Black athletes have been blazing trails, breaking records, and changing the game for over 100 years in the USA, and even longer worldwide. It was not that long ago that Black people could not participate on the same grounds as White athletes. However, with steady persistence and fighting, many Black people broke through barriers and opened doors for today’s sports stars.
In honor of Black History Month, we at Flournoy Over Riley want to highlight some easily overlooked figures that paved the way in not only American, but world sports arenas. While these may not be the most well-known figures, these 10 Black athletes continued to fight and forge new ground in their sport adding to the rich history of accomplishments and triumphs for their people.
- Vic Moore – Before Bruce Leroy and Michael Jai White were delivering beatdowns, Victor Moore was busy becoming the first Black person to win a national major karate competition. This 10th degree Grandmaster won his first national title in 1965, and continued on to win 4 world championships. Literally kicking @$$ and taking names Moore had the eventual pleasure of competing alongside martial arts legend Bruce Lee.
- Moses Fleetwood Walker – Almost everyone knows that Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier in 1947. But very few people know that it was actually Moses Fleetwood Walker who was the first Black athlete to play professional baseball in the USA. In 1883 Walker joined a minor league team, the Toledo Blue Stockings. One year later, he and his team joined the major league American Association making Walker the first Black major leaguer. Because the American Association folded in 1891, and the formation of a new MLB began in 1903, Walker does not receive the same acclaim for breaking into today’s baseball league. But Walker’s one year of duty with the Blue Stockings, which predated the 1889 color barrier prohibiting Black players that Robinson eventually broke, will forever be remembered.
- Dominique Dawes – My earliest memory of seeing a Black person perform in an Olympic gymnastics competition is watching Dominique Dawes in 1992. And I do not know any adolescent boys in my grade school that didn’t have a crush on her. I just knew one day she would be my girlfriend. That day never came, but something even more amazing happened in 1996. What I did not realize that during those competitions was that Dawes was somersaulting and back-flipping her way into the history books. Dawes became the first Black woman in 1996 to win an individual Olympic medal in gymnastics. Dawes was eventually inducted into the Olympics Gymnastics’ Hall of Fame in 2005.
- Arthur Wharton – Remember when I talked about how diverse the USA men’s national soccer team looks today? Well the players of color around the world owe a lot of thanks to Arthur Wharton. Born in Ghana, Wharton was the first Black professional Association Football player in the world in the late 1800’s (An interesting read: How Association Football in England became Soccer in the USA). Wharton manned the net as a goalie, and played winger for professional club teams in England like Darlington FC and Sheffield United. He also sported one of the best mustaches you will ever lay eyes on.
- Willie O’Ree – NHL 16’ just went on sale for $19.99, and you know a brotha had to grab it. What? You didn’t think I liked hockey? Think again. Kyle isn’t the only F.O.R. co-creator who has an appreciation for the ice. Before all the strikes, hockey was one of the sports I loved to follow. I never once stopped to ask myself however, who was the first Black hockey player? Well, that honor goes to Mr. Willie O’Ree. Dubbed the “Jackie Robinson of hockey,” O’Ree made his pro debut in 1958 with the Boston Bruins. Let me explain how amazing Willie O’Ree is: he played with 5% vision in his right eye, AND he made his debut in Boston. Boston people! In the 50’s, trying to be a Black man playing possibly the whitest sport in one of the most racist cities had to be almost impossible. O’Ree made it happen, and made it possible for men like Val James, James Ward, and others to play in the NHL. Never being too old, he still shares his stories at age 80 on The Players Tribune.
- Tina Sloan Green – ESPN once stated that “When you think about the real trailblazers for black women in sports, Tina Sloan Green is at the top of the list.” She should? Yes she should. When I wrote a couple weeks ago about my daughter expanding her sports options to include lacrosse, swimming and other activities in which Black women typically do not participate, Sloan Green was one of the driving inspirations. Sloan Green was the first Black head coach in women’s college lacrosse history, and was a perennial winner and champion. In 1992 she was one of the founders of the Black Women in Sport Foundation, based in Philadelphia, which focuses on helping Black women become more involved in athletics. Born, raised and educated in Philadelphia area, she is (or should be) as big of a Philly sports icon as Rocky Balboa. I mean, the 76ers even honored her, and according to some people, they are racists.
- Charlie Sifford – Golf is one of those sports that Black people typically don’t rock with. Outside of playing Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 for the PS2, my interaction with a golf course remains limited to trying to avoid hitting passer-byes with my golf balls at a driving range. While Tiger represents “Black golf” to this generation, Charlie Sifford was doing this sh*t a long time before Woods came on the scene. Sifford died during Black History Month last year, but his accomplishments on the green will be forever remembered. Sifford became the first Black PGA tour member in 1961 amidst racist threats, insults, and abuse. The PGA actually had to rescind membership bylaws that stated only White people could be granted membership. Woods knows the type of example Sifford left on him and any other Black person who swings a 9-iron when he broke the PGA color barrier. “He fought, and what he did, the courage it took for him to stick with it and be out here and play, I probably wouldn’t be here, my dad wouldn’t have picked up the game, who knows if the clause would still exist or not. But he broke it down.”
- Alice Coachman – In 1936 Jesse Owens changed the game. He showed the world that Black people were the gifted, talented, and deserved the same respect and treatment as everyone else. Twelve years later, Alice Coachman did the exact same thing, on the same (less racially charged) stage in London. Coachman became the first Black woman to win a gold medal. She was a high jumping star. Before she died in 2014, she was named one of the 100 Greatest Olympians at the 1996 games in Atlanta. She will forever live on through the lives of the many Black track and field Olympians we get to experience every 4 years because, as Coachman said before her passing, “I think I opened the gate for all of them.” Whether they think that or not, they should be grateful to someone in the black race who was able to do these things.” Yes they should. And yes you did.
- Harry Lew – It seems really odd to me that we celebrate Jackie Robinson every April 15th for breaking the color barrier in professional baseball, but no one ever talks about Harry Lew. Honestly, I hadn’t even heard of Harry Lew until researching this article. Who is he you ask. Well Lew was the first Black man to play professional basketball in the states. Lew integrated the New England Professional Basketball League in 1902 with the Lowell’s Pawtucketville Athletic Club. Known as “Bucky” to most, Lew retired more than 24 years before Chuck Cooper became the first Black player drafted in the National Basketball Association. During a time where double-dribbling on the court was as legal as spewing racial epithets at Black people, Lew paved a way for Kareem, Jordan, Lebron, Steph, and everyone else in today’s primarily Black pro basketball league
- Jacqueline DeLois Moore – Now I have never considered professional wrestling a sport. I still don’t really know if I do. It is more like athletic theater. But if F.O.R. can publish an article about the racism in the “sport”, then not only can I consider it a sport for the time being, but I also can include Jacqueline DeLois Moore in this article. Moore, was one of the beauties of the World Wrestling Federation. In 1998, she became the first Black woman to hold the title of WWF Women’s Champion. In a sport built off of theatrics and racism, Moore pushed through the boundaries to not only become a champion, but to engrain herself as a staple in wrestling. Moore was a winner in all of the wrestling leagues she was a part of, and –fun fact– she holds a black belt in taekwondo. Some are calling for her to be in the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame. That would be a fitting end to an amazing career.