The story of African-Americans in sports is tightly related to the rise of and continued fight for equal participation in U.S. culture and society. It illustrates an effort that accounts not only for on-field excellence but also for groundbreaking personalities and courageous fighters who have secured championships and earned statistical excellence. They have played for access and opportunity and the chance to thrive in places never accessed before, carving out new pathways in society. Here’s a look at some of the greatest athletes, moments and accomplishments in African-American sports history.
HU Men Win National Soccer Championship
The school’s 1971 title, a 3-2 victory over perennial soccer powerhouse Saint Louis University, was vacated by the NCAA which alleged that Howard used ineligible players and subsequently banned the Bison from post-season competition for a season. Three years later, Howard would achieve redemption, reclaiming the title the school felt was rightfully theirs, in 1974, beating Saint Louis (again) in four thrilling overtimes. Howard became the first HBCU to win a national championship at the NCAA Division 1 level.
Althea Gibson Breaks the Ceiling in Tennis
A groundbreaking athlete for both women and African Americans alike, Gibson, a Florida A&M University product, was one of the first women to cross the color barrier in professional sports and became the first Black woman to win a Grand Slam title in tennis in the 1956 French Open. She would go on to capture a title at each of the Grand Slam tournaments for a total of 11 Grand Slam championships overall. She also competed on the LPGA Tour in 1964, becoming the first woman ever to compete professionally in both tennis and golf.
Art Shell Becomes NFL’s First Black Head Coach
When the Los Angeles Raiders named Art Shell as their head coach in 1989, he became the first African-American to hold the role in the modern NFL, preceded only by Fritz Pollard who was co-head coach of the Akron Pros in 1921. An eight-time Pro Bowl selection as a player and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame (from Maryland State University, now Maryland-Eastern Shore), Shell was named AFC Coach of the Year in 1990 when he guided the Raiders to a 12-4 record and the AFC West championship.
Arthur Ashe Reaches No. 1 in World Tennis Rankings
The definition of a barrier-breaker, Ashe shattered walls as an athlete and activist. He remains the first and only Black man to win Wimbledon, the US Open and Australian Open. In 1968, Ashe became the first Black man to be ranked as the world’s No. 1 player. When denied a visa to play in a tournament in South Africa, he dedicated himself to exposing the injustices of apartheid in the country and was arrested for protesting the treatment of Haitian refugees. After contracting AIDS during heart bypass surgery, he created a foundation for research on the disease. The Arthur Ashe Learning Center continues to fund various research to this day.
Bill Russell – the NBA’s First Megastar
The most prolific winner in professional sports history, Bill Russell captured an NBA championship in 11 of his 13 seasons. He was the NBA’s first African-American superstar and in 1966 he became the first Black head coach of a major professional sports team in the modern era when he became player/manager for the Boston Celtics. Two years later he became the first Black man to coach his team to a championship. Russell and Celtics teammate, K. C. Jones, also won back-to-back NCAA basketball championships with the University of San Francisco in 1957 and 1958, respectively.
Bob Gibson – Greatest Black Pitcher in MLB History
A tremendous all-around athlete, Gibson averaged 22 points per game for Creighton as a college basketball player and also played for the Harlem Globetrotters for a year. But he shined the brightest on the pitching mound, where he would win 251 games and two World Series during a Hall of Fame career with the St. Louis Cardinals. The greatest African-American pitcher in MLB history, Gibson set the modern record with a 1.18 ERA in 1968, a year when he won the National League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards. In 1964, he became the first Black pitcher to ever win World Series MVP which he repeated in 1967.
Chuck Cooper, Earl Lloyd and Nat Clifton Break NBA Color Barrier
The integration of professional basketball was simultaneously accomplished by three individuals. In the 1950 NBA Draft, Chuck Cooper, Nate “Sweetwater” Clifton and Earl Lloyd were all selected and broke into the league in different capacities. Cooper, who attended HBCU West Virginia State before finishing his college career at Duquesne, was the first Black player drafted, going as the first pick in the second round. Due to the season’s schedule, Lloyd, who also played at West Virginia State, was the first to play in a game for the Washington Capitals, while Clifton was the first to sign a contract that season.
