During Black History Month it’s important to recognize the overlooked heroes just as much as the major icons.
Many people will respectfully pay tribute to Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali during Black History Month, as the most recognized athletes who changed their respective sports worlds forever. But going even deeper than that, there are countless number of men and women who deserve just as much praise.
Moses Fleetwood Walker
Jackie Robinson is known for the man who broke the color barrier in the MLB, but Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first African-American to play in an MLB game on May 1, 1884. As a catcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings Walker played one season of professional ball, and spent the rest of his career in the minors after that.
He dealt with severe racism and discrimination with many opposing teams refusing to play against the Blue Stockings with Walker in the lineup. Walker’s play in the major leagues can be marked as the beginning of the MLB refusing to allow African-Americans to play at that level. After Walker’s career it took 63 years for another African-American to play in the majors when Jackie Robinson stepped onto the scene.
Without Charlie Sifford there would be no Tiger Woods. Sifford became the first African-American to play on the PGA tour in 1961 after decades of being told no. Considered the Jackie Robinson of golf, Sifford didn’t have teammates or anyone in his corner to lift him up in his fight, making his achievements even more outstanding fighting against the PGA and their ban against African-Americans.
Sifford shut everyone up with his play by winning the National Negro Open five straight times between 1952-1956, but it wasn’t until 1960 that he received his first PGA player card. The persistence of Sifford forced the PGA to lift their “caucasians only” membership clause the next year, and although he was on the back 9 of his playing career, Sifford still won several titles into his later years.
Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, Florence Griffith-Joyner and Tommie Smith and John Carlos are all names you recognize as some of the most iconic black Olympians who broke barriers, made a statement or broke history, but very seldom does Alice Coachman get mentioned in that list. Coachman was the first African-American woman to win a gold medal at the Olympics during the 1948 Summer Games in London. Competing in the high jump, Coachman not only won gold, but she set a new Olympic record with her 5 feet 6 inches jump.
Growing up in the segregated south Coachman was rarely allowed to train or practice on the tracks at many facilities so she created her own hurdles with what she could find, and often ran on dirt roads. Alice Coachman is a testament to not letting your situation keeping you from achieving your dreams, and Coachman made more history when she became the first African-American woman to endorse and international product when she was part of a Coca-Cola campaign after her Olympic win.
Dominating one sport wasn’t enough for Ora Washington, she competed at an elite level at two sports for a pretty long time. Washington was an absolute force in the tennis world during the ’30s and ’40s winning seven-straight American Tennis Association titles, and was undefeated for 12 years. Although tennis was still segregated at the time, and many white players refused to play her, it was undeniable that Washington was the best. But that wasn’t enough.
Washington also played professional basketball for the Philadelphia Tribunes and Germantown Hornets where she won national championships with both teams as a starting center. As the leading scorer for the Tribunes, Washington was considered the best black female athlete of her time and even coached during her playing career.
While these are only a select few names, there are hundreds of stories of African-American men and women who broke barriers and fought against injustice and pure ignorance in sports. They might not all be household names but the impact and legacy they all left behind should always be celebrated, and not just during Black History Month.