Black History Firsts
Soccer phenom Freddy Adu became the youngest American athlete in more than 115 years to sign a major league professional contract in 2004, at the age of 14.
The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon honored Ira Aldridge with a bronze plaque. Ira Aldridge is widely credited as the first African-American star of theater.
BET was the first African-American controlled company to sell shares on the New York Stock Exchange.
In 1845, Macon Bolling Allen became the first African American to pass the bar and practice law in the United States.
Macon Bolling Allen became the first licensed African-American attorney in the United States in 1844. He later became the first black American justice of the peace.
Richard Allen founded the first national black church in the United States, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in 1816.
Marian Anderson, a gifted contralto singer, became the first African American to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1955.
In 1993, Maya Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's inauguration. She was the first poet to do an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost spoke for President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
Writer and performer Maya Angelou worked as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco, California, in the 1940s, and later became the first African-American woman to have her screenplay produced.
Maya Angelou's autobiographical book I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, is the first non-fiction best-seller by an African-American woman.
In 1987, scholar Molefi Asante founded the first Ph.D. program in African-American studies at Temple University.
Arthur Ashe became the first African American to win the U.S. Open in 1968, the first African-American Wimbeldon champion in 1975, and the first black U.S. citizen to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985.
Famed chess player Maurice Ashley became the first African American to win an international grandmaster title in 1999. That same year, he opened the Harlem Chess Center, where he began coaching young chess players.
Deford Bailey was a wizard at playing the harmonica, and was most notable for mimicking the sound of locomotives. He was the first African-American to perform at the Grand Ole Opry and one of the first African-American stars of country music.
Model Tyra Banks was the first African-American woman on the covers of GQ magazine and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
Benjamin Banneker was considered the first African-American scientist.
Physician Regina Benjamin became the first African-American woman and the first physician under age 40 to be elected to the American Medical Association's board of trustees in 1995. More than a decade later, she was tapped to become surgeon general of the United States.
Halle Berry became the first African-American Miss World entrant in 1986.
Model and actress Halle Berry became the first African-American woman to win the Academy Award for best actress in 2001, for her role in Monster's Ball.
In 1983, Guion Bluford became the first black astronaut to travel in space.
In 1932, Jane Bolin became the first black woman to become a U.S. judge.
Jane Bolin was the first black woman to receive a law degree from Yale University.
In 1876, physics student Edward Alexander Bouchet became the first African American to earn a doctorate from a U.S. university.
Barbara Brandon was America's first black female cartoonist to be nationally syndicated in general publications with the strip "Where I'm Coming From."
In 1950, writer Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection, Annie Allen.
Political scientist and diplomat Dr. Ralph Johnson Bunche received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation efforts in the Middle East during the 1940s. He was the first African American to receive the honor.
In 1995, African-American writer Octavia Butler became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant.
Alexa Irene Canady became the first female African-American neurosurgeon in the United States. She graduated from the University of Michigan's medical school in 1975.
In 1968, Diahann Carroll won a Golden Globe Award for her role on the TV series Julia. Carroll was the first African-American actress to star in her own sitcom where she did not play a domestic worker.
In 1987 Ben Carson, a skilled neurosurgeon, led the first successful operation to separate a pair of Siamese twin infants who were joined at the back of the head.
George Washington Carver, who made a number of agricultural advancements and inventions, and Percy L. Julian, who was a pioneering chemist and researcher who synthesized medicinal drugs, were the first African Americans admitted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990.
Politician and educator Shirley Chisholm was the first African-American congresswoman.
Politician Shirley Chisholm was the first major-party African-American candidate for President of the United States.
In 1948, track-and-field star Alice Coachman made history when she became the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal. She was also the only American woman to win a medal at that year's games.
Singer and pianist Nat King Cole was the first black American to host a television variety show.
Bessie Coleman was the first licensed African-American female pilot. She received aviation instruction in France.
In 1965, comedian Bill Cosby became the first African American to have a lead role in a network TV dramatic series when he co-starred with Robert Culp in I Spy.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1864, becoming the first black woman to receive an M.D.
Dorothy Dandridge, the first African-American woman to earn an Oscar nomination for best actress, was later portrayed by Halle Berry, who became the first African-American woman to win the Oscar for best actress.
Ernie Davis was the first African-American athlete to be the No.1 pick in the NFL draft.
Football star Ernie Davis was the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy.
In 2006, speed skater Shani Davis became the first black athlete at the Winter Olympics to win a gold medal in an individual sport.
Dominique Dawes was the first African American to win an individual event medal in gymnastics.
Entrepreneur Suzanne de Passe is the first African-American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for screenwriting. She was honored for her work on the Motown biopic of Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues.
Ruby Dee was the first African-American actress to be featured at the American Shakespeare Festival in prominent roles.
In 1989, David Dinkins became the first African-American mayor of New York City.
