Harlem Globetrotters faced racism for years in U.S.

Meadowlark Lemon of the Harlem Globetrotters offers a

Meadowlark Lemon of the Harlem Globetrotters offers a pretzel to a referee during a game at Madison Square Garden. (February 18, 1978) (Credit: AP)

In the 1920s, they were known as the Savoy Big Five, after a famous ballroom on the south side of Chicago. Founder Abe Saperstein renamed them the Harlem Globetrotters and they became the most famous basketball team in the world.

The team that almost always won had a huge following around the globe, but in the United States, even after the civil rights movement, the Globetrotters endured indignities solely because of their skin color.

"Their only acceptance came on the court," said Eloise Saperstein, daughter of the late owner. "My father wanted to make a place in this world for his players. People didn't realize how horrible the Jim Crow laws were.''

The early Globetrotters stood tall against the virulent racism they faced in many parts of the country. "I speak to all of our players,'' said Tex Harrison, 77, a Globetrotter for 18 years who still is a consultant for the team. "I tell them the trials and tribulations. They need to know what it took to get where we are today.''

Until the 1970s, players were denied entry to many hotels and restaurants. Even water fountains were off limits.

Restrooms also were segregated, and blacks had to deal with unsanitary conditions. "You had to learn not to drink too much water,'' 77-year-old Hall of Fame Globetrotter George "Meadowlark'' Lemon said.

Eloise Saperstein added that despite being white, "when I traveled with the players, people would tell me, 'Go drink water with your own.' ''

A child in the early 1950s, she often was asked by the players to buy groceries from stores catering only to whites. "I said, 'It's dark out.' They said, 'But we have to eat.' ''

In other countries, Harrison said, "We were treated like great athletes,'' but in the United States, "local promoters asked people in the neighborhood if they would take in some of the Globetrotters. It was horrible.''

Players often had to bunk together in unheated quarters.

One particular incident is etched in Harrison's memory. "Jacksonville, 1957,'' he said. "We went to this hotel; they wouldn't let us in. We went to a restaurant and they said, 'We can't serve you here.' So we went back across the [other side of the] track. Later, we found out that a performing chimpanzee was in town, sponsored by a bowling alley. That chimpanzee was allowed into the hotel and given a big suite. Here we were, human beings, and we couldn't get into the hotel or get anything to eat. But 18,000 people came to watch us play and 98 percent of that audience was white.''

To which Lemon said, "They didn't see color, they saw joy.''

Children at the games would seek autographs. "They didn't have a mind built on segregation,'' Harrison said. "They had not yet learned or been taught how to hate.''

There were exceptions. "I've seen kids walk up to black players, put his fingers on his skin and say, 'Daddy, it didn't come off,' '' Harrison said. "I'd say to myself, 'He's a kid. He's only going on what he heard.' ''

Said Lemon: "Most other guys couldn't handle it. There was a different kind of toughness, going about your business, staying on your side of the street.''

Marques Haynes, 83, the first Globetrotter inducted into the Hall of Fame, said: "There were ignorant decisions that people made. A lot of whites were not for what was going on in those years, but they were in a position where they could not identify themselves as saying it was wrong.''

Fred "Curly'' Neal added: "That's the way the world was, but I didn't think that's the way the world was supposed to be . . . We just tried to do things in the proper way and hope the world would be right in the future.''

Neal, 67, whose career spanned from 1963-85, witnessed some of that change.

Through decades of barnstorming, the Globetrotters persevered. Abe Saperstein preached tolerance.

"He had [Olympian] Jesse Owens travel with us at times,'' Harrison said. "He kept us with the right people. Bits that were demeaning to blacks were taken out. We described the term as something we didn't want to do as being 'too Amos and Andy.' ''

Said Lemon: "Abe said something that really turned me around. I saw some white players eating in a restaurant where I couldn't go, and Abe probably saw the pain in my face. He said, 'I know what you are going through.' As a Jewish man, he would know that because there was enough prejudice to go around. He said, 'Med, just go out and make them laugh.' ''

And since 1926, that has been the Globetrotters' credo.

"There were challenges we had to overcome,'' Lemon said. "I would do it again for the experience. We all became better people for it.''

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