played together at the Dust Bowl. The competition was tough, because we couldn't hardly go anywhere else around the city to play.
Hampton: Guys would come from all around, from Chicago and Evansville, to play there. Everybody would go on Saturday and play all day long. It didn't matter who you were—when you lost, you might as well go home, because there were so many other guys waiting to play.
Sheddrick Mitchell (center, Attucks): I started shooting left- and right-handed hooks, and I got good at it. I lived in the Shortridge district, but when [star forward and '53 Attucks grad] Willie Gardner saw me play, he said, "Don't go to Shortridge—you need to go to Attucks."
Willie Merriweather (forward, Attucks): I could have gone to Shortridge, too, because I lived within the boundary lines, but I eventually chose Attucks for the basketball program.
Bob Hammel (longtime Indiana sportswriter): They were trying to build something special at Attucks. The irony, of course, is that the school was created out of hate. The Klan conspired to dump all the blacks at one school to get them out of the rest of the schools. But from that background emerged something very special.
Maxine Coleman (cheerleader, Attucks): Our principal, Dr. Lane, always stood in the doorway to the school and tried to instill punctuality by yelling, "Two minutes! Two minutes!" You might get there 15 minutes early, and he'd still shout, "Two minutes!" When the boys would go out to participate in a sport, he'd say, "Bring home the bacon."
Robertson: I think because it was a segregated school, it brought us together and made us stronger. We had the greatest teachers in the world. A lot of them had doctorates but couldn't teach in the white schools. They were like parents, and the other students were like family. I was a shy kid, and Attucks allowed me to grow, both on the court and in the classroom.
Coleman: We had pictures of previous graduating classes in the halls, and it was like a second home—you could see your family members on the wall. It was quite an accomplishment just to be a member of the Crispus Attucks ball club, because of what they had to endure.
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