Black Athletes In History You Might Not Know


Everyone knows names like Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, but here are some sports figures you might not know:

1.

Tommie Smith


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His name will forever be tied with John Carlos after the two raised their fists for a Black Power salute on the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics. It was to protest racism and injustices against Black people.

Both men were suspended and banned from the US team, and upon returning home, received death threats.

2.

John Carlos


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Along with raising black-gloved fists, John and Tommie also wore their black socks on the podium without shoes. This was an act to represent Black poverty in the US.

About 32 years earlier, the Nazi salute was allowed during the Olympics and deemed acceptable.

3.

Althea Gibson


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Althea was the first Black player to win a Grand Slam title, a five-time Slam winner, and the first Black woman to join the LPGA.

She was sports athlete and a trailblazer. She was also the first Black woman to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

4.

Wilma Rudolph


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Wilma was an American sprinter in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics, where she won three gold medals — the first American woman to ever do so.

She was a pioneer in women’s and civil rights.

5.

Bill Russell


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Bill is a Boston Celtics legend and 11-time — you read that right — NBA champion. Staying with Boston after his playing career, he was the first Black NBA coach and the first to win a title.

In 2011, then-president Barack Obama awarded Russell with the Medal of Freedom for his accomplishments in the civil rights movement and his basketball career.

6.

Fritz Pollard


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Frederick “Fritz” Pollard was the first Black head coach in the NFL (all while still playing running back) for the Akron Pros and several other teams. He was also one of the first two Black men to play in the NFL and played on seven different teams.

7.

Bobby Marshall


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Bobby is also one of the first Black players in the NFL, and played for the University of Minnesota. He had quite the athletic résumé: football, baseball, track, wrestling, ice hockey, and boxing.

He went pro in football and baseball.

By 1933, all Black players, including Bobby and Fritz Pollard, disappeared from the league. It’s easy to look back and see there was virtually a ban on Black players entering the league.

8.

Charlie Sifford


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Charlie was the first Black player on the PGA Tour in 1961. Although his pro golf career started in 1948, he didn’t get a real chance at the Tour until the 1959 U.S. Open.

He had 22 professional wins in his career.

Charlie paved the way for the biggest sports name of the 21st century: Tiger Woods.

9.

Arthur Ashe


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Three-time Grand Slam winner Arthur Ashe was the first Black man to win a singles title. He won at Wimbledon, the Australian Open, and the US Open. In total, he won 18 career titles.

He founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS.

10.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee


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Jackie is a track and field athlete who won six Olympic medals — all while overcoming severe asthma. She is a philanthropist in racial equality, women’s rights, and children’s education.

11.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


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Arguably the greatest basketball player ever (yeah, I said it), the Lakers great has a long list of accomplishments. No, I couldn’t possibly list them all…okay, maybe a few:

Six league MVP awards, six-time NBA champion, 19-time NBA All-Star, 10-time All-NBA First Team, 2 Finals MVP awards, 38,387 career points, and 17,440 career rebounds. This man personified “elite career longevity” before LeBron James and Tom Brady.

He also has been a major activist in his post-basketball career and continues to push discussions about race and religion.

12.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf


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During his nine-year NBA career, Mahmoud refused standing for the national anthem. He referred to the flag as a symbol of oppression and was suspended by the league (which cost him his salary for the game: $31,707). He would silently recite a prayer during the anthem as an alternative way to protest.

13.

Curt Flood


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Following the 1969 baseball season, Curt became one of the biggest names related to sports labor when he refused to be traded and demanded to be a free agent. This snowballed into free agency in baseball and a part of sports that is key for competitive leagues.

14.

Frank Robinson


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The first Black MLB manager, Frank was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He won two championships, and is the only player to be named MVP in both the American League and National League.

He recently passed away in 2019.

15.

John Thompson


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The Georgetown coach, who died in August, was the first Black coach to win a collegiate basketball championship. He also won two championships in his NBA career.

16.

Rube Foster


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Andrew “Rube” Foster founded and managed the Chicago American Giants, one of the best Black baseball teams. This Hall of Famer wasn’t just a fantastic player, but is also considered to be the “Father of Black Baseball.”

17.

Craig Hodges


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One of the original blackballed athletes in the public eye, during the championship White House visit, Craig delivered a handwritten note to then-president George H.W. Bush expressing the mistreatment of poor minorities.

After, no team signed him or called him for a tryout.

18.

Maya Moore


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One of the best women to ever play basketball, this four-time WNBA champ walked away from the game in 2019 to focus efforts on reforming the American justice system.

She worked to successfully grant the release of now-husband Jonathan Irons.

From past to present, Black athletes continue to make strides in the sports world and in their communities.


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From Colin Kaepernick to LeBron James to the women of the WNBA, Black athletes today continue to do plenty of work off the field for Black communities and social progress.

For more of BuzzFeed’s Black History Month content, click here.


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