While this list is far from all-encompassing, our intention is to highlight black athletes who were pioneers in their respective sports. The following athletes paved the way for others to follow in their footsteps. They chose relentless progress in the face of racism, in sports that had not previously allowed space for their excellence.
Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the MLB on April 15, 1947. The Brooklyn Dodgers won six pennants in Robinson’s 10 seasons and captured the 1955 World Series title. Robinson retired with a 0.311 batting average, 947 runs scored, 1,518 hits, and 197 stolen bases over 10 seasons, and he is also known for the impact he made off the field. He said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
As a child, Wilma Rudolph was told she might never walk again. She overcame Polio to become known as the fastest woman in the world at the height of her career. Rudolph became the 1st American woman to win 3 gold medals at 1 Olympics. She said her greatest accomplishment was creating the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a not-for-profit, community-based amateur sports program. “I tell them that the most important aspect is to be yourself and have confidence in yourself,” she said. “I remind them the triumph can’t be had without the struggle.”
Arthur Ashe remains the first and only African-American tennis player to win the men’s singles championship at the U.S. Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon. He co-founded the National Junior Tennis and Learning network, envisioning it “as a way to gain and hold the attention of young people in the inner cities and other poor environments so that we can teach them about matters more important than tennis.”
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. 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. 43 years would pass until another Black female tennis player, Serena Williams, would win her first U.S. Open. Gibson said, “I always wanted to be somebody. If I made it, it’s half because I was game enough to take a lot of punishment along the way and half because there were a lot of people who cared enough to help me.”
In 2012, Gabby Douglas made history at the London Olympics when she became the first person of color to become the Individual All-Around Champion. 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.” She said, “For me, going down in history being the first black American to win the gold, I think more colored people are going to start coming to the gymnastics world and say, ‘okay, anything is possible. If Gabby did it, then I can do it too.’ “
During the 2016 NFL season, Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel in protest of mistreatment against Black Americans and minorities (particularly by law enforcement) during the pregame singing of the national anthem. In many ways, Kaepernick laid the groundwork for the wave of activism that is still occurring today. He said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.”