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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


Oscar Robertson and the Basketball Team That Awakened a City

Phillip Hoose

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)



North Toward Hope

From Florida’s stormy banks I go;

I’ve bid the South “Good by”;

No longer shall they treat me so,

And knock me in the eye.

—Mr. Ward, “Bound for the Promised Land,”originally published in the Chicago Defender, November 11, 1916

Most of the boys who played on Indianapolis’s Crispus Attucks High School teams of the 1950s were born in the South. At some point, adults in their lives led them aboard buses or trains and ushered them to the rear. The buses coughed to life and pulled out of the stations, swinging into a long journey toward hope. Children waved tearful goodbyes to grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles until everyone disappeared from sight. After an hour or so, the adults pulled chicken and pound cake out of grease-stained brown-paper bags and passed the food around. Crying stopped.

They traveled on odd-numbered two-lane highways—31 and 41 and 51 and 61—bound north toward an auntie’s house or an uncle’s garage in the city called Indianapolis. Children pressed their noses against smudged windows, gazing at barns and cows whizzing by; at sleek, shiny horses prancing behind white fences in Kentucky; at signs that said SEE MAMMOTH CAVE. Years later, the players could still recite the names of the towns they had passed through as children: Jackson, Hendersonville, Millersville, Bowling Green, Paducah, Horse Cave, Elizabethtown, Henderson. They watched the strings of little white roadside signs that made an advertising jingle a few words at a time: PAST / SCHOOLHOUSES / TAKE IT SLOW / LET THE LITTLE / SHAVERS GROW / BURMA-SHAVE. Billboards for Mammoth Cave grew bigger and more frequent, then disappeared when the road to Kentucky’s famed underground attraction slid away.

When the bus stopped, which it did every hour or so, the passengers filed out and went around to the back of the gas station or other building to the “colored” bathrooms and water fountains, where they stood around until they heard the driver holler to get back on. When they crossed the Ohio River on the Second Street Bridge, passing from Louisville, Kentucky, to Jeffersonville, Indiana—the North—most of the future basketball stars were sound asleep, perhaps dreaming of the flat brown fields they had worked and played in with friends they might never see again.

* * *

One such family came north from Bellsburg, Tennessee. In the winter of 1942, Mazell Robertson and her three sons—Bailey, nine; Henry, six; and Oscar, four—boarded a Greyhound bus in Nashville, Tennessee, bound for Indianapolis, a city with about four hundred thousand inhabitants. Hearts were heavy. They were leaving their extended family and the three hundred acres of cornfields that Mazell’s grandfather, still alive at 112, had begun to sharecrop not long after the Civil War. Mazell’s husband, Bailey Sr., had gone to Indianapolis some months before, looking for factory work. The factory jobs had been held by whites, but now many of them had gone overseas to fight. With the armed forces largely segregated, Bailey Robertson Sr. had hoped to find a good-paying job in a defense plant, but when nothing turned up, he had signed on with the city sanitation department. It wasn’t much, but it was steady. The family should come on up now, he said. They could all stay with his sister Inez until they could find a place of their own.

To Mazell Robertson, there was no choice but to leave. All black children from first through sixth grade in Dickson County, Tennessee, took their lessons in a one-room schoolhouse, led by a single saintly teacher named Lizzie Gleves. Little boys and girls who were barely toilet-trained sat down beside older children who were already seasoned farmhands. Boys were constantly pulled out of class to help with farm work, and they were glad to go. Mazell Robertson asked herself, “How much could my boys learn in that room?” Whatever Indianapolis was, it had to be more than this. Whatever Indianapolis was, it was the North.

At the end of the eight-hour journey, sometime after midnight, the bus pulled into the Illinois Street Greyhound station in Indianapolis. The Robertsons dragged their only suitcase, bound together with baling wire, off the bus and into the terminal. For some reason, Aunt Inez was not there to meet them. They waited for a couple of hours, then got restless. They had no experience with Indianapolis’s trolleys or city buses, but they knew very well how to walk long distances. Together they pushed and pulled and kneed the suitcase sixteen blocks along Senate Avenue toward the address on Mazell’s scrap of paper.

As Bailey remembered it years later, the house was dark and the door locked. They huddled together on the porch until morning, when Inez came home from work and let them in. She said she hadn’t known they were coming.

They would stay with Aunt Inez for another year, until Bailey Sr. could finally put a deposit on a house nearby.

* * *

Bailey, Henry, and Oscar Robertson, like most of the other future Crispus Attucks High School basketball players, were part of the Great Migration, the exodus of fed-up blacks who poured out of the South and funneled into northern cities as if the map itself had tilted north. Hopeful black families surged into New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit. Another destination was Indianapolis, Indiana, popular in part because it was so close to the South, where beloved family members remained.

