Transcript for Crispus Attucks: Challenging segregation on and off the court
Produced by Jill Weiss Simins
Beckley: In the summer of 1927, three men set out from Indianapolis for a meeting in Anderson. This was no typical business meeting – and these were no typical businessmen. Faburn DeFrantz was the secretary of the Black Senate Avenue YMCA and an ardent advocate of racial equality, Henry Herod was the Superintendent of Flanner House, a Black community center, and Freeman Ransom was a civil rights worker and, most famously, lawyer to Black entrepreneur and philanthropist Madam C.J. Walker. The meeting was organized to appeal for the admittance of Crispus Attucks High School into the Indiana High School Athletic Association, or IHSAA. Given that the 1926 IHSAA handbook stated that, any public school could join the organization, as long as they followed the rules and paid their dues, this shouldn’t have been a big ask. Crispus Attucks had, after all, been established by the Indianapolis Public School Board of Commissioners. However, when the men made their appeal to IHSAA secretary Arthur Trester, he denied the notion out of hand. It would take fifteen years and ongoing pressure from the Indianapolis Black community before Trester would reverse this decision.
I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.
Beckley: Soon after Indianapolis resident Lucien Meriwether moved into his new home in 1920, his neighbors began building unsightly, towering fences. But what could be seen as an annoying neighborly dispute to most was much more. Meriwether, an affluent Black dentist and veteran of the recent war, had bought a home at 2257 North Capitol Avenue in a previously all-white neighborhood on the north side of Indianapolis. He knew that these fences were more than a sign that his neighbors were overly private. These were spite fences – a popular tool used by white segregationists in an attempt to push Black homeowners out of their neighborhood. Meriwether acted fast – his lawyer applied for and was granted a temporary restraining order which halted all work on the barriers. When the case was heard the next year, the judge found in favor of Meriwether and ordered all fences be kept under 6 ft.
Beckley: This was a small victory. As more Black Americans migrated to northern cities in part of what is called the Great Migration, residents of all-white Indianapolis neighborhoods organized into collectives such as the “North Capitol Protective Association” and the “Mapleton Civic Association,” with the sole purpose of maintaining residential segregation. These associations went beyond advocating for the continued exclusion of Black residents from their neighborhoods; They promoted increased racial segregation in parks, movie theatres, restaurants, and schools..
Beckley: In 1922, the Mapleton Civic Association joined with another group that was literally called the White Supremacy League to urge the Indianapolis Public School Board to form a segregated high school in the city. The proposed school would pull Black students from their currently integrated high schools throughout the city and place them in one location. Clip from movie:
Woman: I don’t know why they let people like him go to our school anyway, and I’m not the only one. My folks don’t like it a bit.
Man 1: My dad made it a point I wasn’t to associate with him.
Man 2: Sitting in the same classroom is association, isn’t it?
Man 1: That’s what I say! There ought to be some way to avoid it.
Beckley: Theirs was not the only call for school segregation – other powerful and widely respected organizations, such as the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Civic Clubs both petitioned IPS in favor of segregation.
Indianapolis’s Black community forcefully protested the proposal. In November 1922, the Better Indianapolis League, an organization of progressive Black citizens, submitted a letter stating:
Clark reading from letter: We emphasize that no one section of the population can be isolated and segregated without taking from it the advantages of the common culture. No one element of the population can be denied the opportunity to participate freely in the advantages of the highest culture without retardation to the whole group.
Beckley: Despite such impassioned pleas, the board voted less than a month later to establish a segregated high school, where all Black students in the city would be expected to enroll. When officials announced that the school was to be called Jefferson High School several prominent Black Indianapolis residents, led by Faburn DeFantz, protested naming an all-Black school after President Thomas Jefferson, who was an enslaver. Rather surprisingly, the school board of commissioners took their protests into consideration and worked with them to come up with a new name. After some back and forth, the name chosen was Crispus Attucks, after the man of color thought to be the first person to die in the American Revolution.
From its opening in the fall of 1927, Crispus Attucks High School demonstrated the fallacy of “separate but equal.” It was underfunded and overcrowded. Despite this, principal Matthias Nolcox ensured that his students received an education unrivaled by any in the city. Many of the teachers he recruited held master’s degrees or PhDs and delivered a level of instruction more akin to that of a university than of an underfunded high school. The local community, too, ensured that Crispus Attucks received its unfailing support. The school became a pillar of the Black community in Indianapolis. Historian Arum Goudsouzian noted,
Clark reading from Goudsouzian: “African Americans transformed the school that had been forced upon them into a symbol of black pride and cultural unity.”
Beckley: One source of that pride and unity was the high school basketball team, the Crispus Attucks Flying Tigers.
