In a December meeting in 1941, Mr. H.C. Perrin of Shaw University and then president of the CIAA recommended to the body that the conference have a basketball tournament. The CIAA membership consisted of 16 institutions: Bluefield State College, Delaware State College, Hampton Institute, Howard University, Lincoln University (Pa.), Morgan State College, North Carolina A&T College, North Carolina College, Saint Augustine’s College, Saint Paul’s College, Shaw University, Johnson C. Smith University, Virginia State College, Virginia Union University, West Virginia State University and Winston-Salem Teacher’s College. Thus, the crowning of a true champion was very difficult.
After six years of doubts, discussion and planning, Talmadge Hill of Morgan State College, John McLendon of North Carolina College, John Burr of Howard University and Harry Jefferson of Virginia State College, with a $500 budget, guided the tournament idea and it made its debut on March 6, 1946 in the Washington, DC Turner’s Arena.
With the nation still occupied with readjusting an economy, some 3,000 fans crowded through the turnstiles to witness Lincoln (Pa.), Virginia Union, Morgan State, West Virginia State, North Carolina, Winston-Salem Teachers, Johnson C. Smith and Virginia State participate in the CIAA’s first championship tournament. It is said that fans were literally hanging from the rafters of the 2,000 seat arena. The top eight teams were determined by the Dickinson Rating System (which rated teams according to the strength of schedule).
The Lincoln University Lions finished the season undefeated and received the No. 1 seed. Virginia Union finished second with Morgan State and West Virginia State drawing the third and fourth seeded positions, respectively. North Carolina College was fifth and Winston-Salem Teachers was seeded sixth. Virginia State and Delaware State finished in a tie for eighth place in the standings, with a 4-9 record. Delaware’s Tank Conrad lost the decisive coin flip to Virginia State’s Harry Jefferson.
The first round draw on Thursday was as follows: West Virginia State met North Carolina College at 3 p.m. Morgan State played J.C. Smith at 4:30 and Virginia Union squared off against Virginia State at 8 p.m. Lincoln (Pa.), the top seed, battled Winston-Salem TC at 9:30 p.m. for the night cap.
The survivors of this elimination round played the semi-finals on Friday with the first game beginning at 8 p.m. On Saturday night, the two teams losing in the semi-finals played the 2 p.m. consolation game as a preliminary to the finals. The championship game tipped at 3:30 p.m.
North Carolina College defeated West Virginia State in the first round 60 to 56. The Eagles shocked the Lions of Lincoln (Pa.) in the second round 55-46 to reach the championship game.
Virginia Union topped Virginia State 45-42 in the first round and Morgan State 42-37 on Friday night.
Morgan State defeated Lincoln (Pa.) in the consolation game 43-37 for the third place trophy.
The great spectacle of the championship game went into three overtime periods with North Carolina [Central] upsetting Virginia Union 64 to 56. Tournament trophies were awarded by the Capital Classic, Inc., the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, and the Journal and Guide.
The tournament was then held annually at Turner’s Arena until 1949, when it was moved to Washington’s Uline Arena. In 1952, the tournament moved to its third home, this time the million dollar Edward P. Hurt Gymnasium at Morgan State College in Baltimore, Md.
Because of the increasing spectator demand, the scene shifted again, this time to the 5,000-seat McDougald Gymnasium at North Carolina College in Durham, NC. The NCC facility, at the time, enjoyed the reputation of being the finest facilities in the South.
The tournament really shifted into the ear of “the super crowds” in 1960 when it was moved to the spacious Greensboro (N.C.) War Memorial Coliseum. The next three tournaments were held in the Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C., but the sponsors returned the playoffs to Greensboro in 1964 until 1976.
The tournament enjoyed a long stint in Virginia, from 1976-1993 with 10 of the 18 years in Norfolk, Virginia’s Scope Arena.
In 1975, the women’s basketball tournament was added to the slate, first in separate arenas but eventually merging into one venue in the 1990’s.
In 2006, the CIAA moved the tournament to Charlotte, NC, where it enjoyed 15 years of unprecedented growth. The tournament ranks among the top three annual college basketball events, in the same company as the ACC Tournament and NCAA Final Four.
Throughout its 76-year history, the CIAA tournament has been a showcase for future NBA players, such as Sam Jones, Earl Monroe, Cleo Hill, Ronald Murray, Charles Oakley, and Ben Wallace, along with future Hall of Famers, NCAA Champions and Players of the Year as well as legendary coaches, including John B. McLendon, Clarence “Big House” Gaines and Bobby Vaughan.
The CIAA Tournament has been a training ground for the development of black college basketball officials and athletic administrators. It has provided opportunities for black sport media, journalists, entertainers and even entrepreneurs.
The economic impact of the CIAA Tournament is undeniable. Its attraction is a combination of competitive basketball, family reunions, alumni gathering and social events that have has generated over $650 million for the state of NC since its inception. The success of the tournament, with support of alumni, fans and sponsors, has provided the conference the ability to provide scholarship dollars to the member institutions. The tournament continues growing its legacy in a new host city in 2021, returning to Baltimore, Maryland for the first time since 1952.
In addition to a great outstanding basketball on the court, the tournament is a social event attracting fans from across the country. From a $500 investment to a multimillion-dollar enterprise, the CIAA Tournament founders would be proud to see its growth over the years.