Record Setting Black Athletes during the Jim Crow Era

These past few weeks of research and writing for February’s Black History Month series has been a deeply rewarding experience as a young Black woman. I’ve learned about the names, voices, and accomplishments that have been hidden from our people for centuries. It’s incredible the depth of knowledge we have waiting for us to explore. There are hundreds of stories that are waiting for our eyes to discover them. Our ancestors have faced incredible odds and fought outstanding battles, reading about their challenges gives life to those experiences. We must continue to give life to the stories of our past because they breathe life into our present, they revive our minds and renew our way of thinking. Black History month should be a time of learning, remembrance and reflection. I want to take a moment to focus on Blacks role in sports and athletics. 

Historically Blacks have been barred from participating sports for centuries. The New York Renaissance was the first all-black professional basketball team, established February 13, 1923 by Robert Douglass. Douglass was nicknamed the “Father of Black Basketball” and coached the team until 1949. He was the first African American enshrined onto the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1972. As the team traveled for games they were limited by Jim Crow Laws which didn’t allow their stay at many hotels and restaurants, forcing them at many times to sleep on the bus. The team completed against whoever they could find, black or white, as some white teams refused to play against them. Regardless they rose the ranks of the league, winning 88 games straight during the 1923-33 season. Could you imagine the NBA without Blacks now? We continue to dominate the sport, even with centuries behind in experience. Personally basketball was a large part of my childhood, I played all throughout grade school. It was a great way for me to exercise and bond with my father, who regularly assisted my couch in training my school team. Basketball has become a cultural practice in the Black community, a general pastime to watch or play. 

Basketball is my sport of choice but I was filled with pride when I read about America’s first Black Heavyweight Champion, Jack Johnson. He won the title during the hight go the Jim Crow era in 1908 and kept the title for the following five years straight. While Blacks weren’t even allowed to sit in the same areas as whites we were out fighting for the country and winning world titles. Winning titles for the same country that was hesitant to give us citizenship, fighting battles for the same country that enforced Jim Crow Laws. Johnson was a son of former slaves, the third of nine children. He was born in a poor neighborhood and also worked to support his family, sweeping up classrooms for ten cents a week. Like those teams that refused to play the Rens, many white boxers refused to spar with Blacks, making it difficult for Black fighters to prove themselves in the rink. Aside from this Johnson was able to fight enough to entice white boxers that were once hesitant. For example, Tommy Burns, who succeeded Johnson as heavyweight champion finally agreed to spar with him after being paid $30,000 by promoters. After 14 rounds Johnson claimed the title.

Black men weren’t alone in paving the way for Blacks in sports, there were many Black women who were incredible athletes of their time. Track was another one of my favorite sports to participate in during high school. One of the world’s fastest woman, Wilma Rudolph, was born with polio unable to walk. Rudolph grew up wearing a brace on her right leg and by the age of 16 she qualified for the 1956 Olympics. Along with her miraculous track career Rudolf was also a civil rights activist. She participated in sit-ins at whites’ only restaurants and established a community center, the Wilma Rudolph Foundation. Another influential Black female tracks star is Alice Coachman, the first Black women to win an Olympic medal. Coachman received the medal after placing gold with a record-setting performance in high jump at the 1948 Olympics in London, all while suffering from a back injury. It’s crazy that not many people know about Coachman, she was born in the segregated South November 9, 1923. As a runner there were many instances, do to segregation, where she was unable to ride transportation to her sports events. However, she broke college high jump records while barefoot in the Amateur Athlete Union (AAU) national championship’s track and field competition. Her athletic success got her the position as the spokesman for Coca-Cola in 1952, making her the first African American to ever receive an endorsement deal. Women like Rudolph and Coachman paved the way for Black women in athletics today. Now, especially in the United States, when it comes to athletics Blacks are at the forefront. Black women have made outstanding strides in sports as well. Recently African American gymnast Simone Biles became the 2016 Olympic individual all-around, vault and floor gold medalist. Prior to Biles, Gabby Douglass was the first African American to win the individual all-around event. Douglass won gold medals in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. 

In a country were a people were brought as slaves, reduced to second-class citizens and oppressed for centuries; there are an unlimited number of victories that have been won by our people over the centuries. We’ve climbed up tall hurdles and gone over many obstacles so there’s no limit to Black History. 

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