Commemoration and African-American Place: Remembering Basketball and the Dust Bowl
In 1955 Crispus Attucks High School won the Indiana high school basketball crown in one of the state’s most fabled sporting moments. In basketball-mad Indiana there are many reasons to celebrate the 1955 Tigers’ victory: fronted by hardwood legend Oscar Robertson, the Tigers are venerated for their march through the ranks of Indiana high school basketball teams in 1955 and their domination of the state’s best teams throughout the 1950’s (Attucks also took crowns in 1956 and 1959 and had a near-miss in 1951).
Garage-mounted basketball hoops, stanchions rolled out onto suburban dead-ends, and scattered courts remain one of the most commonplace features of the Indianapolis landscape, where the game is a staple of everyday life. An astounding range of people have embraced the Attucks basketball championship, which is often spun as racism’s conquest at the hands of civility and fairness—qualities that are often somewhat idealistically projected onto basketball. Sport looms in this narrative as one of the rare activities White and Black Hoosiers shared in the 1950’s, forging some measure of understanding if not equality beyond the hardwood. This picture of Cold War segregated basketball risks over-stating the transformations worked by basketball or mistaking good intentions for structural changes. Nevertheless, basketball and sport did indeed provide promising glimpses into the possibilities of a life outside anti-Black racism (Richard Pierce’s 2000 study of the 1951 Attucks championship provides a compelling analysis of the intersection of the post-war color line and basketball).
This month Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI) held an event that aspires to move this discussion about life, sport, and the color line onto the contemporary landscape. At the beginning of April the University commemorated one of the city’s most fabled neighborhood basketball courts, a court known locally as the “Dust Bowl.” The Dust Bowl was originally a dirt court that sat near the segregated Black housing community Lockefield Gardens, which opened in 1937 in the heart of the predominately Black near-Westside. The original “dust” surface was described by the Indianapolis Recorder’s Jim Cummings as “cinders and gravel between two backboards with netless rims,” but it had been paved by 1948; nevertheless, the “dust bowl” moniker stuck and remained attached to the tournaments first played at Lockefield in 1948.
In March, 1951 Cummings was perhaps the first commentator to celebrate the Dust Bowl’s consequence as a training ground for both basketball skills and citizenship. As the team began its first significant march through the state tournament, Cummings intoned that “practically every aspiring Negro basketballer in the city has sent his favorite shot zooming through the Dust Bowl hoops. And it’s there that the majority of the members of Attucks’ sensational 1951 net team learned the game that they now play so well. … And it’s there that they learned the rules and practice of good sportsmanship.” Many people in Cummings’ wake have reached a similar conclusion that the demonstration of basketball prowess and good citizenship on the hardwood staked a claim for African-American citizenship beyond the court.
A host of compelling histories could be illuminated by the newly commemorated Dust Bowl, but the central challenge may be simply to push the narrative beyond basketball to a picture of the ways sport functioned in segregated America. One of the most fascinating possibilities of the newly reconstructed Dust Bowl courts is their potential to acknowledge a place and heritage that is otherwise invisible on the contemporary landscape. The thousands of homes that carpeted the near-Westside—including the homes of many Dust Bowl players–have long ago been erased along with the Dust Bowl itself, victims of postwar urban renewal projects that took aim on African Americans in virtually every American city. The African-American community that quietly flourished in segregated Indianapolis remains relatively poorly understood even by basketball fans who celebrate the Attucks championships. Even sympathetic observers hazard misunderstanding the consequence of African-American places like the Dust Bowl as refuges of social and political solidarity removed from everyday indignities and unfairness (compare Robin D.G. Kelley’s study of the politics of Black leisure and everyday life).
