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“Attucks was Ours,” the Championship Team that Broke Barriers

June 28, 2023

Imagine the 1950s — you may fantasize about the sleek cars and dramatic outfits or ponder about how fast life changed post-World War II. Republicans had returned to power and segregation was still practiced in public schools, but as noted in The Indiana Way: A State History, Indiana was not resistant to change, nor would it become stagnant. This historic time was when Crispus Attucks High School would change Indiana basketball forever.

Oscar Robertson cutting down the basketball net after Attucks 1955 victory. IHS, Indianapolis Recorder Collection

In the 1951 basketball season, Attucks was not quiet. The new coach, Ray Crowe, pushed his team to make strides through challenging new opponents to matches previously unthought of and sometimes denied. However, Attucks continued to win, proving themselves worthy of the challenges they issued. The Attucks team that dominated in 1951 only defeated Black basketball teams of Indiana, because segregation of high schools was still prominent. Despite this, they paved the way by proving that sports were more than skill and physical superiority: “courage and the will to win will overcome tremendous odds” (Hoosiers: the fabulous basketball life of Indiana, p. 165). Because of Ray Crowe and the team he led, one day the teams of Indiana would want to play the school that attracted thousands of fans.

The Attucks team rides a fire truck around Monument Circle with celebrating fans watching after the 1956 championship. IHS, Indianapolis Recorder Collection

Although Indiana had already instituted the Indiana School Desegregation Act of 1949, as discussed in James Madison’s, The Indiana Way: A State History, it was in 1954 that the Supreme Court forced change by removing “separate but equal,” which made a new opportunity for the basketball team to make quick strides in the favorite sport of the state in ways never imagined. With graduations, Ray Crowe had to build a new team with rising talent, most notably consisting of Oscar Robertson and Willie Merriweather, for the 1954 team. Attucks fell from the tournament in the semi-state, losing to Milan High School during Milan’s movie-worthy run. Moving forward though, Attucks would win state titles for the next two years and remain undefeated for almost three.

Attucks team posing excitedly for photos after winning its second state title in 1956. IHS Indianapolis Recorder Collection

Crispus Attucks was not only the first Indianapolis team to become state champions, but they were also the first all-Black team to win a state championship in Indiana and the nation. That is the story that people remember; only some will recall the police guarding the players and the motorcade being directed from downtown Indianapolis to where Black fans were celebrating. The racial divide was still strong: “people with dark skin and people with light skin had been kept apart for so long, now had no collective experience of mingling on a large scale in public” (Attucks! Oscar Robertson and the Basketball team that Awakened a City, 137) The team did notice, and later recalled feeling unwanted by their city. But the Black people of Indianapolis cheered because Attucks represented them.

Attucks team with the 1956 Championship trophy and bronze shoes. IHS, Indianapolis Recorder Collection.

In 1956, the Attucks did it again, and an all-Black team won against an all-white team, Lafayette Jefferson. The emotions of the victory show like no other in the images captured in this post. There was no denying it this time: it was no mere fluke nor lack of preparation on the part of the losing team. Attucks had done it again and left some in the state gaping. Their reward for their second championship? A beautiful trophy featuring matching bronzed shoes, Converse All-Stars, of course, from their own feet, one for themselves, one for the trophy, with remembered cheers, and photos to last a lifetime.

To learn more about the history of Indiana Basketball, visit our exhibit, Chuck Taylor All Star, now through January 27, 2025.

Brandon Rouzaud is an Assistant Librarian at the Indiana Historical Society who recently received his MLIS from St. John’s University in Queens, NY. He is a U.S. Navy veteran who aspires to write works of literature to inspire others and create change.

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