Into the Vertical: Basketball, Urbanization, and African American Culture in Early-Twentieth-Century America

Abstract: Verticality was an important aspect of urban African American life in the early twentieth century. In this paper, the term stands for three different but entangled concepts of verticality: vertical city planning, vertical social mobility, and vertical movement. Basketball, as an expression of urban African American culture, serves as a connecting link between these three different notions of verticality, incorporating facets of all of them. Firstly, due to its spatial adaptability and upright dimension, basketball thrived in the confined space of the inner city where traditional American team sports like baseball or football faded. Secondly, the founding of athletic clubs and the organization of basketball-and-dance events did not only strengthen African American communities by instilling black pride and a new urban identity, but also promoted hope for upward social mobility. Thirdly, basketball quickly became entwined with other aspects of African American culture, primarily dances that, like the Lindy Hop with its jumping motions, also involved a vertical aspect.

The 1890s were the decade that saw the end of horizontal America. Vertical America was on the rise. The city of Chicago, birthplace of the skyscraper, played a decisive role in this spatial shift of the imagined American landscape. In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner proclaimed his influential frontier thesis at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago. According to his thesis, the Anglo-Saxon settlers’ specifically American character was formed through the cathartic experience at the frontier where civilization and wilderness clashed (293). On the same occasion, Turner also noted that the official closing of the frontier by the Superintendent for the Census of 1890 had put an end to expansionist American history of old (1). In accordance with Turner’s thesis, new immigrants and African Americans moving North in search of a better life were thus almost automatically barred from this horizontal version of Americanization. The new immigrants’ first American experience, as well as the African Americans’ coming-to-terms with the nation they had been held bondage in for generations, primarily took place in the big city and not in the Wild West or in the rural South. To them, the city of turn-of-the-century America had become the new, vertical frontier.

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