In 1947, Larry Doby became the first African American to break the color barrier in the American League—less than three months after Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball.
Poet Rita Dove was appointed poet laureate consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress in 1993—becoming both the youngest person and the first African American to receive that appointment.
In 1943, Charles R. Drew became the first African-American surgeon to work with the American Board of Surgery as an examiner.
Civil Rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University.
One of the first prominent African-American poets, Paul Laurence Dunbar founded the African-American newspaper the Dayton Tattler in Dayton, Ohio.
Baritone Todd Duncan became the first African American to sing in a major opera company when he joined the New York City Opera in 1945.
Tony Dungy became the first African-American head coach to win the Super Bowl when the Indianapolis Colts defeated the Chicago Bears on February 4, 2007. He faced fellow African-American coach Lovie Smith.
Lee Elder was the first African-American golfer to play in the Masters Tournament in 1975. He has won four PGA and eight Champions Tour tournaments in his career.
Jocelyn Elders was the first African-American to serve as Surgeon General of the United States.
In 1959, Ella Fitzgerald became the first African-American woman to win a Grammy Award.
Henry Ossian Flipper became the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1877, and went on to become the first U.S. Army officer.
Soul singer Aretha Franklin became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
In January 1940, George W. Gibbs Jr. became the first African American to set foot on Antarctica.
Althea Gibson was the first African-American tennis player to compete at the U.S. National Championships in 1950, and the first black player to compete at Wimbledon in 1951. In 1957, she won the women's singles and doubles at Wimbledon, which was celebrated by a ticker tape parade when she returned home to New York City.
Louis Gossett Jr. became the first African American to win the Academy Award for best supporting actor in 1982, for his role in the film An Officer and a Gentleman.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, led by Joseph "Grandmaster Flash" Saddler, became the first rap group to earn induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Richard Theodore Greener became the first African American to graduate from Harvard University in 1870. The future professor also went on to become a Howard University dean and international diplomat.
Human rights activist Clara "Mother" Hale founded the first and at the time only African-American child-care volunteer agency in 1975. Over the course of her life, Mother Hale received more than 370 awards and 15 honorary degrees for her vision and compassionate work in caring for children, including those born with AIDS and to drug-addicted mothers.
Lorraine Hansberry authored A Raisin in the Sun, the first Broadway play written by an African-American woman.
The first African-American woman to serve on the U.S. Cabinet was Patricia Roberts Harris, who became secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 1977.
In 1963, U.S. naval scientist Walter Harris became the first African-American chess master—a title based on tournament-accumulated points.
In 1954, civil rights leader Anna Arnold Hedgeman became the first African-American woman to hold a mayoral cabinet position in the history of New York.
In 1904, African-American gym teacher Edwin Henderson learned the game of basketball while at a summer conference at Harvard University. Henderson introduced the game to the students at the segregated public schools of Washington, D.C., where it gained widespread popularity. For this, Henderson earned the title of "Father of Black Basketball."
A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. was a U.S. civil rights advocate and attorney who co-founded the first African American law firm in Philadelphia. As a judge, he later became the youngest person appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
In 2011, 79-year-old Barbara Hillary became the first African-American woman to reach both the North Pole and South Pole. The cancer survivor took to outdoor exploration after retiring. "I fell in love with the beauty of nature and the chance to meet free-thinking, dynamic people who had an excitement for life," Hillary said in a news publication interview.
Allen Iverson is the first Philadelphia 76er to win the NBA's Rookie of the Year title.
Hal Jackson became the first radio figure to have three daily shows on three different stations in New York. In 1995, the legendary disc jockey was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.
Jennifer Jackson was the first African-American model to be named Playboy magazine's Playmate of the Month. She was featured in the March 1965 issue.
In 1950, Mahalia Jackson became the first gospel singer to perform at New York's Carnegie Hall.
In 2010, Vanessa James and Yannick Bonheur became the first black couple in history to compete in Olympic pairs skating.
Mae C. Jemison became the first black female astronaut in 1992.
Jack Johnson was the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion of the world.was the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
Robert Johnson, the owner of Black Entertainment Television, became the first African-American billionaire in 2001.
Learn more about the lives of African-Americans who have made extraordinary achievements in their fields, with our collection of Black History Groups.
Explore our curated collections of African-American figures, including:
Check out BIO’s original video series, American Freedom Stories, about the historic events of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, and the leaders and everyday heroes who fought to make racial equality a reality. Watch videos.
Flip through these photos of some of Black History's most important, controversial and inspiring figures. Check out our African-American Firsts - Athletes, Black Comedians, Million-Dollar Ideas, African-American Biopics, African-American Expats, or explore all of our Black History photos.
Celebrate the historical icons of America's black community through this interactive journey.
- Apollo Theater Interactive Tour
- Apollo Theater Timeline
- Path to Equality
- Who Am I Game
- Harlem Renaissance