This story was originally published by UNC Media Hub on Nov. 30. Story by PJ Morales.

The year was 1937, and the Bennett College Belles of Greensboro, N.C., were arguably the greatest women’s college basketball team in America. 

The Belles had just finished yet another undefeated season en route to clinching their fifth North Carolina state title of the decade. For an all-Black, all-women teacher’s college that boasted just 10 total enrolled students in 1926, varsity women’s basketball had put the Belles in the national spotlight. An article after the 1937 season in the Chicago Defender declared the Belles, “the nation’s best female cage team.” 

Undefeated runs, bouts against the country’s best professional team and a comportment that was fiercely competitive on the court and respectful off it had come to define the ever-victorious, ever-resilient ladies of Bennett College.  

But a brewing cultural clash about the role of women in sports was about to change all that.  

Five years after they were proclaimed the nation’s very best, it was over. In 1942, the varsity women’s basketball team at Bennett was shut down. 

“We were ladies, too,” Bennett forward Ruth Glover Mullen said many years later. “We just played basketball like boys.” 

In 1942, the varsity women’s basketball team at Bennett College was shut down, never to return to the heights it once reached. Attitudes about women were changing, and the Belles weren’t a part of that change. 

‘Being athletic and being feminine…’

For almost as long as basketball has existed, Black educators have used the sport as a way of not only instilling the virtues of sport into their players, but for advancing the cause of Black people in the face of racist laws and a racist society. 

Edwin Bancroft Henderson, a 2013 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee who is considered both the “Father of Black Basketball,” introduced the sport to his home city of Washington, D.C., in 1907 after learning it as a student at Harvard.  

To him, in an era of Jim Crow that also produced Black athletes like Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, basketball was not just a way of giving Black kids a way to play organized sports in a largely-segregated athletic landscape, but a way to create greater avenues to equality by dazzling every American with displays of athletic excellence. 

For Black women hoping to enter athletics, though, the biases of race and class were often compounded with those of gender. 

As elite Black colleges began to discontinue women’s intercollegiate competition throughout the 20s and 30s, Bennett stood out as a place where womanhood and athletics went hand-in-hand. 

“You could be rough and tumble off the basketball court and present yourself differently on it, but that didn’t mean you were dainty or frail,” said Rita Liberti, a professor at California State University East Bay and the nation’s foremost expert on the Belles of the 30s. “For them, being a lady meant being independent, it meant taking care of yourself… being athletic and being feminine weren’t seen as opposition, they were seen as one.” 

Bennett began taking part in intercollegiate basketball competitions during the 1928-29 school year. It was part of a push by Bennett’s president, Dr. David Jones, to expand the school’s name and reputation. Up from 10 students in 1926, Jones increased the school’s enrollment to nearly 140 students by 1930, using basketball as a centerpiece to create a culture of camaraderie on campus. 

In a joint interview in 2003, Ruth Glover Mullen and one of her teammates, guard Almaleta Moore, remembered Jones as a strict-yet-encouraging leader. Whether it was enforcing dress code standards or maintaining a prim-and-proper conduct in life, Jones used tough love to push the Bennett “sisters,” as they referred to each other, to be the best individuals they could be. 

For Jones, if you went to the store, you wore nice clothes and kept a pocketbook with you. You spoke respectfully and presented yourself well, all in an effort to be treated with the same respect in return. 

“It wasn’t just a matter of being rigid about the patterns that were set,” Moore said. “In other words, he felt this would be helpful to you in your development as an individual, and that there were certain standards that he felt would be useful — such things, little things — that people might not understand if you hadn’t been in the South at the time that we were there.” 

 Jones was also one of the basketball team’s biggest fans, cheering loudly from the sidelines. Jones resented “the idea that the woman’s place is in the home,” as well as any discussions that the achievements of women in fields like science and politics were made “only because of superior qualifications and because of compensatory effort on the part of the so-called weaker sex.” 

Basketball was one way that Bennett College rejected those ideas. But no matter how good the players were or how successful the team was, some things were more important. 

“I can recall one situation, we had played basketball away from home on a Saturday night,” Glover Mullen said. “And we went to Vespers the next Sunday, and there were a lot of people who were not there. (Jones) spoke up, and I was in my seat, and he spoke up about it and said, ‘Here’s a basketball player who was up last night and played basketball, and she’s in her seat!’” 

Granted, it was hard not to be excited about Bennett College basketball. As Francis Jones, Jones’ daughter and a Bennett student at the time said, it was hard not to love basketball when “we beat everybody.” 

A day in the life of a Bennett basketball player

A day in the life of a Bennett women’s basketball player was a long one. The day was filled with classes and then study hall until around 9 p.m. Only after study hall were the players allowed to make their way to the gymnasium for two hours of practice. 

To Moore, practices “were a privilege because we could get out of the dormitory that time of night.” But practices were just as stringent as school life. 

Moore and Glover played under coach William J. Trent, who would later go on to serve in the Roosevelt administration and as the head of the United Negro College Fund. And while he was also an economics teacher at Bennett that both Glover and Moore remembered as a “wonderful person,” he was not to be messed with in the gym. 

On the Bennett College Belles, and especially on Trent’s team, nobody was the singular star, and any show of disrespect meant a benching. 

“In practice or in games, if you in any way showed any sign of not following instructions and so forth, he would bench you,” Glover said. “He would sit you down for a while until you would straighten yourself out. Then he would let you play.” 

Both players credited the team’s emphasis on teamwork as one of the keys to their success. Another significant factor, in their eyes, was that they practiced and scrimmaged against local boys’ teams, including against the team from Dudley High School, the first Black high school in Guilford County.  

“The boys made us play a little harder and faster, and that really produced a good team,” Glover said. 