Cito Gaston Becomes First Black Manager to Win World Series
In 1992, Cito Gaston guided the Toronto Blue Jays to the first of two consecutive World Series championships. In the process, he became the first Black manager to ever win a World Series. Between two terms of managing the Blue Jays between 1989 to 1997 and again from 2008 to 2020, Gaston won 894 games. Gaston has the rare distinction of winning the World Series in every season he reached the postseason in his career.
DeHart Hubbard, John Taylor First Blacks to Win Olympic Gold
DeHart Hubbard and John Taylor represent the first African-Americans to ever win Olympic gold medals in their respective sports. In 1908, Taylor became the first to strike gold as a member of the U.S. men’s relay team, running the third leg of the race. Sixteen years later, at the 1924 games, Hubbard became the first to win individual gold when he emerged victorious in the long jump.
Doug Williams Wins Super Bowl XXII – First Black QB
When Doug Williams took the helm for the then Washington Redskins at Super Bowl XXII, it marked the first time in the game’s history that a Black called the shots at quarterback. Williams, who played for legendary coach Eddie Robinson at Grambling State University, did not disappoint, throwing for 340 yards and four touchdowns, defeating the Denver Broncos, 42-10. Williams was named MVP of the game and would remain the only Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl for the next 26 years.
Eddie Robinson Becomes College Football’s Winningest Coach
From 1941 to 1997, Robinson led the football program at Grambling State University. His tenure covered a period when African-Americans were blocked by segregation from playing at many Southern universities. In the process he converted his program into a powerhouse among historically black colleges and universities, owning a career record of 408-165-15. He won 17 SWAC titles and nine Black college national championships and became the first collegiate football coach to ever reach 400 victories. Over 200 of his players went on to have professional careers.
Floyd Mayweather, Jr. Retires From Boxing Undefeated
Floyd Mayweather, Jr. made history of all sorts inside the boxing ring. He retired with a perfect 50-0 record, making him the only fighter in history with as many fights to go undefeated with no ties. He’s also regarded by many as the greatest defensive fighter in history and he held titles in five different weight classes.
Frank Robinson’s Baseball Career Spans Over Six Decades
Robinson was a groundbreaking presence both on and off the diamond, during a career in baseball that touched seven decades. As a player, he hit 586 home runs, fourth-most all time when he retired. He also is the only player to ever be named MVP in both the National and American Leagues. In 1975, he became the first Black manager in MLB history. Robinson was also an outspoken activist for racial issues in the game and expanded the reach of the sport into African-American communities.
Fritz Pollard – The ‘First’ on Many Football Fronts
Fritz Pollard had a habit of making history throughout the early days of his career. In college he became both the first African-American football player at Brown and the first to be named to the Walter Camp All-American team. In 1920, along with Bobby Marshall, he became one of the first two Blacks in the NFL. In his second season, Pollard led the Akron Pros to their first championship and the following season was named their co-head coach, becoming the first African-American coach in pro sports history and was still an active player.
Hank Aaron Becomes All-Time Home Run King
Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs stood as the premier record not only in baseball but in all of sports. But as Hank Aaron entered the 1974 season one shy of tying Ruth, it came on the heels of having spent the previous winter receiving all measures of racial hatred, hate mail and death threats. Many people did not want to see a Black man conquer Ruth’s hallowed mark. On April 8 in Atlanta, Aaron hit career home run No. 715 and moved to the top of the record book under the most extreme pressure, going on to finish his career in 1976 with 755 homers.
Jack Johnson – First Black World Heavyweight Boxing Champ
At the peak of the Jim Crow era in America, Jack Johnson emerged as one of the nation’s biggest stars. In 1908, the Galveston, Texas native defeated Tommy Burns in the 14th round, becoming the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion, a title he would hold for the next eight years.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee Reaches Medal Stand at Four Olympics
One of the most gifted and accomplished all-around athletes in history, Jackie Joyner-Kersee reached the medal stand at four different Olympic games. Overall, Kersee won six medals – three gold, one silver and two bronze – across her Olympic career. Joyner-Kersee set a still-standing record of 7,291 points in the heptathlon while earning one of the aforementioned bronze medals in 1996 with a pulled hamstring in the long jump. During her collegiate days at UCLA, she was an accomplished basketball player as well.
