Today’s Black History Month spotlight is all about trailblazing sports figures and their contributions to the games we know and love.
There is always a first, a best, a greatest–black men and women from a variety of sports throughout the years have blazed the trail and broke down color barriers for their fellow black athletes to succeed.
Jackie Robinson broke that color line for baseball when he became the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball when he made his debut on first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Robinson became a symbol for integration in other sports leagues and is heralded as one of the best baseball players.
Robinson won the first MLB Rookie of the Year honor and was the first black player to win the National League Most Valuable Player Award.
In the NFL, where 70 percent of players today are black men, Kenny Washington proved to be the Jackie Robinson of the league in terms of integration. Although a few black players were a part of the league in its earliest iteration, no black people were in the NFL from 1934 to 1946.
The UCLA defensive back, who played with Robinson in college, led the nation in total yards but went undrafted. After having an honors-earning run in the Pacific Coast Football League, he was finally signed to the Rams when they moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles, which only occurred after pushback to sign a black player since both whites and blacks paid tax money to build the stadium.
Without Washington, there would be no Jim Brown. Brown is widely heralded as one of the best players of his time in the league, and he continues to hold NFL records, including most games with 24 points or more. Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson said of Brown: “When you’re facing degradation you can do three things: adjust, be resentful or fight back. Jim always fought back.”
— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) November 9, 2016
LeBron James, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan would not be the basketball stars and legends they are today without Earl Lloyd. Lloyd broke down the wall for black athletes as the first black NBA player in 1950. Alongside Chuck Cooper and Nat Clifton, who also joined NBA teams that season, Lloyd was able to open the door to black basketball players, including basketball legend Bill Russell, to find success in a league that now has more players, coaches and executives of color than any other major sports league in the country.
Black women made incredible contributions to the sports world by earning top honors and helping integrate more sports.
Not only was Althea Gibson the first African-American woman to compete on the world tennis tour, she was also the first black Wimbledon tennis champ and the first black woman to win a Grand Slam title at the French Open.
Gabby Douglas, Allyson Felix and Simone Manuel have a black woman to thank for being able to compete for medals in the Olympic Games. Alice Coachman was the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal for her high jump.