When DeFrantz, Herod, and Ransom travelled to Anderson in the months prior to Attucks’ opening to appealto Arthur Trester for admittance to the IHSAA, they were asking for more than the chance to compete against other schools in the association. They were advocating for a display of acceptance from the organization that controlled one of the most popular sporting events in Indiana – the state boys basketball tournament. Admittance to the IHSAA would have signaled to the rest of the state that Attucks, and by extension other recently created segregated schools, belonged – that they deserved to participate in this event just as much as the next school.
Trester refused, claiming that Attucks could not be considered a public school since it was only open to Black students. This is a mind-boggling take. Trester was essentially saying that since this segregated school was not open to white students, it was not a public school and therefore not eligible for IHSAA membership. Crispus Attucks was created by the Indianapolis Public School system and was a tax-funded entity, the very definition of a public school. By Trester’s own logic, all other high schools in Indianapolis should have been disqualified from the IHSAA because they were not open to Black students. All of these arguments, and more, must have been made on that summer day in 1927, but to no avail. Crispus Attucks would not be admitted to the IHSAA for 15 years.
Because of this exclusion, the Tigers basketball team could only compete against other schools also excluded from the IHSAA – namely, other Black and parochial schools, which were banned from the organization under the same “public schools only” rule that affected Attucks. In 1933, Trester relented somewhat by allowing games between IHSAA and nonschools, but still maintained the latter’s exclusion from the all-important state tournament, denying them, year after year, the opportunity to participate in the biggest game in Hoosier Hysteria.
Dr. Russell Lane, Attucks principal since 1930, saw this as more than just a chance to play against new teams. As is so often the case for Black athletes, players were called on to do more than just play the sport. Rather, they were expected to act as representatives for their entire race, and in the case of Attucks’ players, this went even further. According to Phillip Hoose, author of Attucks: Oscar Robertson and the Basketball Team that Awakened a City.
Clark reading from Hoose: If Hoosiers could observe racial harmony while their sons competed in a packed gym, Lane thought, they would later come to believe in its possibility in schools and neighborhoods.
Beckley: To this end, Dr. Lane set high expectations for players – and it was indeed Dr. Lane, rather than coach Radford Morris, who hand-picked players. According to Hoose, “he selected polite, well-spoken boys who didn’t anger quickly.” These attributes were routinely tested, as the team often faced discrimination while on the road, which was all the time, as Crispus Attucks did not yet have a gymnasium. Even getting to and from games was a challenge, as many restaurants and hotels along the way were not open to Black patronage, something especially disruptive because Attucks often had to travel long distances and even out of state to find teams willing to play against them. Once the team arrived, they were often the subjects of derision and sometimes barred from using showers after the game.
Throughout this time, Black and Catholic communities in Indianapolis continued to pressure IHSAA leaders to expand membership.
In a 1934 Indianapolis Star opinion piece that called for IHSAA to end the exclusion of Attucks, Attorney Freeman Ransom stated,
Clark reading Ransom: It seems to me there ought to be enough sportsmanship in the citizens of Indianapolis and Indiana, regardless of race, to see to it that the students of Attucks are not thus discriminated against.
Beckley: But when Arthur Trester, who still reigned over the IHSAA, finally allowed Black and parochial schools entry to the organization, it would have little to do with sportsmanship. In 1941, State Senator Robert Brokenburr, whose daughter attended Attucks, introduced Senate Bill 181, which would have put the IHSAA under state regulation and opened membership to Black and Catholic schools. The bill passed in the Senate, but was killed in the House of Representatives.
This close call, which threatened Trester’s power as the so-called “Czar of the IHSAA,” spurred him to action. On December 20, 1941, he announced that the IHSAA was open to all Indiana high schools. Finally, the biggest stage in Indiana basketball – and perhaps the nation – was open to the Crispus Attucks Flying Tigers.
Over the following years, the Tigers met with limited post-season success. The team favored a genteel style of play – walking the ball up the court, probing the defense for an opening, and never, ever making unnecessary physical contact with their mostly white opponents. In 1950, however, assistant coach Ray Crowe was promoted to head coach, and everything changed.
Tapping into a new talent source, Crowe recruited players who had learned to play on the outdoor courts of Indianapolis’s Black neighborhoods, including Lockefield Gardens, a thriving all-Black public housing project just northwest of the heart of the city. These new players brought a new aggressiveness to the court, which soon earned them success. That first season, the Tigers made it all the way to the final four of the state tournament, the farthest an all-Black school had made it into the postseason. Throughout the early 1950s, Attucks could regularly be found dominating the schedule well into tournament play, and this would culminate in their 1954-1955 season.
Even given their recent success, the ’54 ‘55 team was exceptional. They had retained several players from the prior season, including junior forward Oscar Robertson, hailed as one of the best players in the state before the season even started. He didn’t disappoint, as newspapers noted.