The Dust Bowl sat at the south end of the WPA housing community Lockefield Gardens, but the court hosted players from all over the neighborhood and city. Oscar Robertson notes in his biography that the dust bowl name originally referred to an impromptu dirt court “a few blocks from our house” on Colton Street, but “the paved courts over at Lockefield Gardens took over the dust bowl name … sometime during my adolescence. The Indianapolis Police Athletic League sponsored basketball and football leagues at the `new Dust Bowl.’” In 1951, Jim Cummings said much the same thing when he indicated that “this asphalt-covered court with its shabby backboards and worn-out nets is known all over town as the `Lockefield Dust Bowl.’” He noted that “in the summer, the bucketeers get going at the crack of dawn. …They shoot till long after dark.”
The Lockefield court became the scene of an enormously competitive tournament that played host to many of the Midwest’s best players. The Dust Bowl tournament was started in 1948 by Police Athletic League (PAL) officer James “Bruiser” Gaines, who built on the Lockefield PAL programs started by Anthony Watkins. Attucks graduate Watkins moved to Lockefield in 1940, managing recreation programs at Lockefield and working during the war as the first Black machinist at the Curtis Wright Defense Plant. In April, 1944 he became an Indianapolis Police Department Officer while directing the Lockefield PAL Club, and he eventually became the force’s first African-American Captain. Gaines likewise was an Attucks graduate who moved to Lockefield in 1941 and took over when Watkins left the Lockefield PAL Club in 1948.
The first tournament in 1948 was sponsored by Stuart Mortuary and Sunset Cleaners. About 20 teams were chosen by captains, with James Barrett’s team beating Garnett Rhim’s team for the first crown. The annual August tournament soon became a major event, with thousands of people crowding around the courts to watch many of the country’s best players. In 1953, for instance, Attucks star Willie Gardner led the Stuart Mortuary team to the crown. Gardner had been part of the 1951 Attucks team and was one of a series of Attucks players who would go on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. The runner-up “Blake Street Blues” team was led by 1947 Indiana “Mr. Basketball” Bill Garrett, who was the first African American to play for Indiana University and an All-American in 1951. Garrett eventually became Attucks coach in 1957 and won the state title in 1959 before playing as a Globetrotter and eventually becoming an Assistant Dean at IUPUI.
Perhaps the best-known of these players is Oscar Robertson, whose fabled career sometimes overshadows the broader story of the neighborhoods around the Dust Bowl. Robertson and his older brother Bailey lived on Colton Street just west of the Dust Bowl and Locke Street. For all his remarkable sporting achievements, much of Robertson’s upbringing and youth in Indianapolis’ near-Westside was quite typical.
The house Robertson grew up in on Colton Street was built in the 1890s and was typical of the small and densely packed frame homes around the Indiana University Medical Center. Known until April, 1903 as Rhode Island Street, Colton Street once reached further east into space that eventually was removed for the construction of Lockefield Gardens. In 1898 the two blocks where the Robertsons moved in about 1946 had 34 houses, including four doubles and one six-residence unit alongside a series of shotgun-style homes. A trio of alley houses sat in the backyards of 973-975 Rhode Island Street, immediately neighboring the home where Bailey and Oscar Robertson would grow up.
In 1900 and 1910 a few White households were scattered on Colton Street and in surrounding neighborhoods. For instance, in 1910 three White families lived on Colton Street. German-born foundry laborer George Bauer and his wife Nancy lived at 982 Colton Street. Born in 1839, George had migrated to the United States from Baden in about 1847, volunteering for the all-German 32nd Indiana Infantry regiment (Company I) in 1861. Bauer saw action at the Battle of Rowlett’s Station; he was subsequently wounded in battle at Shiloh on April 6, 1862; and on September 19, 1863 he received a gunshot to the jaw at Chickamauga (he died in his Colton Street home in 1914).
Living beside the Bauers in 1910 were 68-year old rag picker David McGuire and wife Maggie, who had outlived all eight of her children, and Indiana-born Charles and Lucille West. European immigrants and White Hoosiers had lived alongside African Americans in the near-Westside over the second half of the 19th century, but the Bauers, McGuires, and Wests were among the last White families living in the neighborhood. In 1914 every household on Colton Street was African American, and many more streets in the near-Westside were likewise racially segregated. Indianapolis housing remained strictly segregated until the late 1950s, with affluent and working-class African Americans compelled to live in relatively contiguous neighborhoods.
