2024 All-Star

Indianapolis museum honors Oscar Robertson, Black Hoosiers who made history

Crispus Attucks Museum tells the story of Oscar Robertson's legendary high school team and Indiana's Black history.

NBA legend Oscar Robertson poses for a photo outside Crispus Attucks High School. (Photo via Robert Chester)

The NBA’s premier event returns to Indianapolis for the first time in 39 years for the 73rd edition of NBA All-Star. While the city holds a rich history of basketball triumphs, it’s a complex history of a community that was once deeply divided over race and segregation. 

The Crispus Attucks Museum, which is attached to the Indianapolis Public School’s Crispus Attucks High, documents it all. From the unprecedented achievements of NBA legend Oscar Robertson to the newest exhibit on the history of lynching in America, each gallery tells a story of the Black experience in Indianapolis and the country. 

The museum, located at 1140 Doctor M.L.K. Jr. St., is open Tuesday-Sunday

The NBA and Indiana Pacers organization are paying homage ahead of All-Star weekend, unveiling plans for an upcoming statue of Robertson to be installed in front of Crispus Attucks.

“We are thrilled to join the Pacers in commissioning a statue in recognition of Oscar’s extraordinary impact on the game and his hometown,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said.

Each element of the statue will be catered to his Indiana roots and illustrious basketball career. Robertson, the first high school player from Indianapolis to be named an NBA All-Star in 1961, selected the image for the 11-foot-5 statue. The metal will come from Cincinnati, where Robertson attended college and started his professional career with the Cincinnati Royals (now Sacramento Kings).

A smaller replica of the statue will be on display throughout All-Star weekend. 

In March, author Jack McCallum will release his new book, “The Real Hoosiers: Crispus Attucks High School, Oscar Robertson, and the Hidden History of Hoops.” 

Breaking barriers through basketball

Before Robertson became an NBA legend, he and his high school basketball team at Crispus Attucks became the first all-Black school in the nation to win a state championship in 1955. Led by Robertson and coach Ray Crowe, who had developed a more free style of basketball that helped pioneer the modern game, the Tigers claimed their second championship in 1956 to secure back-to-back state titles. 

Before that, during Robertson’s sophomore season in 1954, the Crispus Attucks team reached the state quarterfinals where they lost to future state champions Milan, an all-white team that is the subject of the popular basketball drama film “Hoosiers.”

Nearly 70 years later, the unrivaled story of Indiana’s 1955 state title game has yet to be recognized on that same Hollywood scale. NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner once examined why it should be.

The Crispus Attucks Museum tells a story of the Black experience in Indianapolis and the country. (Photo via Robert Chester)

Numerous changes have transformed Crispus Attucks High since Robertson attended. It faced closure at one point and solely operated as a middle school for years. The downsizing in student enrollment left underutilized space throughout the building, which sparked the idea of a museum.

Historian Robert Chester and the Indianapolis community sought to highlight the legacy of the first all-Black high school in the state of Indiana and the first all-Black high school in America to win a state championship. 

We are now in the 26th year into this wonderful experience of sharing the history, legacy and integrity of the first all-Black high school in the state,” Chester said.

Curating the museum 

To understand the essence of the Crispus Attucks Museum, it’s important to know the history that forced the school into existence.

In the early 1920s, the Indianapolis School Board announced the need for a segregated high school for Black students, with much pressure coming from the state’s Ku Klux Klan.

The School Board initially planned to name the institution after Thomas Jefferson — former United States president and slave owner — but the Black community resisted. In 1927, the school was built and named in honor of Crispus Attucks, the first person killed by British troops in the Boston Massacre in 1770. 

“The first gallery of the museum tells the story of the high school and the early Black community, but entering the museum, you see the representation of Crispus Attucks, the man,” Chester said.

The museum opened in 1998 inside the school’s former auxiliary gymnasium. In 2006, the school became a high school again after 20 years of serving students at the junior high and middle school level. Not only is the museum embedded into one of the most historic high schools in the country, but it’s also the only museum in the country attached to a functioning public high school.

A sculpture of Crispus Attucks is located in the museum. (Photo via Samantha Johnson/WTHR-TV)

Nearly 100% of items inside the museum are donated by members of the community and the general public. Chester, who has spent his life “growing gray” in this museum, wants to tell the story of not just the basketball experience, but the overall Black experience in Indianapolis. 

He recalls one particular interaction with a group of elderly white men visiting the museum and discussing the adversity Robertson and his team dealt with. “One of the gentlemen said, ‘We didn’t like you all. We never rooted for you all. We rooted for everyone against you all.’”

In other words, Chester says, “They never liked Black people.”

Many of the all-white teams playing against Crispus Attucks in the 1950s felt the same way. They mocked the Tigers because of their rickety bus and faded uniforms, or the fact their socks and sneakers didn’t match. They heckled, laughed and made all sorts of gestures that were akin to the time. 

“‘That was fun until you guys got us out on the court,’” Chester recalls the visitor saying. “‘You all could have lashed out, but you didn’t. You just kept it sportsmanlike on the court.’” 

That interaction, among countless others, serves as a reminder to Chester about the invaluable history the museum holds and why the story of Robertson and the 1955 team must be preserved.

“(It went from) one of America’s first, highly despised and rejected high schools,” he said, “to America’s most celebrated high school today.”

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Michaela Gilmer is a producer for NBA.com.

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