Clark reading from papers: Most of the thanks for the Attucks win had to go to Robertson.
Robertson Keeps the Tiger Pennant Flying
One man seldom makes a ball club, but it’s sure nice to have one around like Oscar Robertson.
Everything would have been all right if Crispus Attucks High School had left Oscar Robertson home in Indianapolis.
Led by ‘unstoppable’ Oscar Robertson, Attucks’ Flying Tigers stamped defeat on a powerful Fort Wayne Central team.
There you are, you rascal: Oscar Robertson standout star of the City Tournament prepares to pounce on the elusive basketball in [a] game with Washington.
Beckley: Robertson could have been a one-man show, but he wasn’t. He was joined by forward Willie Merriweather, who was nearly as good as Robertson. Left in the past was the slow, gentle strategy of the early years of Attucks basketball. With Robertson and Merriweather on the team, games were dominated by fast breaks, jump shots, and even slam dunks. Attucks blew through their regular season, entering tournament play with only one loss and an average winning margin of 27 points.
After squeaking by Muncie Central in the Indianapolis semi-finals, Attucks headed towards the final four as heavy favorites. But even their monumental skill on the court couldn’t combat the deeply engrained racism of many white Hoosiers. In the lead-up to the finals, which were held at the Butler Fieldhouse, Indianapolis seemed to be preparing for a race-riot rather than a basketball game.
According to Hoose, Principal Lane later recalled:
Clark reading from Hoose: The week before the finals, I got called into the superintendent’s office. There were representatives from the mayor’s office and from the police and fire departments. The mayors’ man said, ‘Well, looks like your boys are going to win next week.’ I said, ‘We think so.’ He said, ‘We’re afraid if they do, your people will break up the city.’ I said, ‘There will not be one incident.
Beckley: Even with that assurance, the city increased police presence on Monument Circle, and posted detectives around the fieldhouse. The Attucks team was escorted to the Butler campus by police and players were even chaperoned by law enforcement on restroom trips.
The Tigers didn’t let this treatment affect their game. They easily triumphed over New Albany in the semi-final game 79-67.
In the second game of the day, another all-Black team, Gary Roosevelt beat Fort Wayne North, ensuring that whatever the outcome of the final game, an all-Black team would be the 1955 IHSAA State Champions, something that was impossible just a few short years before, but was not totally unforeseen – the Indianapolis Recorder stated on the day of the game,
Clark reading from Recorder: Ever since the start of the season this newspaper has been writing about the possibility of several Negro teams making it to the last go-round. For our pains we have been accused of ‘race-baiting,’ and ‘trying to start a riot.’
Beckley: Attucks faced Roosevelt that evening, and amazingly, we have audio from the game. Let’s listen in.
Beckley: As you can hear despite Roosevelt’s excellent team which had only one more loss than Attucks, the northern team was simply outmatched. Attucks pulled ahead 24-15 in the first quarter and never looked back, winning the game 97-64. With that victory, Crispus Attucks became the first Indianapolis school to win the IHSAA state tournament and the first all-Black school to win a state title. In fact, they were the first all-Black team to do so in the nation.
Let’s take just a moment to focus on the significance of this. Twelve young African American men had just earned the top spot in Indiana high school basketball, a spot coveted by nearly every high school aged boy in the state. They weren’t allowed in many spaces – some parks, movie theaters, hotels, and restaurants were still closed to them. But now, they mounted the biggest stage in Indiana sports and took their bow. They had proved themselves not only good, but the best.
After the game, the Attucks team climbed atop a fire truck and, at the head of a 3-mile long line of cars, made their way to Monument Circle. At the city’s center, 15,000 people watched as Coach Crowe accepted the key to the City of Indianapolis. Then the truck turned to the northeast, towards Indiana Avenue, the heart of Black Indianapolis. As the team made their way through the area, fans poured from the surrounding houses and businesses and crowded into the street, delirious with joy that their team had won. Finally, the motorcade made their way to Northeast Park, where 30,000 Black Hoosiers, an enormous bonfire, and a celebration primed to last well into the night awaited them. [See correction below]
The Crispus Attucks Flying Tigers continued to be a powerhouse throughout the 1950s. Oscar Robertson led the team to another state championship title in 1956, and Attucks only fell short of the state finals once for the remainder of the decade. It was a new era for Indiana basketball.
In 1954, One year before Attucks’ historic win, the United States Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, overturning the decades-long precedent of “separate but equal.” But it would take many more years of boycotts, protests, legal cases, and sacrifices to dismantle legal segregation.
