By Published On: February 27, 2021

Nelson Mandela once said that sports have the power to change the world. “It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”

Mandela’s famous quote, delivered after the 1995 Rugby World Cup in Johannesburg, South Africa, celebrates the opportunity for unity in athletics. This unity is thanks to a number of talented and determined Black athletes who paved the road for future athletes of color. As Black History Month comes to a close, we recognize and celebrate the Black heroes who defied racial barriers with their skill and perseverance. [

Willie Mays

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Willie Mays was a pioneer in baseball, starting his career with the New York Giants in 1950. His accomplishments include 24 All-Star and 12 Golden Glove awards, and he led the league in home runs, stolen bases, slugging percentages, total bases, and triples. In 1979 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.[

Jack Johnson

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Jack Johnson began his boxing career around the age of 16. He became the first Black world heavyweight champion in 1908 when he secured a victory against reigning champ Tommy Burns. In 1910, he defeated boxer Jim Jefferies, who had previously refused to fight him based on his race, in the “Fight of the Century.” 

In 1912, he was convicted by an all-white jury of violating the Mann Act for bringing his white girlfriend across state lines and has since received a posthumous Presidential pardon in 2018.[

Althea Gibson


In 1950, Althea Gibson was the first African-American tennis player to compete at the US National Championships. She was also the first to play at Wimbledon the following year.

She won singles and doubles at Wimbledon in ‘57, and won the US Open the next year. In 1971, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.[

Wilma Rudolph

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Having overcome polio at a young age, Wilma Rudolph went on to become the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field in one Olympic game, for her performance in the 1960 Olympics.

She earned the title “The Fastest Woman in the World,” and was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983.[

Bobby Marshall

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In 1920, Bobby Marshall was the first Black man, along with Fritz Pollard, to play in what would become the NFL, playing for the Rock Island Independents.

The lawyer and multi-talented athlete would go on to play football until the age of 56, and baseball until his 60s. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971.[

Blake Bolden

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Blake Bolden started her hockey career at a young age. Upon graduating college, she became the first Black player drafted in the first round of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, winning the Clarkson Cup with the Boston Blades in 2015.

The following year, she became the first Black player to compete in the National Women’s Hockey League. She currently serves as an NHL scout as the second woman in NHL history to do so.[

Carl Lewis

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Carl Lewis is one of few Olympic athletes to win nine Olympic gold medals, having attended the Olympics in 1984, ‘88, ‘92, and ‘96, and he is the only man to have won the title for the Olympic long jump four consecutive times. 

In 1984, he won gold in the 100m, 200m, the long jump, and the 4x100m relay, matching Jesse Owens’ performance in 1936. He has earned the title of Athlete of the Century.[

Earl Lloyd

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Earl Lloyd became the first African-American to play with the NBA at the age of 21 with the Washington Capitols’ opening game in 1950. While two other Black players, Chuck Cooper and Nat Clifton had also been drafted in 1950, Lloyd was the very first to take the court.

After his retirement, he became a scout and assistant coach, and in 1970 became the first full-time Black head coach for the NBA. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003. [

Gabby Douglas

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Gabby Douglas made history at the age of 16 in 2012 when she became the first African-American gymnast in Olympic history to become the Individual All-Around Champion.

She is also the first American gymnast to win gold in both individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics.[

Shani Davis

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Shani Davis started speed skating at the age of six, and started making history at the age of 17, becoming the first African-American skater to earn positions on the Junior World Team’s short and long track teams.

He is the first Black speed skater to earn a position on the Olympic team and became the first Black athlete from any country to win a gold medal in the winter Olympics for his performance in the 2006 Olympics.[


Interested in learning more about history makers in professional sports? Check out our article, “11 Female Coaches Who Made History.”

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