Despite the severe racial, social and economic barriers that African American athletes have been subjected to throughout history, there have been notable individuals who have risen above the challenges and shattered all expectations.
Not only did these athletes achieve “firsts” in their sport, but many also felt a heavy responsibility to stand up for their communities and use their fame to push for more inclusion both on and off the field.
Here are 10 African American athletes who became pioneers in their respective sport.
First Black Baseball Player in Major League Baseball
Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, and broke the color barrier for African Americans in baseball.
“It was the most eagerly anticipated debut in the annals of the national pastime,” sports authors Robert Lipsyte and Pete Levine wrote. “It represented both the dream and the fear of equal opportunity, and it would change forever the complexion of the game and the attitudes of Americans.”
After quietly enduring harsh racist treatment from baseball fans and team members alike, Robinson rose to Rookie of the Year and proved himself to be one of the most talented and fiercest players in the game. Just two years into the Major Leagues, Robinson won the National League Most Valuable Player Award. He'd go on to play in six World Series and helped give the Dodgers a World Series win in 1955.
Off the field, Robinson was a forefather of the civil rights movement, speaking out against racial discrimination and pushing baseball to use its economic influence to desegregate Southern towns and recruit more people of color into the leagues.
Five-Time World Record Holder in Track
In his lifetime, Jesse Owens was widely considered the greatest track and field athlete in history.
On May 25, 1935, Owens, who was a student at Ohio State University, attended the Big Ten collegiate track conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and set a stunning five world records and equaled another in both sprints and long jump—all within 45 minutes.
Owens continued his supernatural winning streak at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he would emerge as the most decorated athlete, winning four gold medals.
READ MORE: How Jesse Owens Foiled Hitler's Plans for the 1936 Olympics
First Black Heavyweight Boxing Champ
Known as the “Galveston Giant,” Jack Johnson lived his life fearlessly as one of the most famous and scandalous Black athletes in America.
With the Jim Crow era in full force, Johnson’s 1910 match-up with undefeated white opponent James J. Jeffries was coined the “fight of the century.” After Johnson knocked Jeffries out in the 15th round, race riots exploded all over the country.
Although he lived in dangerous times, Johnson didn’t flinch when taking advantage of his celebrity. When he wasn’t knocking out his opponents, he was busy expanding his businesses and banking on endorsement deals. He also had a penchant for white women, which eventually landed him in legal trouble (caused by racist laws). After he fled the country for seven years, he returned in 1920 and served jail time in federal prison.
In 2018, President Donald Trump posthumously pardoned him.
Fritz Pollard & Bobby Marshall
First Black Football Players in the NFL
In 1920, Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall became the first African American players allowed to play in the National Football League. While Marshall, who played tight-end, went on to build an athletic career not only in football but also in track, boxing, baseball and ice hockey, Pollard quickly found himself juggling his running back duties with the newly added responsibility of being a head coach in the NFL—another African American first.
First Black Golfer in the PGA
Long before there was Tiger Woods, there was Charlie Sifford, who’s been referred to as the Jackie Robinson of golf.
For much of his early career, Sifford was confined to compete in all-Black golf tournaments, but upon the invitation of boxer Joe Louis, he sought to enter the PGA-sponsored Phoenix Open in 1952. His presence at the event was not taken too kindly, and he received many death threats.
Still, Sifford was not to be intimidated. He continued to perfect his game, and in 1961 entered the PGA Tour, becoming the first African American golfer to do so. His career totaled 422 tournaments, over 50 top 10 finishes and 22 professional wins.
First Black Athlete to Compete in International Tennis
Another Robinson comparison, Althea Gibson became the first African American to compete in a pro-world tennis tour and in 1956, the first African American woman to win a Grand Slam title (French Championships). The following year, she would win Wimbledon and the U.S Nationals and repeat her wins in 1958. Her career would total 11 Grand Slam wins, which included six singles titles.
Gibson’s athletic accomplishments were considered revolutionary, making a huge social and psychological impact on the Black community, as did Robinson’s for baseball. Forty-three years would pass until another Black female tennis player, Serena Williams, would win her first U.S. Open.
First Black Coach in the NBA
A legend for his defense, rebounds and shot-blocking, Bill Russell was largely considered the top basketball player in NBA history for decades until Michael Jordan came onto the scene in the 1980s. As the former center for the Boston Celtics, Russell helped his team win 11 championships in 13 seasons. Starting in 1966, he served as player-coach for the Celtics, becoming the first Black coach in the NBA and the first to win an NBA championship. He also led the U.S. national basketball team to gold at the 1956 Olympics.
First American Woman to Win Three Gold Medals at the Olympics
Despite being diagnosed with polio as a child, Wilma Rudolph would grow up to become the fastest woman in the world of her generation. Competing in the 1956 Olympics in Australia, Rudolph would take home the bronze in the 4×100-meter relay, but it was in the 1960 Olympics in Rome that she sprinted her way into history by winning three gold medals, becoming the first American woman to accomplish such a feat at a single Olympics.
In addition to her accomplishments on the field, Rudolph was a tireless proponent of women’s rights and civil rights.
First Black Tennis Player to Win Three Grand Slam Titles
Known for his quiet but resolute demeanor, Arthur Ashe is still the only African American male tennis player to have won singles titles in the U.S. Open (1968), the Australian Open (1970), and Wimbledon (1975). The same year he won his first Grand Slam title, he was also ranked the top tennis player in the world.
Ashe wasn’t only a record-breaking tennis player, but he was also known for his civil rights activism off the courts. He helped organize tennis programs for inner-city youth and publicly denounced apartheid in South Africa. After contracting AIDS from a blood transfusion during a heart procedure in the 1980s, Ashe spoke out about his diagnosis in 1992 and launched an AIDS foundation for further research.
First Black Gymnast to Win Individual All-Around Champion
Dubbed “The Flying Squirrel” for her high leaps in competition, Gabby Douglas is a multiple gold medal-winning world champion and Olympian. In 2012, she made history at the London Olympics when she became the first person of color to become the Individual All-Around Champion. According to her official site, she also became “the first American gymnast to win gold in both the gymnastic individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympic games.” Four years later, Douglas competed at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and helped her team (aka “The Final Five”) win another gold for their team event.