The Great Migration

Between 1916 and 1970, nearly six million African Americans migrated north to seek jobs, better housing, and a good education for children. North also meant hope, hope for relief from white people who hated and threatened and confined and belittled them, exploiting their labor for a fraction of its worth.

The southern boys who as teenagers in the 1950s would revolutionize the game of basketball came to “Naptown,” as Indianapolis was often called, on two-lane highways when they were children in the 1930s and ’40s. The adults in their lives had plans and dreams, and had staked everything on a better chance in a big northern city.

The boys who were converging on Indianapolis would wield an enormous impact on their future home, though they had no way of knowing it. Willie Gardner, whose powerhouse dunks would amaze some and disgust others, came north on a bus with his mom from Pulaski, Tennessee. Hallie Bryant, pioneer of the one-handed jump shot, motored north from South Carolina with his dad in 1942. Hook-shooting Sheddrick Mitchell journeyed all the way from Mississippi, while high-flying Willie Merriweather rode north from Tennessee with his dad in the old man’s Buick convertible. Father and son both loved to feel the power of the stylish automobile. When he got pulled over for speeding, Willie’s dad would slap on a chauffeur’s hat and tell the officer he was delivering the car to a white man.

And also from Tennessee came Mazell Robertson’s boys. The eldest, Bailey, would deliver Attucks High to national prominence on the wings of his buzzer-beating shot from the corner in 1951. Middle son Henry would become a valuable reserve on a great Attucks team. And youngest brother Oscar, a dozen years from being acclaimed the most brilliant high school player ever from Indiana, would leave his mark on everything.

* * *

Black families arriving were shocked by the Indianapolis that greeted them. Jim Crow’s wings shadowed everything. Schools were racially segregated, just as in the South. Most black families lived in overcrowded squalor within a damp, low-lying slum neighborhood known as Frog Island. Most houses had no heat, electricity, or indoor plumbing.

Many black women worked as maids, taking their meals on the back porches of the houses they cleaned, raising the children of rich whites for a few dollars a day. Signs announced parks as WHITE or COLORED. Blacks were universally unwelcome. City Hospital treated black patients in only one ward.

Jim Crow

Throughout the United States, and particularly in the South, the races were segregated by a densely woven web of laws, signs, partitions, arrows, ordinances, unequal opportunities, rules, insults, threats, and customs—often backed up by violence. Together, the whole system of racial segregation was known as “Jim Crow,” its informal name taken from an 1830s vaudeville character that depicted blacks negatively.

Frog Island, the neglected Indianapolis slum into which most of the city’s African Americans were crowded. (O. James Fox Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

Blacks were shunned in downtown department stores and banished to the balconies of movie theaters. Even the city’s Riverside Amusement Park accepted black children only on “Colored Frolic Day,” which came once a year if your family had amassed enough milk-bottle caps from the local dairy. Signs throughout the park said WHITE PATRONAGE ONLY SOLICITED. “But isn’t Indiana supposed to be in the North?” the new arrivals asked one another. How could a northern city feel as hostile as the places they had just come from?

Indiana had never been welcoming to blacks. One 1831 law, renewed in 1851 by widespread popular vote, required blacks entering Indiana to “register” for residency. That meant they had to present themselves at their local county courthouse with a witness and post a $500 bond. Registration was supposed to guarantee that blacks desiring to live in Indiana would not become “beggars or criminals.”

But during the Great Migration, nothing could stop the tide of hopeful black families who continued to exit the South and pour northward across the Ohio River, some settling in small towns just on the Indiana side of the river, but more pushing on northward to the state capital, Indianapolis. By 1920, around thirty-five thousand African Americans lived in Indianapolis, more than twice the number who had lived there twenty years earlier. Many whites viewed the migration as an invasion—one that had to be stopped.

Enter David Curtis Stephenson. In 1921, this twenty-nine-year-old coal company salesman was hired by Ku Klux Klan recruiter Joseph Huffington to build a Klavern—a Klan chapter—in Evansville, Indiana. Stephenson was a stocky, handsome, tastefully dressed man with a full head of blond hair and a ready smile. No one seemed to know much about him; really, there wasn’t much to know. He had quit school in the eighth grade and drifted around the Great Plains, making his living as a typesetter in print shops. He married early and deserted his pregnant wife.

