Here is a recollection of some seminal figures who helped break down racial barriers of their times and set the stage on which future African-American athletes could shine:
On April 15, 1947, an event decades in the making unfolded when Jackie Robinson trotted out to first base at Ebbets Field in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform. For more than 60 years, the gatekeepers of white baseball had conspired to keep black players out of their game, and all eyes were on the man who had chosen to represent the abilities of his race. Robinson’s performance that first day was ordinary, but he contributed to the Dodgers’ victory over the Boston Braves with a bunt and subsequent hustle that forced a bad throw, and as he grew more comfortable with his role, he showed the all-around skills and mettle that made him an ideal trailblazer. Robinson went on to win the inaugural National League Rookie of the Year Award, and the gate for black players to enter the majors was permanently busted open.
The son of former slaves, Johnson helped to usher in an era of integrated professional athletics with the power of his fists. For years, the “Galveston Giant” had been clamoring for a chance to fight a white heavyweight champion, and he was finally given the opportunity by Canadian Tommy Burns on December 26, 1908, in Sydney, Australia. It was no contest; Johnson outweighed Burns by approximately 25 pounds and alternately toyed with and battered his opponent until the fight was stopped in the 14th round. That outcome was unacceptable to many, and Johnson further angered the masses by flaunting his newfound riches and dating white women. It was risky behavior for that time (to say the least), but Johnson was a proud man who wasn’t afraid to express how he felt. He backed up his talk by reigning as the heavyweight champion for seven years, though his cultural impact was felt on a far greater scale.
The sporting resume of Althea Gibson reads like a virtual bullet list of firsts. A champion of the all-black American Tennis Association many times over, she was the first black player allowed to compete at the U.S. Nationals in 1950. On May 26, 1956, Gibson became the first black player to win a major tennis title when she defeated Angela Mortimer by the score of 6-0, 12-10 to claim the French championships. Standing 5-foot-11 and packing a big serve, Gibson was a precursor to the Williams sisters who dominated tennis a half-century later. She powered through the competition to become the first black player to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals in 1957, then won both events again the following year. After retiring from tennis, Gibson became the first black woman to compete on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour in 1964.
Born prematurely and later beset by crippling illness that forced her to wear a metal leg brace for years, Rudolph somehow overcame the obstacles of her childhood to become a world-class athlete. She won a bronze medal in the 4 x 100-meter relay in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, but her true triumph came four years later, in Rome. Rudolph blew past the competition to win the 100-meter dash in 11.0 seconds, a record time that wasn’t recorded as such due to above-average wind gusts, and then easily won the 200-meter final. Running the anchor leg of the 4 x 100-meter relay, Rudolph shrugged off a bad baton relay and overtook the lead runner to become the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics. Underscoring both the era in which she lived and the ability of a great athlete to act as a catalyst of change, her celebratory homecoming parade and gala banquet were the first fully integrated municipal events in the history of Clarksville, Tennessee.
The 1965-66 Texas Western University Men’s Basketball Team
Basketball was an integrated sport by the mid-1960s, but the notion persisted that black players were mainly interested in “showboating,” and needed the steadying hand of white leadership. That notion was dealt a serious blow by the Texas Western University men’s basketball team, which featured an all-black starting lineup for the first time in NCAA championship history on March 19, 1966. Squaring off against the all-white University of Kentucky team, which included future coaching great Pat Riley, the Miners’ starting five— Bobby Joe Hill, David Lattin, Orsten Artis, Willie Worsley, and Harry Flournoy (pictured here)—played a disciplined, fundamentally sound game en route to a 72-65 victory. The game was a watershed moment for coaches and players of the time, and it wasn’t long until all-white teams like Kentucky’s disappeared from the basketball landscape.