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The March Madness basketball tournament is well underway, and while most of Indiana is trying to salvage busted brackets, we at the Indiana Historical Bureau have been thinking about some Indiana basketball highlights. Crispus Attucks High School, a high school in Indianapolis that remained segregated until the 1970s, won the state basketball championship in 1955 and 1956. By doing so, they became the first all-black team in the nation to win a state high school basketball title. The sport became representative of African Americans’ ongoing struggle for civil rights, highlighting the inequalities they faced but also establishing a new point of unity between blacks and whites in Indianapolis.
Crispus Attucks High School opened in the fall of 1927, and the faculty and staff of Attucks (all African Americans themselves) worked hard to give their students the best possible education, in spite of the overcrowding and lack of funds that immediately plagued the school. In the 1930s and 1940s, they focused on developing sports programs that could rival the programs in white schools. Because Attucks was an all-black school, the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) denied it membership until 1942, leaving the Attucks basketball team to compete with other segregated schools in the state and nearby states.
In the 1950s, the Attucks team really made its mark on state basketball. Despite some suspicious officiating, Attucks attracted attention with a dramatic down-t0-the-buzzer win against Anderson High School in the 1951 regional championship game. For the rest of that year’s tournament, the Indianapolis Recorder, the city’s black newspaper, continued to express the unwavering enthusiasm it had always shown the team. The white newspapers in Indianapolis and their readership, wary at first of supporting an all-black team, threw their support behind Attucks at last. Attucks went on to lose the state final that year; aware that they were being viewed as representatives of black Indianapolis and that the referees would be looking for opportunities to call fouls, the team played a safe, gentlemanly game, and it cost them the title. Nevertheless, support for Attucks mounted. Before Attucks, an Indianapolis team had never won the championship; Attucks consistently made the final four between 1951 and 1957, and they would take the state title twice in as many years.
The 1954-1955 season belonged to Attucks. The Crispus Attucks Tigers went up against Gary Roosevelt in the final; this time, both were all-black teams, so racial prejudice on the part of the officials was not a factor. Led by the great Oscar Robertson, Attucks defeated Roosevelt 97-74. The next year they won again, and this time they finished the season undefeated. Both times, the victorious team piled on a fire truck and drove from Butler Fieldhouse to Monument Circle along streets lined with blacks and whites alike. The truck took a single lap around the monument instead of the traditional longer parade route and then returned the team to the black neighborhood to celebrate. The next week, black and white students went back to school at segregated institutions.
[image missing] Collage of photos from Attucks’s first winning season, featured in the 1955 Crispus Attucks yearbook. Image courtesy of Crispus Attucks Museum and IUPUI Digital Collections.
Never let it be said that basketball is “just a sport.” For the city of Indianapolis, high school basketball was a representation of the slow, difficult dismantling of an unjust system designed to separate African Americans from whites. Officially and legally, a couple of basketball tournaments didn’t change anything: Attucks remained segregated until the early 1970s, long after the state of Indiana purported to end school segregation and nearly twenty years after the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education ruled such segregation unconstitutional. But when the Crispus Attucks Tigers became Indianapolis’s team, the city was unified in spirit for just a little while.