Worthy of Promotion

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.                                                            

Photo courtesy of: Douglas County Historical Society Collection, Watkins Community Museum of History

Lawrence Promoters. Photo courtesy of: Douglas County Historical Society Collection, Watkins Community Museum of History

Many sports rivalries burn so bright that players on opposing teams can’t imagine sharing words with a rival player, let alone a meal.

But that’s just what players on The Promoters, the entirely African American high school basketball team that played in Lawrence between the 1920s and 1950, had to do during away games, since many local restaurants wouldn’t serve black diners.

According to interviews collected by the Lawrence/Douglas County African American Oral History Centennial Project, players would “always make sure one of the parents would feed us….That’s where we would eat, in the parents’ houses.”

It was just one challenge that Promoters players faced. There weren’t enough black students in the high school to make up a full roster, so the Promoters had to use junior high students to round out the team. The high school wouldn’t allow black students to practice on their courts during the day, and if white students wanted the court during the Promoters’ designated hours of 7 to 9 p.m., the Promoters had to leave. African American players couldn’t use the school’s basketballs.

They weren’t even allowed to have an “L” (for Lawrence) on their jerseys as white teams could. In fact, their jerseys didn’t even feature their actual team name. Instead of “Promoters,” the team’s white and gold jerseys proclaimed them “Oilers.”

Despite those challenges, the Promoters played against other African American teams in the Lawrence and Kansas City area for more than two decades, even winning a few championships along the way. They tied for first place in their league in 1936 and 1938 before becoming sole league champions in 1940.

The Promoters broke up in 1950 when Lawrence’s high school basketball team, the Lawrence Lions, was integrated. The school itself was already integrated, and segregation in other sports had ended in previous years. According to former Promoters players, the basketball team held out until 1950 because of the degree of physical closeness between black and white players; sports like track had long been integrated, they said, because “You didn’t touch nobody in that game.”

The Promoters players and coaches who took the court for over 20 years left behind a lasting legacy of excellence in the face of racism and tremendous odds.

To learn more about the history of the Lawrence Promoters, mark your calendars for a panel discussion at the Watkins Community Museum of History on April 23rd at 7:00pm. KU American Studies professor William Tuttle will moderate. This discussion is a part of “Of Two Minds: The Conventional and Unconventional Sides of Lawrence Sports,” a series of public events. For more information, click here.