In honor of Black History Month, we will focus the February blogs on groundbreaking people who were champions of sport, champions of the arts and literature, champions of care, and champions of human rights and diversity. We are grateful to people who follow their convictions, who are determined to be their best selves, and who paved the way for future generations.
8 Champions of Sport
Jesse Owens (1913 -1980) won four gold medals for running and field events at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which helped to dispel some myths about Aryan supremacy. But Owens was the third American born Black to win Olympic medals. George Coleman Poage (1880-1962) was first in St. Louis in 1904 and he won bronze medals in both the 200-yard and 400-yard hurdles, and John Taylor (1882-1908) won a gold on the men’s relay team at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London.
Alice Coachman (1923-2014) made history at the 1948 Olympics in London when she cleared 5 feet 6 and 1/8 inches in the high jump (despite having a back injury), winning her a gold medal and making her the first Black woman to do so. King George VI personally awarded her the medal. In 1952, Coachman was offered a spokesperson deal by Coca-Cola, making her the first African American to earn an endorsement deal. She established the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation to help support younger athletes and provide assistance to retired Olympic veterans. She was inducted into nine different halls of fame.
Arthur John “Jack” Johnson (1878-1946) was the first Black American boxer to become a heavyweight champion on December 26, 1908. As PBS reports, “He infuriated whites who felt Johnson acted above his station.” He flaunted his wealth and dated white women, and eventually ran into legal trouble and fled to Canada and then Europe, where he continued boxing. In 1920, he returned to the United States and served an eight-month jail sentence before being released. He wrote two memoirs, appeared in movies, gave lectures and did a number of other things before dying in a car accident.
Althea Gibson (1927-2003) was an American tennis player and golfer and she was the first Black player to win the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open singles championships. She was noted for her dominating serves and powerful plays, and in 1957, she was voted Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press and she won the award again the following year. After her tennis career, she took up golfand became the first African-American member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association. And in 1971, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) was the first Black American to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era. (Professional baseball became racially segregated in the 1880s with the creation of Negro leagues). Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and during his 10-year career, he won the Rookie of the Year award, was an All-Star for six consecutive seasons and won the National League Most Valuable Player Award, the first Black player to win this honor. After his baseball career, he became the first Black MLB TV analyst and the first Black vice president of an American Corporation. After his death, Robison was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition for his achievements on and off the field.
Val James (1957 – ) was the first American born Black player in the National Hockey League and he made his debut with the Buffalo Sabres in 1981. (Canadian Willie O’Ree (1935- ) is referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of ice hockey” as he was the one to break the color barrier.) James also holds the distinction of being the first native-born Floridan to play professional hockey. He played for the Toronto Maple Leafs for one season before retiring from the sport in 1988. His autobiography, Black Ice: The Val James Story was released by ECW Press to coincide with Black History Month in 2015.
If you’d like to hear more about being a groundbreaking professional athlete, listen to WNBA superstar and two-time Olympic gold medalist Candace Parker’s recent TedTalk on breaking down barriers and not accepting limits.
You can read about other inspiring champions here.