Frank Washington is truly a living legend. Washington, 91, played professional basketball for the legendary New York Renaissance and the world famous Harlem Globetrotters.
He played for the Rens during the 1941–42 season. Then, he served in the U.S. Navy from 1942 to 1945. After the war, Washington, who grew up in Germantown, also played locally with the Washington Bears. In 1946, he started his career with the Globetrotters. He played with the Globetrotters until 1960.
Washington will be recognized as the oldest living player from the Rens at the Ford Freedom Award Program on May 17 in Detroit, Mich. The program is a fundraiser for the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The event celebrates accomplishments in sports as well as other professions. The Rens will be honored with the Ford Freedom Award. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hall of Famer, will receive the Ford Freedom Scholar Award for talent, tenacity and teamwork. Abdul-Jabbar also produced a documentary on the Rens last year.
Washington is a real trailblazer in professional basketball. Like many Black players of his generation, he was good enough to play in the NBA. However, it wasn’t until 1950 that African Americans were given an opportunity to play in the NBA. Today’s superstars can thank people like Washington who made huge contributions to the game.
“I got the call from the Ford Foundation,” Washington said. “It’s something they have every year at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. They have honored judges, educators and lawyers over the years. They honored sports figures, too. I got a call from Howie Evans (sports editor, Amsterdam News). Howie told me they had been looking for me because of my association with the New York Renaissance. They’re going to honor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He did a documentary on the team. As far as I know, I’m the only living person from the New York Renaissance.”
The New York Renaissance and the Harlem Globetrotters were two of the best Black basketball teams during the early years. The Rens were formerly known as the Spartan Braves of Brooklyn. In 1923 they became the Renaissance, named after the great Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem. The team was founded by Robert Douglas, who is regarded as the father of Black basketball.
Washington, a 6-foot-5 center, was very talented player. He has vivid memories of playing for the Rens.
“When I played for the Rens, they were transferring to the Washington Bears,” Washington said. “I played for the Rens in ’41. Then, I went in the service in ’42. I came out in ’45 and played for the Bears. I went to the Globetrotters in ’46.
“A lot of great players with the Rens helped me. In 1941, Zack Clayton and most of the guys who played for the Rens were from Philadelphia like Zack, Tarzan Cooper, Jackie Bethards, John Yancy, John Isaacs, Pop Gates and Jim Usry. John Isaacs and Pop Gates were from New York.
“We played some great basketball. We would have a game and then after the game there would be a dance. That was really big. I remember John Isaacs talking about that. It was good basketball. John Wooden (former UCLA head coach) said the Renaissance was the best team he ever seen. He said people would enjoy them then and enjoy them again today. I believe that.”
Washington spent most of professional career with the Globetrotters. During his playing days with them, he made two movies and went around the world six times.
“I had a good career with the Globetrotters,” he said. “I enjoyed it. If it had not been for the Globetrotters, there would not have been an NBA as we know it. I remember when the NBA started. We played on the card with them. I think this around 1948 or ’49. We would play on the undercard and what would happen every time we would finish playing the stadium would empty out.
“It would be nobody left to see the NBA game. So, what happen in order to get the NBA some exposure, the NBA turned it around. They played the preliminary game to the Globetrotters. That’s how they started getting some exposure.”
“I played some good players like Marques Haynes, Goose Tatum and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton. They could really play the game.”
Washington received a lot of exposure to the game as a youngster. He started playing basketball when he was 15 years old. Washington played at the Wissahickon Boys’ Club near his Germantown home. In addition, he played at new club at 12th and Columbia in North Philadelphia.
He played a lot of basketball at the Christian Street YMCA, 17th and Christian streets. South Philadelphia had a number of playgrounds and recreation centers, where some of the best players came to play on a regular basis.
“Zack Clayton used to take me to the Christian Street Y,” Washington said. “We played at the playground near 17th and Fitzwater streets. In fact, the Rens used to practice at both places. Zack would always have five or six people with him. That way we would get right on the court. We had a good time playing down there.”
After his pro basketball career, Washington moved into another arena. He started working for Pepsi Cola in Philadelphia. He gradually climbed the ladder within the corporation to become the community relations manager. He spent 35 years at Pepsi Cola. He worked with a number of organizations such as OIC of America, Urban League, NAACP, Operation Push, Concerned Black Men and the House of Ujoma. He also supported the Sonny Hill League, The Philadelphia Tribune Person of the Month and the Mobile Tennis program. In 1983, Washington had golf tournament that raised more than $700,000,000 in scholarship money for the United Negro College Fund.
In 1995, he put the finishing touches on a brilliant career in community service with Pepsi Cola. After three decades of providing support to many neighborhood efforts, he decided to retire.
“I wanted make a difference in the community,” Washington said. “I enjoyed working with a lot of people. It was very rewarding for me. It was a lot of work putting different events together, but it was a good experience. We helped a lot of people.”
Washington lives in Roxborough with his wife Barbara C. Merriweather, who he has been married to since 1995. Washington has one living son, Frank Jr., of California. His son Kevin drowned while trying to save a child in Illinois and his daughter Michele died of lupus in 1993 when she was 29 years old. She was a terrific basketball player at the University of Rhode Island. He is the grandfather of three: Jason Washington of Illinois, Dezjoli Washington of California and Zoe Michelle Washington of California.
“I’ve been really blessed over the years,” he said. “I’ve been surrounded by some good people.”
Washington will be honored by some great people in Detroit. He certainly deserves the recognition.