A ticket to travel

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Marva Towles, left, and Irma Bradford, both of Beloit, became lifelong friends when they played one season for the New York Harlem Chicks barnstorming basketball team. Recently they reminisced about those days of 1959 when they were recruited for the semi-pro team.

For basketball lovers, this could be considered the most exciting time of the year, as March madness casts its spell over teams who play and audiences who watch courts across the country.

In the Stateline Area, the Brodhead Cardinals girls’ team won the regional title March 10 and face Fort Atkinson at East Troy as this is written.

There’s no doubt about it, opportunities in sports for girls and women have come a long way since Title 9 was enacted in the 1970s.

And they’ve come even further since 1959, when Irma Bradford and Marva Towles graduated from high school and went on to play semi-pro basketball with Dempsey Hovland’s barnstorming teams.

Hovland, of the Beloit/Rockton area, recruited players for semi-pro teams.

The two women graduated from high school in 1959: Bradford from Murfreesboro, Tenn. and Towles from Orange, Va.

Both were star basketball players and apparently just what recruiter Dempsey Hovland was seeking for the all black women’s New York Harlem Chicks team.

It was 1959, and teams still were segregated.

“That’s the way it was,” the two women said recently as they reflected on a season of fun, travel and basketball from bygone days.

Upon being notified by her teachers, Bradford talked to her parents about the opportunity as did her teachers, she said.

She graduated in May of ‘59 and by August was in Beloit where other recruits also would come together to form the team.

Towles graduated in June and worked over the summer to save money for a train ticket to get to Beloit. She arrived in September, she recalled.

“This was my way out,” she said of wanting to strike out on her own.

In Beloit, “We stayed at the Hobson Hotel or the Marvin Hotel,” Bradford said. She remembered eating at the Hobson Club or restaurant.

Team practice was done outside, they said.

Later in September, the team of eight girls started traveling.

They all crammed into a station wagon with all their gear and headed for states such as North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington state, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wyoming.

“We stayed in nice hotels; people were really nice to us,” they said.

They also surmised communities were well informed of their coming to town in advance and that they held a certain celebrity status.

The Harlem Chicks would play against men’s teams and provide entertainment as well as skilled basketball playing.

But those skills also would be reined in a bit when they played against the all-white Texas Cowgirls, they said.

Marva, a 5-foot, 11-inch defense player was “called on the carpet” for demonstrating some of those skills and was told to tone it down a bit, Bradford said.

Overall, however, “It was good fun for us and we learned how other people live,” Towles said.

They didn’t get rich, but they did get paid weekly. Room and board were paid for, but they paid for their own food.

They also got a little tired of eating out all their meals, so they bought a hotplate and cooked (pork and beans and hot dogs) in their room sometimes.

Bradford and Towles played one season, then went back home to their respective states. But they had made lasting friendships with each other and other members of the team.

Bradford attended Tennessee State University for a while and then married a resident of Beloit and moved here in 1962. Towles stayed in Virginia briefly then came to Beloit and sought work.

Bradford worked as a secretary at the Salvation Army and at Beloit Corporation. Towles worked at Admiral, Dana, Caterpillar and General Motors.

The best part of that season with the New York Harlem Chicks: “I got to meet a lot of people and got to travel. We stuck together through thick and thin,” Towles said.

“The travel — I wouldn’t have gotten to see a lot of country otherwise,” Bradford said. “We were young and on the road and excited to be making some money.”

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