Historic African American Firsts

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A Brief History

On January 18, 2021, the United States celebrates the birthday of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., an icon in the Civil Rights Movement and an African American man of historic importance.  In honor of Reverend King, we take a look at some notable African American “firsts” in American History, although some of the entries may cause the reader to wonder at the dates involved.  Was the United States really that far behind in racial equality at such late dates?  Judge for yourself.  (See our many other articles concerning African American accomplishments.)  Please do not fret if you do not see your favorite nominees for such a list today or in our previous articles, we will be producing more such lists in the future.

Digging Deeper

Charlie Pride, First African American Country Music Star (1971).

Sadly, Charley died in December of 2020, leaving us the poorer for his passing.  Not only did he become the first Black mega-star in country music, he did it in a big way, charting 30 #1 hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts among his 52 charting records.  His smash hit, “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” even made it to the pop charts, landing at @21 in 1971.  An indication as to exactly how rare Black singers are in mainstream American Country music, only 3 are inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, including Charley, Darius Rucker (of Hootie and the Blowfish) and DeFord Bailey.  (In fact Bailey is the first performer ever introduced on the Grand Ole Opry and is the first African American to have performed at the Opry.)

Gary Steele, First African American Varsity Football Player at West Point (1966).

Although the military of the United States had been desegregated since 1948, no African American football stars managed to make it to the varsity squad at the United States Military Academy at West Point until 1966!  Hard to believe today, but true.  Younger Americans that did not live through such discrimination may find this fact unbelievable, but those of us that lived through the era found segregation somewhat routine and expected.

Calvin Huey, First African American Football Player at Annapolis (1963).

A midshipman at the United States Naval Academy, Huey became the first Black football player at the school and went on to later earn a PhD in Chemistry and return to the USNA as a professor.  Huey was turned down when he applied for nomination to the USNA in his home state of Mississippi, told he would be a “stain” on Mississippi!  (Really.)  Huey got his coveted nomination from a California legislator, but not for his football prowess, but rather for his academic and civic qualifications.  Although his favored position was quarterback, Huey switched to wide receiver, a common move for aspiring Black quarterbacks back in the day, but in this case largely because the starting quarterback was future NFL legend Roger Staubach.

Charles Vernon Bush, First African American Graduate of US Air Force Academy (1963)

Not only was Bush one of the first 3 cadets appointed to the Air Force Academy (1959), he also became the first Black graduate of that institution.  Another first on this accomplished person’s resume, Bush became the first African American page in the US Supreme Court when hired by Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1954.  Born in 1939, Bush passed away in 2012 of colon cancer.  He had reached the rank of Major in the Air Force, serving 7 years on active duty as an intelligence office and serving in Viet Nam during the war there, later earning his Master’s Degree at Georgetown University (in International Relations).  He also graduated from Harvard Business School and worked in the banking and corporate industries.

Jackie Robinson, First African American Major League MVP (1949)

Not only did Robinson break the “color barrier” by becoming the first “modern era” major league baseball player of African descent in 1947, he reached the pinnacle of his profession by snagging the National MVP award in 1949.  Robinson was much more than an all-time great baseball player, he also graduated from Junior College and attended UCLA where he became the first athlete to earn varsity letters in 4 different sports (baseball, basketball, track and football).  A notable fact about his football career at UCLA was that extremely few predominately White colleges fielded Black athletes in intercollegiate competition before World War II, and with 4 African American players (3 starting in the offensive backfield, including Robinson) the team went on to an undefeated season (1939), winning 6 games and tying the other 4 games.  Robinson was also the NCAA champion in the Long Jump in 1940.  After graduating college, Robinson also served as a US Army officer during World War II.  After the war, Jackie played pro football and in the Negro Leagues baseball before being snagged by the Dodgers as the first African American major leaguer in the 20th Century.  Robinson’s baseball prowess led to induction in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  On a related note, Yankee’s catcher Elston Howard became the first African American MVP in the American League in 1963.

Joe Perry, First African American National Football League MVP (1954)

Back in 1954, the NFL did not have its own MVP award, but relied on the UPI (United Press International) news organization to name a Player of the Year, and in 1954 that player was Joe Perry, fullback for the San Francisco 49ers. Born in 1927, Perry only attended a single year of junior college before enlisting in the Army, where he was spotted by professional football scouts for the 49ers, then playing in the All-America Conference football league.  Perry was signed and played a long (16 season) pro-football career, achieving all-time leading rusher status until eclipsed by Jim Brown.  Of course, Perry is a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee.  His #34 jersey is retired by the 49ers, and he was the team’s all-time rushing leader for over 60 years until finally passed by Frank Gore.

Kamala Harris, First African American Elected as Vice President of the United States (2020)

Harris is bi-racial, of both African and Indian (South Asian) heritage.  Not only the first person of color to get elected as Vice President, she is also historically significant as the first woman elected to our second highest office.  Will she later become the first female President of the US, and in so doing also become the first African American woman as President?  Time will tell…

Question for students (and subscribers): Who would you add to this list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Potter, Joan. African American Firsts, 4th Edition: Famous, Little-Known And Unsung Triumphs Of Blacks In America. Dafina, 2013.

Smith, Jessie Carney. Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events. Visible Ink Press, 2012.

The featured image in this article, a photograph of King with Elkins and King’s Mother at Ebenezer, 1962, is in the public domain in the United States because it was published in the United States between 1926 and 1977, inclusive, without a copyright notice. For further explanation, see Commons:Hirtle chart as well as a detailed definition of “publication” for public art. 

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.