In 1928 John Crumes moved to 1005 Colton Street, the house that would become the Robertsons’ home in about 1946. Like many other African Americans, Crumes had come to Indianapolis from Kentucky in about 1917, when he, his wife, and five children moved into a house on West Walnut Street a block from Colton. African-American migration waves to Indianapolis came at the turn of the century and during World War II, but a steady stream of African Americans from the upper South (especially Kentucky) arrived in the period between 1900 and 1950. Crumes moved to 1005 Colton Street in 1928 and remained there until 1939, when he moved a few doors down to 1019 Colton Street in 1940. Of the 29 houses on the street in 1940, only Crumes lived in the same home in both 1940 and 1950, eventually moving to West 35th Street in 1955.
Families around the Dust Bowl tended to move quite often, but they routinely moved short distances and remained in the same neighborhood. In 1940, the house at 1005 Colton Street was home to Gladys Cruse. Cruse had just moved with her five children from an alley house off Agnes Street a few blocks away, and she would move again within a year. Two more families called the house home before it stood vacant in 1945. By the 1947 city directory’s publication, the Robertsons were living in 1005 Colton Street.
The houses along Colton Street were quite insubstantial, and they declined significantly by the 1940s, when a wave of wartime migrants arrived in the near-Westside. Landlords subdivided existing homes, and at 1005 Colton Street a 19th-century back yard stable was transformed into an insubstantial home (it appears to have last been rented in 1942). The modest backyards and slender lots were already crammed with outhouses, and none of the Colton Street homes appears to have ever had indoor plumbing installed before the last of the houses were torn down in 1958.
Oscar Robertson himself remembers Colton Street as “maybe two blocks long; it wasn’t paved, just surfaced with a mix of gravel and oil that had been packed down over time.” The Robertsons’ home was “your standard shotgun shack. Its rooms joined in a straight line that you could look through, and the roof was made of tar paper—just strong enough to protect us from rain, but too flimsy to shelter us from cold, windy nights, or flies and mosquitos. There was running water, but the toilet was outside.”
A few blocks from the Robertsons sat Calvin Bryant’s home on Hiawatha Street. The Robertsons, Bryants, and many of their neighbors had fled the South in the inter-war period. The Bryants came to Indianapolis from South Carolina in 1946, and Calvin was working at the Indiana University Medical Center as a porter, living first on West Vermont Street and then moving to Hiawatha Street by 1949. Bryant’s son Hallie was among Crispus Attucks’ first stars, playing on the 1951 team that lost in the state semifinal before receiving the highest prep honor of being named Indiana Mr. Basketball two years later. He then went on to play at Indiana University, and after two years military service he spent 27 years as a Harlem Globetrotter.
A March, 1952 Indianapolis Recorder inventory of the year’s 12 Attucks basketball teammates identified all their homes addresses, and perhaps the most striking characteristic is that nearly all of their homes are now gone and many of the very streets have been erased. The homes of Hallie Bryant, Bailey Robertson, and Willie Posley are under the IU Medical Center (and the streets themselves now gone); Willie Gardner’s home on North Missouri now sits under state office complexes; future Globetrotter Cleveland Harp’s home on Capital Avenue is a parking lot in the shadow of Interstate-65; Robert Parrish’s house site on Franklin Place is now a post office; once described by the Recorder as a “toy bulldog,” Leahman Covington’s house on Hovey Street is gone; and Rudy Adams’ house on West 27th Street today sits under Ivy Tech Community College. Class of 1951 player Charles Gilbert Cook was one of the Attucks basketball players who lived in Lockefield, but most of the players gathering at the Dust Bowl and playing for the Tigers lived scattered about the near-Westside. Holsey Hickman’s house at 3964 Rookwood appears to be the only 1952 team members’ home that still stands today (his mother Doris Stokes was a well-known Indianapolis musician). Coach Ray Crowe’s 1952 home on 2105 Boulevard Place is also still standing.
