Athletes who broke the race barrier in US sports



During the years of segregation and hardship for African Americans, these athletes stood their ground and played the sports they loved despite the pushbacks.

Ella Menzi, Sports Editor

Throughout 20th century American history, adversity came in many shapes and forms. Whether it was war, depression, and most noteworthy, The Civil Rights Movement, the society and culture of the United States went through many rough changes throughout the century. For Black athletes, this was a time to fight, and many of them used the power of sports as their weapon.
Football: Kenny Washington
Growing up in Los Angeles, Washington showed talent from the very start of his football career. Leading his high school team to city championships his junior year, and state his senior year, he stood out among his teammates. He was recruited to the University of California, Los Angeles, where he became an even bigger star on the field, leading the nation in scoring and also being named the first All-American player at UCLA. However, when Washington graduated in 1936, the NFL was in the middle of a 12-year ban, preventing Black athletes from playing. Despite this pushback, Washington played for two semi-pro league teams- the Hollywood Bears and the San Francisco Clippers.
Finally, after a long wait, the ban for Black athletes in the NFL was lifted in 1946, and Washington joined the league playing for the Los Angeles Rams. He and his roommate Woody Strode became the first Black Americans to play in the NFL.
Baseball: Jackie Robinson
One of the more well-known Black Americans to make history in the 20th-century sports world, Jackie Robinson came from humble beginnings. Growing up in poverty, Robinson struggled with financial difficulties throughout his athletic career, even having to leave UCLA due to these complications. Post-UCLA, where he became the first student to varsity letter in four sports, Robinson moved to Honolulu, Hawaii to play football for the Honolulu Bears in the semi-pro league.
World War II became a part of Robinson’s journey as he became a US second lieutenant. Even though he did not see combat on the battlefield, he faced racial injustices on the mainland. Robinson was arrested and court-martialed in 1944 for refusing to give up his seat on a segregated bus; he was ultimately acquitted and found inspiration through fighting in the Civil Rights Movement, implementing it in his later pro career.
After the war, Robinson was discharged and continued to pursue his career in major-league baseball. Starting out on the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro leagues, he would create waves as the manager for the Brooklyn Dodgers pinned him as the player who would integrate the big leagues. Facing major adversity during his time on the Dodgers, Robinson sparked change in the league, forming friendships and loyalty with his coach; he would also earn the title “Rookie of the Year” in 1947 as well as lead his team to victory in the World Series in 1955.
Softball: Betty Chapman
In 1951, Betty Chapman became the first Black American woman to join the National Girls Baseball league of Chicago playing outfield for the Admiral Music Maids.
Basketball: Chuck Cooper, Earl Lloyd, Sweetwater Clifton
Late in the year 1950, these three men made history by joining the NBA as the first Black Americans in the Professional League. They followed single file as they each created their own grand moment in their careers. Cooper became the first Black American to be drafted into the NBA by the Boston Celtics in 1950. That same month, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton signed with the New York Knicks becoming the first Black athlete to sign an NBA contract. Lastly, on Oct. 21, 1950, Lloyd became the first African American to play in an NBA game as a member of the Washington Capitals. These men changed the NBA for the rest of their career and beyond, encouraging and inspiring many more young Black men in America to chase their goals.
Soccer: Eddie Hawkins (men’s), Kim Crabbe (women’s)
Eddie Hawkins had shown talent from the beginning of his high school career, as he was developing into the future All-American he became. Turning down the offer to go pro after his graduation from high school in 1980, Hawkins led his college team, the Hartwick Hawks, to the Final Four. After graduating, Hawkins joined the U.S. National soccer team and became the first Black American to play for them as well and earn a cap (play in a game) for the U.S.
Coming in for the women’s side is Kim Crabbe: the first African American to play in the U.S. National Women’s soccer team in 1986. Before going pro, Crabbe played for George Mason University and participated in the NCAA Championships in 1985, which brought her to light among the professionals. She continues to coach and plays soccer to this day and was inducted into the VA-DC Soccer Hall of Fame in 2016.
Tennis: Bob Ryland (men’s), Althea Gibson (women’s)
Beginning tennis at the age of 9, Bob Ryland became the first Black American to become a professional tennis player and play at the World Pro Championships in 1959. He broke multiple color barriers at the collegiate level as well, breaking the segregation while playing in the NCAA National Championships reaching the semi-finals. Playing until the age of 85, Ryland coached and guided many other Black Americans to make their way to the top in tennis, including Serena and Venus Williams.
Althea Gibson emerged from the small town of Silver, South Carolina as one of the most athletic girls in her youth. By the age of 12, she had won the New York Women’s paddle championship, developing the skills for tennis then and there. Playing for the American Tennis Association, (ATA) Gibson had won two Junior National Championships at 17 and 18-years-old and continued to win 10 more ATA National Woman’s titles in 1947. There was no denying her talent in the sport, and she only continued to improve as she ended her tennis career with a combined 58 singles and doubles titles.
Track: George Poage (men’s), Alice Coachman (women’s)
George Poage became a man of many firsts for Black Americans — the first Black American to win a race at the Big Ten conference track championships, join the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s track team and, most importantly, receive two Olympic medals. This event in the 1904 Olympic games set headway for more African American athletes such as Jesse Owens, the first African American to win four gold medals during one Olympic game.
Just 44 years later, another astounding athlete, Alice Coachman, had broken Olympic records. Coachman had grown up in poverty and was not able to participate in sporting events because of segregation. However, this did not stop her from running the dirt roads to train and improve herself. Being spotted by the coach at Tuskegee Institution, she was offered a scholarship and thus continued to defy odds. Coachman had broken high-school and college records all over the country for the high jump, but it wasn’t until the 1948 Olympics that she broke history by winning the gold medal in the high jump, becoming the first Black American woman to win a gold medal.
Volleyball: Flo Hyman
Nicknamed “the Goddess of Volleyball,” Flo Hyman became one of the first Black American members of the U.S. Olympic volleyball team. She led her team in the 1984 Olympics to a silver medal and would soon after play two seasons for a league in Japan. Sadly, in 1986 Hyman collapsed during a match from an undetected, genetic heart disease known as Marfan Syndrome, and passed away at the age of 31. She was inducted into the National Volleyball Hall of Fame in 1988 and will forever be remembered for breaking the barrier of her beloved sport.
These competitors not only fought for themselves in the age of civil rights but for the generations to come. They left their marks on the world as talented and inspiring individuals who helped create the sports world as we know it today.