The idea of “making history” is an endless term used to commemorate individuals and events that have broken barriers in their field. While household names in sports like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Serena Williams are icons in their sport and have changed the game forever and made major history, textbooks often forget to mention those who paved the way for them.
The first Black athletes to place in the Olympics, claim world champion titles, and take the inequalities they faced in sports to the Supreme Court to fight for their rights came decades ago and sparked change throughout every major sport. In order to continue shaping a better future for athletes of any race, gender, ability, or background, we have to look back at the people who helped us get this far in the first place.
In acknowledging there is more work to be done, let’s celebrate this Black History Month by giving thanks to those that came before us, and continue to encourage the new generation of athletes like Naomi Osaka and Gabby Douglas to succeed.
Check out these eight Black athletes you might not have heard about below, and get active in their honor!
Born Marshall Walter Taylor and nicknamed “Major Taylor” as a kid, he became the second African American world champion in any sport after becoming the world cycling champion in 1899. While attempting to compete in the Jim Crow Era, he faced many hardships on the path to competition. He was recorded as being the fastest cyclist in the world, and consistently advocated for his ability to be considered and dismantle “white only” rules in cycling.
William DeHart Hubbard
Hubbard was the first-ever African American to win a gold medal at the Olympic games in an individual sport. He won the running long jump at the 1924 Paris Olympics with a record jump of 24 feet and 5 1⁄8 inches.
While Hubbard accomplished this in the ’20s, we often don’t discuss the presence of Black Americans in the Olympics until the 1936 German Olympics where Jesse Owens grabbed four track and field gold medals. However, that same ‘36 Olympics actually had 17 other black athletes earn medals as well.
Ora Washington has been called America’s first Black sportswoman, though she didn’t receive the recognition she deserved, even after winning nine-straight American Tennis Association singles titles and twelve-straight doubles titles, as well as eleven consecutive world titles as a center for the Philadelphia Tribunes and Germantown Hornets. Washington valued and made strides in the sports world at a time when women were looked down upon for even participating. She trained with and mentored Althea Gibson, who became the first Black player to win a Grand Slam title.
Before Arthur, there was Althea. Althea Gibson was the first black player ever to win a Grand Slam Title back in 1956 and ‘57. She was also an amazing golfer, and in the 1960s became the first black person to compete on the Women’s Professional Golf Tour.
Before Kaepernick was taking a knee on the field, Mahmoud remained seated during the Star Spangled Banner throughout games in ’95 and ’96. The then point guard for the Denver Nuggets received a single-game suspension and was made to stand but allowed to bow his head in recognition of his Islamic faith.
Those who are fans of figure skating are probably familiar with Surya Bonaly as she’s the only figure skater to land a backflip on one skate, a move long banned in figure skating since the mid-’70s.
While Surya never received an Olympic medal, she is a three-time World Cup Silver Medalist. In Bonaly’s later career she has become an advocate for an association that aims to fight against racism, violence, and discrimination in sports in France. The only Black Olympic medalist figure skater was Debi Thomas in 1988.
Cheryl White was the first Black female jockey. She participated in her first race in 1971, while she placed last, she made comebacks later in her career as she set the record for being the first female jockey to win five races in a day.
By the time she retired in 1992, she had won 750 races in total.
When Flood and other teammates were traded to the Phillies, he stood up against the contracts players had to sign that minimized their rights to weighing in on trades for themselves. He didn’t feel he should have to uproot his life to move to a city with fans he considered generally racist and in 1972 Curt Flood, a center fielder for the Cardinals, went to the Supreme Court against baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn to push for what later became free agency for professional athletes.
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