D. C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan. “I am the law in Indiana,” Stephenson often proclaimed, and in the early 1920s, it was close to the truth. (Indiana Historical Society)

Steve, as he liked to be called, was a spellbinding storyteller who mesmerized lawyers, bankers, and farmers alike. He drank heavily and had an eager eye for women. He also had a genius for organization. Stephenson sized up Indiana and saw in an instant how the Klan could make him a king. In 1920, Indiana had the highest percentage of native-born white residents of any state in the Union. That meant that many Indiana residents had not traveled widely and were suspicious of outsiders. Stephenson gave them enemies to fear and hate. In fiery speeches, Stephenson condemned Catholics, blacks, and Jews as “aliens” who had invaded Indiana to control money, steal jobs, and attack white women.

A pamphlet entitled “Ideals of the Klan” described the Klan as follows:

• This is a white man’s organization.

• This is a Gentile organization.

• It is an American organization.

• It is a Protestant organization.

Thousands flocked to hear Stephenson speak at Klan “Field Days.” One 1923 speech in Kokomo’s Malfalfa Park attracted two hundred thousand people, one of the biggest public gatherings in the history of Indiana. Stephenson arrived late by private plane. When the propellers slowed to a halt, the door popped open and there he was, dusting off his suit, sweeping back his blond hair, squinting at the sun. He began his speech by apologizing for his tardiness, explaining, “The president of the United States kept me unduly long counseling upon vital matters of state.” When the cheering died, Stephenson lit into what he called the forces of evil: Our country is being stolen from us by outsiders. It’s time for “One Hundred Percent Americans” to wake up and take Indiana back! Similar rhetoric would propel Adolf Hitler to power in just a few years.

By 1924, nearly one-third of Indiana’s white male population—about 250,000 in all—were Klan members, and Indiana was known far and wide as the Klan State. Historian Irving Leibowitz later wrote, “In the rural counties, from the gently undulating prairies of northeastern Indiana to the impoverished hill farms of southern Indiana, more than half the citizens were members of the Klan … Nearly 500,000 Hoosiers, in white robes and hoods, burned their fiery crosses almost nightly to strike fear in the hearts of their neighbors.” Stephenson quickly became a millionaire by marketing what one writer later called “a hysteria of belonging.” He dressed like a banker, in tailored suits, and traveled with bodyguards. Tens of thousands of white Protestant Hoosiers bought Klan memberships for between $10 and $25, of which Stephenson pocketed $4. White robes and peaked hats went for $6 a set, of which Stephenson kept $4.25.

A nighttime Muncie, Indiana, Ku Klux Klan rally, sixty miles northeast of Indianapolis, in 1922, a time when nearly one of every three white males was a Klansman. (Ball State University, Archives and Special Collections)

Citizens of Marion, Indiana, kneel in prayer at a Klan rally, with burning cross visible behind altar. (Ball State University, Archives and Special Collections)

Four Muncie Camelias, as “auxiliary” female Klan members were known, are shown without their veils in 1924. (Ball State University, Archives and Special Collections)

Within eighteen months, D. C. Stephenson had raked in more than $2 million—by peddling fear. In 1923, he had been appointed Grand Dragon (state leader) of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana and head of recruiting for seven other states. “I’m a nobody from nowhere, really,” Stephenson liked to say. “But I’ve got the brains. I’m going to be the biggest man in the United States.”

Overnight, common people—responsible parents, good neighbors, community leaders—pulled hoods over their heads and fanned out in mobs under the cover of darkness to terrorize the homes and workplaces of blacks, Jews, and Catholics. Crosses soaked in kerosene blazed on hillsides. Billboards reading NIGGER, DON’T LET THE SUN SET ON YOU HERE cast long shadows at many Indiana town lines.

On primary election day in 1922, the Klan ran a motorcade through Frog Island, firing revolvers into the air to pin citizens indoors so they wouldn’t go out to vote. In 1924, Ed Jackson, a Republican who had campaigned from the backseat of Stephenson’s Cadillac, was elected governor of Indiana by a landslide. The voters also swept in dozens of Klan-friendly legislators, prosecutors, judges, mayors, and local community leaders throughout Indiana.

Shortly after the 1924 elections, Stephenson sat back in his grand mansion in the Irvington neighborhood of Indianapolis and summed up all he had accomplished with a single sentence: “I am the law in Indiana,” he crowed.

It was all too true.

* * *

In the early 1920s, the Klan-influenced Indianapolis school board turned its attention to public education. For decades, black and white students had studied together in the city’s elementary, junior high, and high schools. It hadn’t been perfect—black students often sat clumped together at the back of the classroom, and team sports and club activities were segregated. But to a degree it worked, and black students were able to get a decent education in the city’s public schools.

At the height of the Klan years, there were eight hundred African American high school students attending the city’s four high schools. White neighborhood groups howled for segregated schools. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce petitioned the school board in 1922 for funds to build a “separate, modern, completely equipped, and adequate high school building for colored students.” Blacks contracted tuberculosis more frequently than whites, some people claimed, so a separate school was needed to quarantine black students and head off a public health crisis.

