As the “world’s greatest dribbler,” Harlem Globetrotter Marques Haynes made many trips to Kansas City in the 1940s and ’50s, but he never got to stay at downtown’s Muehlebach Hotel. “The Muehlebach?” Haynes roars with laughter. “Where did you say you were from, boy?”
“Those were times when we stayed in black-owned facilities or in people’s homes and slept two to a bed,” says Tex Harrison, who has spent more than forty years as a Globetrotter and a coach. “The first white hotel that would take us in was the Townhouse Hotel across the river in Kansas City, Kansas.”
On January 12, the Globetrotters will stop at Kemper Arena to entertain fans with the blend of humor and basketball skill that has mesmerized crowds worldwide since 1927. Kansas City’s neighborhoods remain starkly segregated, but this is a different place from the Globetrotters’ early days, when racial divisions ran through most local institutions and through many other U.S. cities as well.
“Segregation in the ’40s and ’50s forced us to play only other all-black teams in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and other places in the South,” says Haynes, the first Globetrotter elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. Arenas would segregate fans: The white crowd sat in the good seats, and the blacks were directed upstairs. “In Birmingham, Alabama, we would play a game in the afternoon for the whites and another one at night for the blacks,” Haynes says. “I remember one game in Mississippi where the only white person in the gym was the sheriff.”
When the Globetrotters visited Kansas City, only businesses owned by blacks were open to them. “In Kansas City we stayed at the Street Hotel,” says Haynes. “I remember it wasn’t far from the YMCA, where we would walk to for workouts.” The Street was at 18th and Paseo, and its first floor housed the Rose Room restaurant, known throughout the Midwest for fine dining. The likes of Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and Charlie Parker performed in the Blue Room, in the back of [the hotel]. “Everything we needed was right there,” says Haynes.
Don Motley, executive director of Kansas City’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in what’s now the 18th and Vine Historic District, remembers Globetrotters games at Municipal. “Hell, I didn’t miss a game,” Motley says. “Boy, it was something. It was always a sellout.” But overt racism ruled Kansas City. “Guys like you can’t imagine what it was like and what went on in this country back then. Even young black kids today don’t understand how it was,” Motley tells me.
The Globetrotters still travel by bus, but their luxury coaches have little in common with the school buses that carted the ‘Trotters of old. Seats are far apart, allowing players to stretch out during long drives between games. Television sets, coolers and restrooms make the ride more comfortable.
Now Orlando Antigua is breaking a racial barrier as the first Hispanic player on the team’s roster. The 6-foot-7 forward and former University of Pittsburgh star is in his seventh year with the team. “Once Latino families find out that there is someone different like me on the Globetrotters, they bring their kids out to see me play,” he says.
Antigua is very aware of differences in how he and his teammates are treated in towns like Kansas City compared with Globetrotters teams of fifty years ago. Today they stay at plush venues such as the Marriott, Doubletree or Westin. “Whenever we start to complain too much, Tex reminds us of what it used to be like,” Antigua says. “He tells us about having to wait for people to volunteer their homes so the players would have a place to sleep, and then having to enter the homes from the rear and sleep on the floor.”
Though African-American athletes now prosper without camouflaging their skills in sight gags and humorous scripts, the Globetrotters still serve a serious mission: They offer hope that Americans will continue to mature into a people that celebrate their differences rather than exaggerate them.