A Brief History
On July 6, 1957, women’s tennis star Althea Gibson of Harlem, New York (born in South Carolina) became the first ever person of African ancestry to win the prestigious Wimbledon tennis tournament in England. Today we list 10 such achievements by Black (African heritage) athletes of a notable nature. (There is no importance to the order listed.)
1. 1st Wimbledon Champion, Althea Gibson, 1957.
Not only did Althea achieve this notable “first,” but she also had become the first Black tennis player to win a “Grand Slam” event by winning the 1956 French Open as well. Top that with being the first person “of color” to have won the US Nationals (that would become the US Open) in 1957, and winning Wimbledon and the US Nationals again in 1958! Gibson compiled 11 Grand Slam wins (6 doubles), was the AP Female Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958, and of course, is in the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. Achieving these firsts is all the more impressive when you consider the 1950’s was still the era of segregation and rampant racism. Plus, it would not be until Evonne Goolagong (Australian Aborigine) would become the next woman of color to win a Grand Slam event in 1971! It would be another 42 years from Gibson’s victory at Wimbledon for another African American woman to win at Wimbledon, when Serena Williams won the event in 1999 (and would go on to win 5 more at Wimbledon as of 2017).
2. 1st Sisters to Dominate Tennis, Williams Sisters, 2002.
Venus and Serena Williams are two of the greatest tennis players of all time, not just women and not just African American! Both have been ranked #1 in the World (a first for sisters), and Serena has won an incredible 72 singles tournaments, while Venus has triumphed in 49. Between the girls they have 18 Grand Slam wins, and have been an incredible doubles team, winning 3 Olympic Gold Medals and 14 Grand Slam doubles titles to go with 22 other doubles wins. Venus was #1 for 11 weeks, while Serena had a run of 319 weeks at the top! In 2002-2003 they became the only women to play each other in the final of 4 Grand Slam events in a row. (We used 2002 as the year because that was the first year both were ranked #1.)
3. 1st to Win Men’s Grand Slam Tennis Event, Arthur Ashe, 1968.
This Virginian born in 1943 was raised by his father when his mom died at the age of 27. Young Arthur was discovered and mentored by the same coach that coached Althea Gibson. Barred from playing against White kids while growing up, Ashe developed into a player that would win 3 Grand Slam titles and become #1 in the world in 1968, the first African American man to do so. Ashe was the first African American man placed on the US Davis Cup team, and remains the only Black man to have won the French Open, Australian Open, and Wimbledon championships. Of course, he is in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, he died of AIDS at the age of 49, contracted from a blood transfusion during surgery. Ashe was active in the Civil Rights Movement and was an advocate for young African Americans to seek higher education.
4. 1st Major League Baseball Manager, Frank Robinson, 1975.
A superb player, Robinson had won the batting Triple Crown in 1966 playing for the Orioles, leading the league in homers, RBI’s and batting average. The Cleveland Indians made history when they made Robinson the first African American to lead a major sports franchise as manager or head coach. Frank also has a “first” of any race, that of winning the MVP award in both the National and American Leagues as a baseball player. When he retired he ranked #4 all time on the home run list and obviously is in the Hall of Fame. He went on to manage 3 other major league teams. In his rookie season (1956) he set the major league record for home runs by a rookie (38), later broken by Mark McGwire. He was the 1966 Hickock Belt winner as the best professional athlete in the world that year.
5. 1st Black Player in the American League, Larry Doby, 1947.
Just 3 months after Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier” in major league baseball, Doby joined the Cleveland Indians. In 1948, Doby along with Satchel Paige became the first African American players to win a World Series title, and Doby became the first Black player to hit a World Series home run. Doby led the league in homers in 1952 and 1954, and led the league in RBI’s in 1954. He was a 7 time All-Star and in 1998 was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Doby served as manager of the Chicago White Sox in 1978.
6. 1st Hickock Belt winner, Willie Mays, 1954.
The ‘Say hey’ kid as he was called, is considered by many to be the best all-around baseball player of all time. Mays won a record (tied) 12 Gold Glove Awards (they were created in 1957, or he may have won more) and was a 2 time MVP, as well as playing in 24 All-Star Games, a record he shares with Hank Aaron and Stan Musial. Mays was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1978, his first year of eligibility, and was selected as the greatest athlete in the world for the year of 1954 by being presented the Hickock Belt, the first man of African ancestry to earn the award.
7. 1st Major Leaguer to Steal 100 Bases in a Season, Maury Wills, 1962.
Maury Wills broke the coveted major league season stolen base record of 96, set by Ty Cobb back in 1915, when Maury stole 104 bases during the 1962 season for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Wills had an excellent major league career, with leading the league in stolen bases 6 consecutive years, earning an MVP award, earning an All-Star Game MVP award, playing in 7 All-Star Games (in 5 seasons), winning 2 Gold Gloves, leading the league in triples (once) and leading the league in singles 4 times. He remains the Dodgers all-time leader in stolen bases and single season at bats (695 in 1962). Wills also was awarded the Hickock Belt in 1962, but curiously is not in the Hall of Fame. Wills’ son, Bump Wills, was a major league baseball manager.
8. 1st Quarterback to Win Super Bowl, Doug Williams, 1988.
Williams played college football at Grambling State and earned a degree in education before becoming a pro football player in the NFL in 1978. Doug switched to the USFL for the 1984 season and led that league in passing, and then did considerably better during the 1985 season. In 1986, it was back to the NFL, and in the 1987 season Williams was the #2 quarterback for the Washington Redskins. At the end of the 1987 season Williams was chosen to start in Super Bowl XXII on January 31, 1988 against the Denver Broncos. Williams led the ‘Skins to a 42-10 victory and earned the game’s MVP award, becoming the first African American quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory. Williams is in the College Football Hall of Fame.
9. 1st African American Individual Champion in Any Sport, Marshall Taylor, 1899.
Nicknamed “Major,” Taylor won the World Championship in the Sprint event at the Track Cycling Championships held in Montreal in 1899. Taylor held many world records and was only the second Black male athlete to win a World Championship in any sport, second to Canadian George Dixon who won the Bantam Weight Boxing Championship in 1888. (Dixon also won the Feather Weight title in 1890.)
10. 1st Black Woman to Win Olympic Gold Medal, Alice Coachman, 1948.
Born into poverty in 1923 in Albany, Georgia, Alice faced discrimination in her efforts to become an athlete both for being female and for being African American. She went to the Tuskegee Preparatory School and then the Tuskegee Institute (graduating with a degree in dressmaking in 1946), but made her mark on history when she became the Women’s Running High Jump Olympic Gold Medalist at the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Not a one trick pony so to speak, Alice won the US AAU National Championship in the High Jump 10 years in a row (!) from 1939 to 1948, but also won National Championships in the 50 meter and 100 meter dashes, as well as the 400 meter relay. She also played on the 3 time conference winning basketball team at Tuskegee. Her winning Olympic high jump was 5’6 ½”. On retiring from Track, Alice worked as an educator and for the Job Corps. She died in 2014 at the age of 90.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other achievements would you add to the list? There are so many to pick from! Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Smith Ph.D., Jessie Carney. Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events. Visible Ink Press, 2012.