African-American Firsts

Many people know that Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier, and that Barack Obama is the first black U.S. President. But over the course of American history, many African-Americans have accomplished major firsts, with little recognition....
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Many people know that Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier, and that Barack Obama is the first black U.S. President. But over the course of American history, many African-Americans have accomplished major firsts, with little recognition....

Many people know that Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier, and that Barack Obama is the first black U.S. President. But over the course of American history, many African-Americans have accomplished major firsts, with little recognition. Here are five important, but often under-rated, firsts from African-American history.

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Maya Angelou Maya Angelou is one of the most renowned writers of her generation. Her 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was nominated for a National Book Award. With a wide appeal to audiences of every color, Angelou made history in 1993, when she read her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. She was the first poet to do an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost spoke at President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration.

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Arthur Ashe Born in 1943, Arthur Ashe was a professional tennis player and a figure with an important legacy. He won three Grand Slam titles, and in 1963 he became the first African-American player selected for the United States Davis Cup team. In 1968, Ashe won the men's singles title at the U.S. Open. He was the first African-American to do so. Ashe made history by being the only African-American to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open. Ashe was also known for his civil rights work, and was involved with the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s. Ashe died tragically after contracting HIV from a contaminated blood transfusion, but did much in his last years to bring awareness to the AIDS epidemic.

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Marian Anderson Marian Anderson was one of the greatest voices of the 20th century, and her role as a major civil rights leader is not always remembered. Born in 1897 in Philadelphia, Anderson was a gifted contralto singer. She started out singing in church, and in 1925 she gave her first performance at Carnegie Hall. Anderson enjoyed fame and popularity, but the fact that she was African-American meant her professional choices were limited. In 1939, Anderson was barred from playing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., because of her race. In response, President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, along with the NAACP, arranged for Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. More than 75,000 people attended the open air concert, and millions listened on the radio. Anderson paved the way for generations of African-American performers who came after her. On January 7, 1955, Anderson became the first African-American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, singing the part of Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi's Un ballo in maschera.

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Guion Bluford Guion S. Bluford earned his pilot's wings at Williams Air Force Base in 1966, and flew combat missions during the Vietnam War. He then worked as an engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, before training as an astronaut. Blueford was chosen by NASA out of thousands of individuals vying for the chance to go to space. In 1983, Bluford became the first African-American to go to space, on the Challenger shuttle. Between 1983 and 1992, he participated in four space shuttle flights. Bluford has spent more than 688 hours in space.

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Ernie Davis Ernie Davis first came to national prominence as a star football player at Syracuse University. He led his team to the NCAA championship in 1961, and became the first African-American to be awarded the Heisman trophy, before playing professional football. In 1962, Davis was the first pick in the NFL draft, and he was the first African-American football player to be chosen first. He was drafted to the Washington Redskins, but refused to play for the Redskins' openly racist owner, Gary Marshall. Davis signed a $200,000 contract with the Cleveland Browns in December 1961—the most lucrative contract in history for an NFL rookie. Sadly, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia in the summer of 1962, and passed away in May 1963, at the age of 23.