“As far as the use of your hands, it was amazing,” Moore elaborated. “On many occasions, girls’ hands weren’t quite large enough to hold the ball the way they would hold them. The idea of being able to use one hand to control the ball was not usually typical for women. And so learning to control the ball when you’re playing against boys really was good experience for us.” 

 And the team’s explosive talent and hard work in practice made itself apparent. 

Playing for the Belles from 1934 to 1937, Ruth Glover Mullen was the team’s shooter. She was especially well-versed at shooting from distance, touting her ability to stand at half court and drain her shot, an ability she said she developed in high school by attempting shots over the rafters and into the basket. 

“I could tell exactly when that ball left my hand whether it was the right shot or not, whether it was going or not,” Mullen said. “It’s a feel that you just have.” 

Meanwhile, Moore shined defensively, saying that whenever someone on the opposition got hot, Trent used to put her in the game and tell her: “Go in there, Amie, and stop her!” She recalled an instance playing against Shaw University and their star player, Frazier Creecy, who would dash straight at defenders to intimidate them. When Creecy dashed at Moore, Moore didn’t move a muscle and took it head-on. 

“They had to pick her up off the ground,” Moore laughed. 

Glover’s scoring and Moore’s stout defending, alongside center Lucille Townsend, were critical in Bennett’s domination of the North Carolina scene, going 24-0 against high school, college and community teams throughout the 1934 and 1935 seasons. The Belles never played against any women’s teams from nearby white colleges, with Moore remarking that “they were little Southern ladies, that was too rough for them.” 

Their only losses came against the toughest competition they ever faced, when the Philadelphia Tribune’s women’s barnstorming team came to play a three-game series against Bennett, led by future Naismith Hall of Fame player Ora Washington. 

Though Bennett gave the Tribunes strong competition before a mixed-race crowd of more than 1,000 spectators, it was a series they would wind up losing. But the talent the Belles had shined through — Glover was invited to play professionally for the Tribunes, but turned it down. 

“They wanted me to join them, but my mother said no to that,” Glover recalled. “She said for me to stay in college…. She wanted me to finish college. She didn’t want me to experience that kind of life.” 

Even at the height of Bennett’s success, the forces that would shut down the Belles were already at work.  

How national orgs discouraged female college sports

Starting in the late 1920s, national organizations began to discourage intercollegiate athletic competitions for women. 

The National Association of College Women (NACW), known today as the National Association of University Women, held a conference in 1929 which came to the decision that “inter-collegiate athletics should not be encouraged with all their undesirable physiological and sociological features.” 

Part of this was also racially motivated. Liberti wrote that, since many white people felt that Black women contributed to “(the) moral degradation with unkempt and uncivilized homes,” homemaking became a core concept in a Black woman’s college education.  

While Bennett largely saw ideals of athleticism and womanhood as going hand in hand, the outside pressure was clear — a 1939 survey showed 25% of black colleges objecting to women participating in intercollegiate sports, while 83% of white colleges were against women participating in varsity athletics. 

“The presidents of women’s colleges are not endeavoring to turn out an army of masculine counterparts,” argued Bennett faculty member Merze Tate. “Neither in the light of rapid historical progress and a sense of humor is there any longer a need to turn out an army of feminists.” 

Instead, the most popular suggestions for women’s sports were those to encourage intramural sports and “non-competitive play activities” through events like play days, where women could supposedly gain all the physical benefits of exercise without “all the harmful effects.” Even Maryrose Reeves Allen, the founder of the women’s physical education department at Howard University, wrote in 1938, “the heavier sports… have no place in a woman’s life: they rob her of her feminine charms and often of her good health.” 

Meanwhile, the Belles just kept winning. The 1936 Bennett team claimed a share of their fourth state title alongside Shaw University, even after the switch to a six-player game hampered some of the players’ abilities. In 1937, they didn’t seem too hampered, though, as they had another undefeated season and won their fifth state title. 

But though Bennett supported intercollegiate hoops until 1941, in 1939, the school joined the Women’s Sports Day Association, founded by Allen a year prior. When Bennett hosted one of those eponymous sports days in November 1940, a group of girls from various other schools mixed in with Bennett and teams were divided up so that “group sportsmanship above the colleges was emphasized” — far from the competitive play that had built the Bennett ladies into the individuals they were. 

By 1942, the school had stopped supporting intercollegiate competition. Today, though there have been attempts to revive the team in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association, there is no varsity women’s basketball at Bennett College. 

“It’s always tied to these broader ideas of what is it appropriate for a woman to be and to do,” said Pamela Grundy, a North Carolina sports historian and the co-author of “Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women’s Basketball.”  

“And when, in times and in places where competitive basketball has meshed with a particular community’s ideas of what women ought to be, it’s been very successful and very popular,” she continued. “And in times and places where that has meshed less effectively, it has gotten less well.” 

Today is an era of high-profile women’s basketball. Women’s college hoops and the WNBA are experiencing record ticket sales and TV numbers. Better yet, stars like Diana Taurasi and Dijonai Carrington are allowed to dress and physically appear however they wish — be it tomboyish or more traditionally feminine — without their appearance being an indicator of their skill as players or on the content of their characters. 

And on the court, the games are physical, intense, exciting, passionate — and more popular than ever. 

A century ago, Bennett College’s Belles played that same game, feeling every same intense emotion, playing every play with that same physicality and spirit. They were becoming the modern women they wished to see in the world, breaking out of what everyone else thought it meant to be a woman. 

The world around them just wasn’t ready for them, and they shut it down. 

“It’s important to know that this stuff doesn’t just go from nothing to everything,” Liberti said. “It’s not linear in that way. And a lot of it, of course, has to do with what’s happening well beyond the court.” 

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