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.
In 1963, tennis champion Arthur Ashe became the first African-American member of the U.S. Davis Cup team.
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.
Lawyer Constance Baker Motley was the first African-American woman ever to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Model Tyra Banks was the first African-American woman on the covers of GQ magazine and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
In 1997, model Tyra Banks became the first-ever African-American on the cover of the Victoria's Secret lingerie catalog.
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.
In 2001, model and actress Halle Berry became the first African-American woman to win the Best Actress Oscar 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 judge in the United States. She was also the first black woman to receive a law degree from Yale.
In 1876, physics student Edward Alexander Bouchet became the first African-American to earn a doctorate degree.
Barbara Brandon was the country's only black female cartoonist to be nationally syndicated. Her strip was named "Where I'm Coming From."
Jane Brolin was the first African-American to graduate from Yale University's Law School.
In 1950, writer Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her collection, Annie Allen.
Political scientist and diplomat, Dr. Ralph Johnson Bunche, received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation efforts in Palestine 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 Canady became the first female African-American neurosurgeon in the United States. She graduated from medical school in 1975.
Actress Diahann Carroll won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress In A Television Series in 1968 for her role on the sitcom Julia. Carroll was the first African-American actress to star in her own television series 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 agricultural advancements and inventions pertaining to the use of peanuts, and Percy Julian, who helped create drugs to combat glaucoma, 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 woman elected to Congress.
Politician Shirley Chisholm was the first major-party African-American candidate for President of the United States.
Track-and-field star Alice Coachman made history when she became the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal—and the only American woman to win a medal—at the 1948 Olympic Games.
Singer and pianist, Nat 'King' Cole was the first black American to host a television variety show.
Nat 'King' Cole, a singer, song writer and pianist, was the first African-American to host a national television program, The Nat King Cole Show, in 1956.
Bessie Coleman was the first licensed African-American pilot in the world. She received aviation instruction in France.
In 1965, comedian Bill Cosby became the first African-American to star in a network television show when he co-starred with Robert Culp in the action-adventure show, 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.
Two years after she played the role of Dorothy Dandridge, the first African-American woman to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, perfomer Halle Berry actually became the first African-American woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress.
Football star Ernie Davis was the No.1 pick in the 1962 NFL draft, becoming the first African-American football player to be chosen first.
Ernie Davis, the football running back, was the first African-American athlete 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 and only African-American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for screen writing.
Ruby Dee was the first black woman to appear in major roles at the American Shakespeare Festival.
In 1989, African-American David Dinkins, became the first non-white Mayor of New York City.
Larry Doby made history in 1947, when he 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 not only as the youngest person, but also as the first African-American.
In 1943, physician Charles R. Drew became the first black surgeon to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery.
Civil Rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois was the first African-American to receive a Ph.D from Harvard University.
Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar founded the first African-American newsletter in Dayton, Ohio.
Baritone opera singer Todd Duncan became the first African-American to sing in a major opera company when he became a member of the New York City Opera in 1945.
Tony Dungy became the first African-American head coach to win the Super Bowl when the Colts defeated the Chicago Bears on February 4th, 2007.
Lee Elder was the first African-American golfer to play in the Masters Tournament in 1975. He has won 4 PGA tournaments and 8 Senior PGA tournaments in his career.
M. Jocelyn Elders was the first African-American, and the second woman, to serve as the United States Surgeon General. Her term lasted for 15 months.
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 earn a Grammy Award. She won five awards that year, including an award for best jazz soloist and one for best female pop vocalist.
Henry Ossian Flipper was the first African-American to graduate from West Point academy in 1877. He became the first black commander when he was assigned to the 10th Cavalry, a Buffalo Soldier regiment.
Soul singer Aretha Franklin became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
In 1939, African-American George Gibbs became the first black man to explore the South Pole.
Althea Gibson was the first African-American tennis player to compete in the U.S. Championships in 1950 and at Wimbledon in 1951. In 1957 she won the women's singles and doubles at Wimbledon in 1957, which was celebrated by a ticker tape parade when she returned home to New York City.
The first African-American to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor was Louis Gossett, Jr. for his role in the 1982 film An Officer and a Gentleman.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five became the first rap group to earn induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Richard Theodore Greener, was the first African-American graduate from Harvard in 1870. He started out at Oberlin college, the first American college to admit African-Americans and went on to become a lawyer.
Human rights activist Clara "Mother" Hale founded the first and, at the time, the only black social services agency in America in 1975. Over the course of her life, Mother Hale received more than 370 awards for her work in the fight against AIDS and inner city drug use.
Lorraine Hansberry authored A Raisin in the Sun. It was the first Broadway play written by an African-American woman.
The first African-American woman to make it into the U.S. Cabinet was Patricia Roberts Harris, the 1977 Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
In 1963, U.S. Naval scientist Walter Harris became the first African-American chess master.
In 1954, African-American civil rights leader Anna 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."
Leon Higginbotham, Jr. was a U.S. civil rights advocate and judge, as well as the first African-American on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
In 2007, Barbara Hillary became the first recorded African-American woman to reach the North Pole. She was 75 years old.
African-American Allen Iverson, was the first 76er to win the NBA's Rookie of the Year title.
African-American disc jockey Hal Jackson became the first radio personality to broadcast three daily shows on three different New York stations. He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1995.
Model Jennifer Jackson was the first African-American model chosen as Playboy magazine's Playmate of the Month. She was featured in the March 1965 issue.
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:
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