There has always been a gap between the law and local practices, and despite the Brown decision, Attucks remained segregated. The Little Rock Nine entered Arkansas’ Little Rock Central High School among jeers in 1957, and Crispus Attucks remained segregated. Ruby Bridges was escorted by U.S. Marshals past an angry mob to attend Louisiana’s William Frantz Elementary School in 1960, and Crispus Attucks remained segregated. President Kennedy ordered the National Guard to clear the way for Vivian Malone and James Hood to enter the University of Alabama in 1963, and still, Crispus Attucks remained segregated. In fact, the first meaningful integration of Crispus Attucks High School would not occur until 1971, and that was only after the U.S. Justice system found the Indianapolis Public School Board of Commissioners guilty of practicing segregation and forced them to integrate.
Even after the integration of Crispus Attucks, residential segregation, reinforced by decades of redlining, which was a method used by the government to deny housing loans to minorities, kept many schools racially insulated. A 2019 study by the University of California-Berkley showed that more than 80% of large metropolitan areas in the United States were more segregated in 2019 than they were in 1990, something that affects Indianapolis schools today. The consequences of this continued segregation are harsh and far-reaching. Majority non-white schools receive less funding than majority white schools. This leads to larger class sizes, less qualified teachers, and a lack of access to amenities like music classes, standard athletic facilities, advanced learning opportunities, and more. In the 1920s, when Crispus Attucks was built, legal segregation and its consequences limited the opportunities of Black students both on and off the court. Today, de facto segregation has the same effect.
All children have the right to equitable education and sporting opportunities at school and a sense of belonging in their communities. Sweeping political and social change, from tax code revision to housing reform, is necessary for true equality in American classrooms. However, these systemic changes remain in the distant future. In the meantime, educator Kandice Sumner states in her 2015 Ted Talk:
Sumner: Historically speaking, the education of the black and brown child has always depended on the philanthropy of others. And unfortunately, today it still does.
Beckley: She advocates for the sharing of resources between classrooms, schools, and communities in affluent areas and those in impoverished areas, saying:
Sumner: Close the divide by engaging in communication and relationships that matter. When resources are shared, they’re not divided; they’re multiplied.
Beckley: Of course, philanthropy can only do so much compared to the real systemic changes needed to achieve true equity. Sumner concludes:
Sumner: If we really, as a country, believe that education is the “great equalizer,” then it should be just that: equal and equitable. Until then, there’s no democracy in our democratic education.
Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. If you want to learn more about today’s story, I highly recommend Phillip Hoose’s book Attucks! Oscar Robertson and the Basketball Team That Awakened a City. For a full list of sources used on this episode, go to our brand-new website podcast.history.in.gov. There, you’ll find transcripts and show notes for all of our episodes. Thank you to our producer Jill Weiss Simins for taking our show to the next level and to voice actor Justin Clark for lending his talents to this episode. Don’t forget to rate, review, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks for listening!
Correction: We said that after the 1955 Crispus Attucks win, the team went northeast from Monument Circle to Indiana Avenue and Northeast Park. This is incorrect. The celebration travelled from Monument Circle northwest to Indiana Avenue and then Northwestern Park. IHB regrets the error.
Documents / Primary Sources
Indianapolis Public Schools, Meeting Minutes of the Board of School Commissioners, February 1926 – December 1926, page 113, accessed Indianapolis Public Library.
Indianapolis Public Schools, Meeting Minutes of the Board of School Commissioners, May 1925 – January 1926, page 84, accessed Indianapolis Public Library.
Indianapolis Public Schools, Meeting Minutes of the Board of School Commissioners, November 14, 1922 – September 11, 1923, page 29, accessed Indianapolis Public Library.
Indianapolis Public Schools, Meeting Minutes of the Board of School Commissioners, November 14, 1922 – September 11, 1923, accessed Indianapolis Public Library.
“’Spite Fence’ Ruled Illegal,” Indianapolis Star, April 29, 1921, 5, newspapers.com.
Paul Mullins, “Racist Spite and Residential Segregation: Housing and the Color Line in Inter-War Indianapolis,” Archaeology and Material Culture.
“Examining the Cross-Roads: School Segregation in Indiana,” Center for Evaluation, Policy, & Research, Indiana University Bloomington.
“Herod, Henry Louis and Elizabeth Frances,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database.
Kandice Sumner, “How America’s Public Schools Keep Kids in Poverty,” TedTalk.
Dennis Parker, “Segregation 2.0: America’s School-to-prison pipeline,” MSNBC, May 8, 2014.
Patrick Cremin, “School Policing was Designed to Criminalize Black Students. We Must Follow Black Voices Calling for its Abolition,” Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Law Review.
Dara Lind, “Why Having Police in Schools is a Problem,” Vox.
“U.S. School Segregation in the 21st Century,” Washington Center for Equitable Growth.
“Long-Term Effects of School Desegregation and School Quality,” National Bureau of Economic Research.