That December, the school board, citing the “laudable desire of Negroes for a high school education,” recommended construction of a new blacks-only high school that would encourage “self-reliance,” “initiative,” and “good citizenship.”

The vote was unanimous, 4–0. Most black parents objected. They understood that the real point of an all-black school was to separate students and their teachers by race. It was a hateful, isolating act.

In July 1924, the school board paid $3,400 for a lot facing Twelfth Street near West Street as the site for the proposed school. Black leaders sued to stop construction, but it was no use. The legal actions were only able to stop the school board from naming the new high school Thomas Jefferson High. Community leaders named it themselves after Crispus Attucks, a black seaman who was killed by British soldiers in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War.

The Recorder’s front-page coverage of the opening of Crispus Attucks is surrounded by evidence of the discrimination and violence faced by the city’s African American community. (Indianapolis Recorder)

Crispus Attucks: First to Defy, First to Die

An 1850s portrait of the Boston Massacre by William L. Champney features the mortally wounded Crispus Attucks in the center. (Boston Athenæum)

In 1770, Crispus Attucks was the first man to die in what became known as the Boston Massacre—an encounter between a group of American protesters and British soldiers that became a rallying cry used by patriots such as Paul Revere to encourage rebellion against the British authorities. Attucks’s father was believed to be from Africa, and his mother was a Native American. As a slave boy, Attucks acquired skill in buying and selling cattle on the Framingham, Massachusetts, farm where he lived.

At the age of twenty-seven, Attucks escaped enslavement. Over the next twenty years he worked as a sailor on a whaling crew and as a ropemaker in Boston. He was in Boston as tensions between the British colonial government and American revolutionaries intensified. A fight between Boston ropemakers and three British soldiers erupted on Friday, March 2, 1770, setting the stage for a second round the following Monday night. Then a group of about thirty tradesmen taunted a British guard at the customhouse, hurling snowballs, sticks, and insults. Seven other redcoats rushed to the guard’s rescue and opened fire. Crispus Attucks was one of five men killed—although later in court the soldiers (defended by future American president John Adams) were acquitted of the charge of murder, with Attucks portrayed as having initiated the fight, “with one hand [taking] hold of a bayonet, and with the other [knocking] the man down.”

Initially regarded by some as members of “a motley rabble,” Attucks and the other victims became symbols of the fight for liberty. Citizens of Boston observed the anniversary of the Boston Massacre in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. Crispus Attucks’s legend as a black hero grew. He became known as “the first to defy, the first to die.”

On the morning of September 12, 1927, the doors to Indianapolis’s Crispus Attucks High School swung open. A three-story redbrick building set in the northwest corner of Frog Island, it was too small from day one. A total of 1,385 students, many of them children from other neighborhoods uprooted from their local schools, squeezed through the columned arches at the school’s front door and made their way toward their classrooms. It was nearly double the turnout expected by city school officials.

Across the state, the Klan’s influence had faded a bit by 1927, largely because D. C. Stephenson had two years earlier been convicted of kidnapping, raping, mutilating, and murdering his secretary, an Indianapolis woman named Madge Oberholtzer. “Ed Jackson’ll pardon me,” Stephenson said, grinning, as they led him away. Twenty-five years later another governor did grant Stephenson parole, on the condition that the sun never set on him again in Indiana.

But there were still enough Klansmen around for a show of muscle on the first day of school at Attucks. In a history of the school, the Indianapolis Star wrote years later that “parades of masked Klansmen were organized. One parade on Washington Street, consisting of row after row of masked Klansmen marching slowly to the beat of muffled drums, took an hour to pass.”

Crispus Attucks High School just after it opened in 1927. Though it was underfunded and overcrowded, it was excellent from the first day. (Bass Photo Co. Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

It was in this atmosphere that the black children of Indianapolis opened their books in their new home.

* * *

Fifteen years later, in 1942, Mazell Robertson, with Bailey Jr., Henry, and Oscar, fresh from Tennessee, turned up on Aunt Inez’s porch to start their lives anew in a northern city. When daylight arrived, they would discover that they had landed in a slum in a city widely known as “the South of the North.”

The Robertsons did not yet know the rules that governed life on Indianapolis’s near West Side, nor were they aware of all the hateful groundwork that the Klan-influenced politicians had laid a generation before to make black residents feel rejected and inferior. Neither did they know of a school called Crispus Attucks, or of the school’s basketball coach Ray Crowe, or of the historic contribution to Indiana these brothers would make through a game called basketball.

They didn’t know it yet, but their day was coming.

Text copyright © 2018 by Phillip Hoose