A pioneer is a person or group that originates or helps open a new line of thought or activity. A pioneer is a leader who opens new opportunities in preparation for others to follow.
It is vital we reflect on the countless athletes who wrote history as they fostered a more inclusive sports landscape for people of color and their communities and revolutionized the world of sports. Black athletes endured undeniable racism in many forms, physical, mental, and emotional racist violence, segregated leagues, low pay, travel restrictions, and denial of their rights to play. These examples merely scratch the surface of the barriers that these pioneers faced to compete.
The momentous strides these pioneers made were agonizing and took years of perseverance. The effort towards a more anti-racist (actively identifying and opposing racism) world is ongoing today. Continue reading to learn more about some notable pioneers who integrated sports, broke barriers, and defined the world of sports as we know it today.
Number 42, Jackie Robinson was the first Black Major League Baseball (MLB) player. He was 28 years old when he took the field starting for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947. That day Robinson slammed the door on a nearly 60-year ban that prevented Black athletes from competing in the MLB. After Robinson joined the MLB, other professional sports leagues, associations, and organizations began to inch towards more integrated teams. Number 42 has been retired across the MLB in honor of Jackie Robinson.
Early in Jack Johnson's career, he struggled to find elite white boxers to compete against him, they declined because they marginalized Johnson. Johnson won a competition called The Colored Heavyweight Championship of the World. Five years later, a champion white boxer named Tommy Burns finally agreed to compete against Johnson. Johnson won that day and earned the title Heavyweight Champion of the World. That day this pioneer also earned the title of the first Black heavyweight world champion. Johnson was faced with blatant racism when he returned home with his title. The press was vocal about their desire for the title of World Champion to be given to a white man.
Wilma Rudolph, also known as The Fastest Women in the World, was the first American woman and the first African American Woman to win three Olympic gold medals. Rudolph was subject to racism from the Jim Crow laws during her athletic career. Often, she had to find alternate accommodations from her white teammates. Rudolph petitioned against a parade and dinner that her hometown wanted to host to honor her achievements at the Olympics. She said she would not attend unless the events welcomed all races. The efforts of this pioneer paid off, and she successfully integrated the events. That day Clarksville Tennessee hosted its first integrated gatherings.
Wendell Scott drove in a total of 495 NASCAR races. In 1963 Scott was the first African American to get behind the wheel to win a NASCAR race. After this win, Scott was not permitted to stand on the podium to receive his trophy. Sponsors of the race claimed they could not have a Black man be seen receiving an award from a white woman. During his NASCAR career, Scott was faced with a lack of resources and had to repair his own car, but that did not stop him from winning. What prevented him from receiving the recognition he deserved was when he crossed the finish line in first place, the checkered flag would not be presented. In 2021, 57 long years after winning a NASCAR race and 31 years after his death, Scott's family was finally presented with a trophy that he was never awarded. NASCAR pioneer Wendell Scott ultimately was an inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Kenny Washington and Woody Strode
Kenny Washington and Woody Strode are two notable names for the integration of the National Football League (NFL). After competing for UCLA, Washington and Strode battled racist NFL team owners who denied Black players their rights to compete in the league. Their peak performance years were far behind them by the time they finally got drafted to play for the Rams. According to history.com Strode was quoted in an unpublished interview for Sports Illustrated "Integrating the NFL was the low point of my life, there was nothing nice about it. History doesn't know who we are. Kenny was one of the greatest backs in the history of the game, and kids today have no idea who he is. If I have to integrate heaven, I don't want to go."
Chuck Cooper started his basketball career with the Harlem Globetrotters. During the 1950 National Basketball Association (NBA) draft Cooper was the 13th pick, and the first African American picked in an NBA draft. He was selected to play for the Celtics. Cooper had an excellent career in the NBA and was ultimately inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame. Cooper was not greeted with open arms from all the Celtics owners, but Walter Brown, the founder of the Celtics knew Cooper was a star and wanted him on the team. Due to Jim Crow laws Cooper regularly ate meals and found accommodations that were different than his white teammates. Cooper modestly never considered himself a pioneer, but we certainly recognize him as such.
In 1958 Willie O’Ree was the first Black athlete to join the National Hockey League (NHL) with the Bruins. O’Ree’s career highlights include scoring four goals, play time in 45 games, and induction in the Hockey Hall of Fame. It wasn't all smooth sailing for O’Ree as he integrated the NHL. He was faced with verbal racist slurs on a regular basis during games and was in a physical fight that ended with lost teeth and a broken nose. He has written a book about his experience on the ice of the NHL called The Autobiography of Willie O’Ree: Hockey’s Black Pioneer
Charlie Sifford was in his prime golfing years in 1950. During this time, the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) had a specific racist “Caucasians-only” clause in their bylaws. 11 years later, Sifford ended the clause, which was in effect for 30 years when he joined the PGA tour. Sifford won the PGA tour two times and was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. During the tournaments, he was constantly bombarded with verbal racist abuse. He, like other pioneers, missed their peak athletic performance years due to racist clauses and unspoken laws preventing Black athletes from competing at the professional level.
When you think of a pioneer in Women’s tennis, Serena Williams is certainly one of the first names to come to mind. But Serena didn’t win her first grand slam until 1999. Believe it or not, Althea Gibson was a trailblazer in tennis even before Serena Williams climbed the ranks. Gibson was the first Black woman to compete professionally in women’s tennis and the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). During her professional tennis career, she won 11 grand slam titles. Gibson was ranked as a top tennis player globally by 1956 and was the first African American to win titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.