A number of African-American female athletes have emerged as trailblazers in their particular sports over the years, from track and field and tennis to figure skating and basketball. The struggles and hard-won glory of pioneers such as Alice Coachman, Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudolph and Lynette Woodard helped pave the way for later generations of sports greats like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Sheryl Swoopes and Venus and Serena Williams.
One of the first women’s track teams in the United States began at the all-black Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in 1929. Three years later, Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett qualified for the 1932 Olympics in track and field, but were not allowed to participate in the event (held in Los Angeles) because of their race. In Berlin in 1936, Stokes and Pickett became the first African-American women to represent their country in the Olympics. Alice Coachman, a star track and field athlete at Tuskegee Institute, became the first black woman to win Olympic gold, setting records with her high jump at the 1948 Olympics in London. Coachman, who dominated her sport, would likely have won more medals if the 1940 and 1944 Olympics had not been canceled due to World War II.
Another pioneering black female athlete, tennis player Ora Washington, won her first American Tennis Association singles title in 1929. She held the title for the next seven years, until 1936, then regained it once again in 1937. Washington’s record of seven consecutive ATA titles would stand until 1947, when it was broken by the great Althea Gibson, who won 10 straight titles.
Barriers Come Down
The debut of Jackie Robinson as the first African-American player on a major league baseball team–the Brooklyn Dodgers–in 1947 was a major milestone in the history of African Americans in sports. Barriers continued to come down throughout the next few decades: In 1950, Gibson became the first black player (male or female) to compete in a U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) event, the national championship at Forest Hills, in Queens, New York. A year later, she repeated that historic first at Wimbledon. Gibson won her first Grand Slam singles title at the French Open in 1956, and then won back-to-back titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1957 and ’58. The Associated Press voted Gibson the Female Athlete of the Year in both 1957 and ’58; she was the first African-American woman to hold that honor. After retiring from amateur tennis in 1958, Gibson launched another pioneering effort in 1964, when she became the first black women to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA).
If Gibson was an inspiration in the tennis world, Wilma Rudolph proved equally so in the realm of track and field. Stricken by polio as a young girl, Rudolph regained her strength and went on to win three gold medals (in the 100- and 200-meter dash and 400-meter relay) at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. She was the first American woman to accomplish that feat, and in 1961 she became the first black woman to win the James E. Sullivan Award, America’s highest honor in amateur athletics. (She was also the AP’s female athlete of the year in 1960 and ’61.) Rudolph’s compatriot Willye White was the first American woman to compete in five Olympic Games (1956, 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972); she won silver in the long jump in 1956 and in the 4×100-meter relay in 1964.
Another historic first came in 1985, when Lynette Woodard became the first woman to join the famous Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. Around the same time, Cheryl Miller became one of the most decorated high school and collegiate women’s basketball players in history, leading the U.S. team to a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics. In 1986, Debi Thomas became the first black woman to win the U.S. figure skating singles championship; she was also the world champion that year, as well as a bronze medalist at the 1988 Winter Olympics.
The late 1980s marked a golden era for American women in track and field, as Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Florence Griffth-Joyner dominated the Olympics. Joyner-Kersee, whom many described as the best all-around female athlete in the world at the time, competed in the long jump and the grueling two-day-long heptathlon, winning two golds at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea. She repeated as the Olympic heptathlon champ in 1992. Griffith-Joyner, dubbed “Flo-Jo,” earned a reputation as “the fastest woman in the world,” smashed world records at the Seoul Olympics, winning gold in the 100- and 200-yard runs and anchoring the gold-medal-winning U.S. 4×100-meter relay team. Both Joyner-Kersee and Griffith-Joyner were winners of the AP’s Female Athlete of the Year and the Sullivan Award.
A New Generation
In 1996, former Texas Tech University basketball star Sheryl Swoopes became the first player to sign with the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), which made its debut the following year. While at Texas Tech, Swoopes had been named the AP Female Athlete of the Year for basketball as well as the National Player of the Year by nine different organizations, including USA Today and Sports Illustrated. An Olympic gold medalist in 1996, 2000 and 2004, Swoopes played for the WNBA’s Houston Comets for 11 years and was named the league’s MVP three times. She later played for the Seattle Storm. Other African-American women who have starred in the WNBA over its history include Woodard (the former Globetrotter signed with the league in its inaugural season and played until 1999, finally fulfilling her dream of playing in a women’s pro basketball league) Cynthia Cooper, Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson.
Althea Gibson’s worthy legacy got new life in the 21st century, with the extraordinary careers of Venus and Serena Williams. Though her younger sister Serena was the first Williams to win a Grand Slam singles title (the 1999 U.S. Open) Venus emerged at the top of her game in 2000, winning her first Slam–Wimbledon–and going on to win the U.S. Open as well as an Olympic gold medal. Over the next decade, the extraordinary power and athleticism of the Williams sisters was credited with bringing the women’s tennis game to a new level, and final-round match-ups between the two sisters became common at Grand Slam events.