Jackie Robinson Breaks Baseball’s Color Barrier
In a moment that transcended the ranks of sports and became one of the defining moments in American history, Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945. After a brief minor league stint, Robinson debuted at first base with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947, becoming the first Black to play in the majors since Moses Fleetwood Walker in 1884. Robinson faced substantial pressure and racism but thrived all the same. He became baseball’s first Rookie of the Year and later became NL MVP, a six-time All-Star and a World Series champion over his 10-year career.
Jerry Rice – Most Dominant Offensive Player in NFL History
When it comes to the wide receiver position, there’s Jerry Rice and then there’s everybody else. Rice serves as the most dominant offensive player in the history of pro football, owning every significant record there is at the position. Rice rose from the ranks of a little known HBCU (Mississippi Valley State) – where he set 18 Division I-AA records – to become a three-time Super Bowl champion. A 13-time Pro Bowler, Rice scored more points than any other non-kicker in NFL history and counts as the only player to top 20,000 receiving yards.
Jesse Owens Wins Gold at 1936 Olympics, Then Snubbed Back Home
The 1936 Olympic Games, held in Berlin, Germany, were largely usurped by Adolf Hitler as a platform for his Nazi agenda and “superior” Aryan race. However, a speedy American sprinter named Jesse Owens stole the spotlight in one of the most significant athletic performances of all time. Owens ran past not only the Germans but also the rest of the world, capturing four gold medals in the 100m sprint, 200m sprint, long jump and 4×100 relay. However, when Owens returned victorious to the United States, he wasn’t even invited to meet the president.
Joe Louis – Black America’s ‘Brown Bomber’
The “Brown Bomber” was the first African-American athlete who truly crossed over to be appreciated by all in America. He held boxing’s heavyweight championship from 1937 to 1949, an astonishing run that covered a record 140 months and 25 title defenses. Louis amassed a 66-3 career record with 52 knockouts and beat all comers in the process, including a 124-second knockout of German Schmeling that made him a target of the Nazi party.
Negro League’s Dynamic Duo, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige
The most potent bat and greatest arm to bless the ranks of Black baseball, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige were the preeminent superstars of the Negro League. Gibson was a hulking catcher with a bat that was said to have produced nearly 900 home runs, including one that left Yankee Stadium completely. Meanwhile, Paige was the game’s greatest entertainer on the mound and had the stuff to back it up. The ageless wonder was said to have thrown 55 no-hitters and Joe DiMaggio said he was the “best and fastest pitcher” he ever faced.
Lucy Diggs Slowe – First Black Woman to Win Major Sports Title
In 1917, while a student at Howard University, Lucy Diggs Slowe accomplished what would go on to become a milestone in both African-American and women’s sports. In winning the American Tennis Association’s first tournament, she became the first Black woman to win a major sports title.
Michael Jordan – A Revolutionary On and Off the Court
Michael Jordan revolutionized the game of basketball and business of being a professional athlete. His accomplishments on the basketball court — six-for-six in the NBA Finals, a five-time MVP and 10-time scoring champion — helped to redefine the earning potential for athletes off it. Jordan wrote the manuscript for athletes to follow in marketing and branding, as his many endorsements and partnerships with companies such as Nike, Gatorade, McDonalds and Wheaties made him the most famous athlete in the world. Even 17 years after his last game, his Jordan Brand shoe line still generates over $1 billion for Nike.
Muhammad Ali – The ‘Greatest’
As fearless of an athlete who ever existed, Muhammad Ali was always destined to be far more than just an incredible boxer from Louisville, Kentucky. He remains the only three-time heavyweight champion in history, the class of division during the historical peak of the heavyweight division. He also counted as a man of principles who sacrificed the best years of his career during a battle with the U.S. government over his refusal to involve himself in a war in which he didn’t believe. He was a frontline voice during the civil rights movement and hero to the world over for decades afterward.
Olympic Stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith Raise Fists in Protest
One of the most defiant and memorable meetings of sports and civil rights history occurred on the medal stand during the 1968 Olympics. After receiving the gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200m sprint, as the national anthem began, Tommie Smith and John Carlos adorned black gloves and instead of putting their hands over their hearts, they raised them to the sky. Their fists signified the civil rights struggle for African-Americans and resoundingly ushered in the “Black Power” movement onto a global stage.
