Throughout the month of February the United States comes together to celebrate and pay tribute to generations of black history. The official celebration was started in 1926 and expanded to become Black History Month in 1976. While the month serves as a time to pay tribute to the contributions of African Americans throughout American history, it is also an opportunity to reflect on the changes that diversity brings to sports.
So many African-American women have broken barriers and shattered glass ceilings in the world of sports and their impact was felt both on and off the field of play; women such as, Althea Gibson, Venus Williams, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Gabby Douglas. In 2016 we saw the rise of the hashtag #BlackGirlMagic and while there may not be an official definition there are certainly numerous examples in the grace, sportsmanship and superior athleticism of these women. Join us this month as we highlight phenomenal African-American women and their incredible accomplishments in sports across our social media platforms and here on the S.H.E. Network.
In honor of Black History Month, below are just a few outstanding women we would like to highlight who were the first to break a barrier in their respective sport, or field, from legends to comtemporaries:
Bessie Coleman – first African American, male or female, to earn a pilot’s license in 1921.
Alice Coachman – first African American to win an Olympic gold medal in 1948.
Althea Gibson – first African American ever to be invited to Wimbledon in 1951. She would go on to become the first person of color to win the French Open in 1956, Wimbledon in 1957 and the US Open in 1958, as well as garnering 56 singles and doubles championships before turning pro in 1959.
Willye White – competed in the first five consecutive Olympic Games. She is the only American woman to accomplish this.
Wilma Rudolph – overcame childhood polio to capture three Olympic gold medals at the Rome Olympics and the title of fastest woman in the world in 1960.
Lucy Harris – scored the first basket in Olympic competition and led her team to a silver medal in 1976.
Tina Sloan Green – first African American to coach Division I women’s lacrosse in 1978.
Anita DeFrantz – first female member admitted to the International Olympic Committee in 1981.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee – the only female athlete to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated (aside from the swimsuit edition) in 1987. She was also the first woman to win the heptathlon in consecutive Olympic Games in 1992.
Debi Thomas – first African American woman to win a world championship in figure skating in 1989.
Bernadette Locke – first woman to hold a full-time coaching position for a men’s team at an NCAA Division I school when she was hired as an assistant men’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky in 1990.
Brenda Gilmore – first African American female to be nationally ranked in wheelchair tennis in 1990.
Robin Roberts – first woman to anchor a network NFL studio show in 1996.
Dee Kantner and Violet Palmer – first female referees hired by the NBA in 1997.
Vonetta Flowers – first African American athlete from any country to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics when she and Jill Bakken won the two-woman bobsled at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
Melanie Davis – first woman to officiate an NCAA men’s tournament game in 2002.
Simone Biles – completed an extraordinary stretch at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games that included a team gold for the “Final Five” as well as individual golds in the all-around and vault and bronze on balance beam. Her five medals tie the most for an American female gymnast in a single Olympics and her four golds tie an Olympic record shared by four others.
Simone Manuel – first African American woman to win an individual event in Olympic swimming at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Ashleigh Johnson – first female African American to ever make the U.S. Water Polo Olympic Team in 2016. As a part of the team at the Rio Games, she made history further as the U.S. became the first team to win back-to-back women’s water polo gold, making her the first African American woman to win an Olympic gold medal for the U.S.
Claressa Shields – first American boxer, male or female, to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals at the Rio Games in 2016.
Michelle Carter – won gold in shot put at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, becoming the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in the event since 1960 and the first American to win gold.
Nneka Ogwumike – named the 2016 WNBA MVP, Ogwumike shot a WNBA-best 66.5 percent from the field this season, the second-highest mark of all time, and set league records for consecutive field goals made (23) and most field goals in a game without a miss (12).
Serena Williams – a legend on the tennis court, Serena won her 23rd Grand Slam singles title in January 2017, breaking her tie for the Open-era record with Steffi Graf. Now back at world No. 1 she also has a career total of 72 WTA singles titles and 23 WTA doubles titles.
Learn more about how WSF is committed to ensuring all girls access to sports through its Sports 4 Life and GoGirlGo! programs, its research reports Her Life Depends On It III and Go Out and Play, as well as featured blogs.