The Lockefield Dust Bowl tournaments included many of the region’s best players. In 1953, the Stuart’s Mortuary team won the tournament behind Willie Gardner and Hallie Bryant, winning an overtime final over the Blake Street Blues led by Bill Garrett. Notre Dame star Joe Bertrand (one of the first two African-American players in South Bend) led the Stuart’s Morticians team to the crown the following year. In 1956, the Dison Heating team came to Lockefield as part of a “barnstorming” tour of the Midwest armed with Oscar Robertson and his brother Bailey, as well as Bill Brown (1955-1956 Attucks state champ also played at Tennessee State, was a Globetrotter, and appeared in an ad in the 1956 Attucks yearbook for Leon Tailoring) and Herschell Turner (a Shortridge High School player who went on to play for the Syracuse Nationals in the NBA, two ABA teams, and the Globetrotters). The Dison team beat out the Blake Street Blues, once more led by Bill Garrett. Most victors in the tournament emerged from central Indiana, but in 1960 three of the final four teams in the tournament were from Chicago, with the winning team led by NBA players Shellie McMillon and Willie “The Bird” Jones.
The expansion of the Indiana University Medical Center, a host of federal legislation targeting “blighted” communities, and the emergence of the IUPUI campus quite rapidly erased most of the near-Westside. In 1954 the Robertsons appeared in the city directory at 1005 Colton Street, but Oscar Robertson remembers in his biography that the family was displaced by expansion of the Indiana University Medical Center that summer. In 1957 18 families still appeared in the city directory on Colton Street, and Napoleon Jones had moved into the home at 1005 Colton Street. However, a year later every family on Colton Street had been relocated, and the final houses were razed and the street itself was removed not long after.
As the neighborhood was de-populated, the Lockefield tournament soon left the near-Westside as well. In August, 1974 the Indianapolis Recorder soberly acknowledged that the 1974 tournament “will likely be the last event on the Westside court. … Lockefield is currently being renovated and most of the families being moved out.” Yet a year later the tournament returned for what appears to have been its final playing at Lockefield, with George McGinnis and the B&H All-Stars winning their ninth Lockefield title (like many Dust Bowlers, McGinnis had spent at least part of his childhood living on the near-Westside, including a home on Minerva Street).
The former Attucks players remain models of Ray Crowe’s dignity and ambition, so it is perhaps easy to overlook the dehumanization many of them faced. Their narrative of everyday community life does not ignore anti-Black racism as much as it does not allow their stories to be told in hindsight simply as responses to a segregated world. In that picture of everyday life, the Dust Bowl was a consequential Black public place, a space that incubated African-American politics without ever being seen as an especially politicized place. Yet perhaps by acknowledging the courts once more and recognizing the everyday culture of basketball and leisure in the now-effaced near Westside, a more complicated narrative than basketball nostalgia may emerge.
Robert G. Barrows
2007 The Local Origins of a New Deal Housing Project: The Case of Lockefield Gardens in Indianapolis. The Indiana Magazine of History 103(2):125-151.
Robert Scott Carey
2011 Hoosiers on the Hardwood: A Critical Examination of Indiana Basketball Culture and its Effect on Identity Formation. Masters Thesis, Brock University.
2000 “Ba–ad, Ba–a–ad Tigers”: Crispus Attucks Basketball and Black Indianapolis in the 1950s. Indiana Magazine of History 96(1):4-43.
Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody
2008 Getting Open: the Unknown Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
Robin D.G. Kelley
1993 “We are not what we seem”: Rethinking black working-class opposition in the Jim Crow South. Journal of American History 80(1):75-112.
Richard B. Pierce
2000 More Than a Game: The Political Meaning of High School Basketball in Indianapolis. Journal of Urban History 27(1):3-23. (subscription access)
2005 Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920-1970. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
2012 But They Can’t Beat Us!: Oscar Robertson and the Crispus Attucks Tigers. Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis.
2003 The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game. Rodale, New York.
1954 Regional Victory image from Crispus Attucks Museum Collection, IUPUI University Library