Robert Johnson Buys the Charlotte Bobcats
Robert Johnson has regularly placed himself on the frontline of significant firsts in business for African-Americans. He founded BET, the first Black-aimed television station in history. In the process, he became the first African-American billionaire in U.S. history. In 2002, he made another significant piece of history, when he became the first African-American owner in major American sports history by creating the expansion Charlotte Bobcats. He sold the Bobcats to Michael Jordan in 2010, meaning the Bobcats/Hornets have had a Black majority owner for the past 18 years.
Simone Biles Becomes Most Decorated American Gymnast in History
With a total of 30 Olympic and world championship medals to her credit, Simone Biles is the most accomplished American gymnast of all time. At the age of 22, she is a five-time world all-around champion and became the most decorated female gymnast of all-time in 2019. Biles has regularly shown an ability to accomplish maneuvers that have previously been unapproachable by female competitors and could rightfully be considered among the greatest athletes of all time.
The 1966 Texas Western Basketball Team
In 1966 the Texas Western men’s basketball team pulled off one of the most significant upsets in sports history. The Miners defeated the Kentucky Wildcats in the national championship game by the score of 72-65, marking the first time in history that an all-Black starting lineup claimed the national title. The impact of the victory carried even further significance, as the Wildcats roster remained without a Black player until three years later.
Tiger Woods and the 1997 Masters
The 1997 Masters is remembered as the day that Tiger Woods arrived. Already the most watched and anticipated golfer in the world, Woods produced the first signature performance of his pro career on his way to capturing his first major championship. After struggling early, Woods rallied to finish the tournament at 18 under par, matching the tournament record. The performance transformed Woods into an instant superstar, as an estimated 44 million tuned in for the final round to watch Woods become the first minority champion in Masters history.
Black Coaches Tony Dungy vs. Lovie Smith in Super Bowl XLI
As of Super Bowl XLI in 2006, no African-American head coach had guided a team to an NFL title. However, that was a piece of history that would be inevitably coming to an end, as Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith met in a historic matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears. The Colts emerged victorious, 29-17, with Dungy becoming the first African-American Super Bowl champion coach in NFL history.
The Williams Sisters Dominate Tennis Together
No sibling duo in sports history has reached the heights of Venus and Serena Williams, both together and separately. The Compton-born sisters have combined for 30 Grand Slam titles as individuals and have met in Grand Slam finals nine times. They became the first duo in history to meet in four consecutive Grand Slam finals and have won 14 Grand Slam Doubles titles together. Each also has a singles title at the Olympics and three Olympic Doubles titles as well. All the while, they have been raising the bar to new heights for African-Americans and women, inspiring a new generation to follow in their footsteps.
Willie O’Ree – First African-American in the NHL
While Art Dorrington was the first Black player to sign an NHL contract in 1950, it was Willie O’Ree who first made it to the ice. On Jan. 18, 1958, O’Ree debuted for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens, becoming the first Black player in the league’s history. In his career, O’Ree would play 22 years between the NHL and minors. Since 1998, O’Ree, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018, has been the NHL’s diversity ambassador, working in schools to promote the sport as well as diversity and inclusion.
Wilma Rudolph – First Black Woman to Dominate Track and Field
In both the 1956 and 1960 Olympics, Wilma Rudolph dominated women’s track and field, capturing a total of four medals. At the 1960 games, she became the first woman to capture three gold medals at one Olympic Games. In the process, she became a pioneering hero for women the world over, a story all the more extraordinary considering she overcame leg braces, double pneumonia, polio and scarlet fever as a child. Rudolph, part of the legendary Tiger Bells track team at Tennessee State University under Ed Temple, was an ardent support of women in sports and amateur athletics for her entire life.
Wilt Chamberlain Scores 100 Points
At one point, Wilt Chamberlain owned 72 different NBA records. However, the one he accomplished on March 2, 1962, stands paramount above them all. On that night, Chamberlain scored an NBA-record 100 points during a 169-147 win over the New York Knicks. Chamberlain took 63 shots on the night, hitting 36, and he made 28 of 32 free throws. He added 25 rebounds for good measure. It was the peak performance in a season where he averaged a record 50.4 points per game. Only one player has come within 20 points of the effort in the 58 years since.