Equality in America has come a long way, however we still witness prejudice and discrimination against women in sports, especially against Black female athletes.
So let’s honor the challenges and triumphs of athletic Black women — the history makers who’ve shaken up the world of sports and made Black history.
It’s nowhere near a complete list, but here’s a selection of remarkable Black women in sports history. Their stories illustrate their personal excellence, along with the worldwide progress that’s been made in gender and racial equality, and how much work we still need to do.
These two women are considered the first Black women to participate in the U.S. Olympics. Tidye Pickett was from the Englewood area of Chicago and grew up in the ‘20s running and jumping on the Chicago Park District track team before training for the 1932 Olympics at age 17.
Louise Stokes, from Malden, Massachusetts, started as a Center on her middle school basketball team. When she joined the high school track team, she earned a reputation as the ‘Malden Meteor’, racking up titles throughout New England. With the Onteora Track Club, she set a standing long jump world record and made the Olympic team at age 18 in 1932.
This would be the first year Black female athletes would take part in the Olympics, but the adversity didn’t end there. Pickett and Stokes were segregated from the banquet hall for meals, and another athlete named Mildred Didrikson threw ice water on the girls while they slept. Pickett and Stokes were then replaced by two slower white women in the 4x100-meter relay.
Both of these Black female athletes were willing to return for the 1936 Olympics, but injuries and WWII interrupted their athletic careers. Their respective communities honored them, but, sadly, sports history has largely forgotten Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes.
From Albany, Georgia, Alice Coachman won a national championship in track and field every year from 1939 to 1948. At the 1948 Olympics, she set an Olympic high jump record and became the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal. As a Coca-Cola spokesperson, Coachman was also the first Black woman to endorse an international product. She’s honored in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.
Althea Gibson’s family transplanted from rural South Carolina to Harlem in 1930. Her decorated tennis career started in the American Tennis Association, the Eastern Championships, and the U.S. Nationals. She then became the first Black tennis player to win at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open Singles, and the French Open. Gibson was on the cover of TIME Magazine and Sports Illustrated, and was named the AP’s Female Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958—all firsts for African Americans.
Born prematurely in Tennessee, Wilma Rudolph suffered from scarlet fever, pneumonia, and polio as a child, which caused infantile paralysis and a disabled leg that she fought hard to rehabilitate. Incredibly, at age 16, she attended the 1956 Olympics, and by the ‘60s, she was renowned as the fastest woman in the world after becoming the first Black woman to win three gold medals at the same Olympics.
Heptathlete and javelin thrower Tessa Sanderson competed in six Olympic games and was the first Black British woman to win an Olympic gold medal in 1984.
This two-time U.S. national champion, Olympic bronze medalist, 1984 World champ, and U.S. Figure Skating Hall-of-Famer smashed expectations as a Black female athlete in the less-diverse sport of figure skating. Combining next-level intelligence with her athleticism and work ethic, Debi Thomas retired skating to become an orthopedic surgeon.
With six Olympic medals, four 1987 World Championship gold medals, and two philanthropic organizations under her belt, Jackie Joyner-Kersee was named the best female athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated. .
As both a track-and-field icon and a fashion icon, Florence Griffith Joyner crushed the 1988 Olympics, winning three gold medals. She broke the women’s world records for the 100- and 200-meter race, and some national men’s records to boot. She is yet to be overtaken as the fastest woman ever.
Many have referred to Sheryl Swoopes as the ‘female Michael Jordan.’ The three-time WNBA MVP from Texas Tech won three Olympic gold medals and coached women’s basketball at Loyola University Chicago.
Gymnast Dominique Dawes spent ten years on the U.S. national gymnastics team, including the 1996 Olympics when the U.S. women won their first team gold. ‘Awesome Dawesome’ was the first Black woman to win an Olympic medal in individual artistic gymnastics. She was also the president of the Women’s Sports Federation for two years, has coached gymnastics, and has been a motivational speaker. In 2010 Dawes became Co-Chair for the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition.
The daughter of Muhammed Ali, Laila Ali boxed professionally from 1997-2007, retiring undefeated with 24 wins, 21 of which were knockouts.
The first Black person to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics, Vonetta Flowers started off as a University of Alabama track star before winning the gold medal alongside Jill Bakken on the U.S. bobsled team in 2002.
A powerful role model for all women in sports, eight-time number-one-ranked Serena Williams is not only considered one of the best female athletes of all time, but also among the best tennis players of all time. Serena boasts 23 Grand Slam singles titles and shares 14 Grand Slam doubles wins with her sister, Venus. The pair has three Olympic gold medals, and Serena won her first singles Olympic gold in 2012.
Despite having been offensively caricatured in a political cartoon, receiving criticism for wearing hair beads, and facing booing and yelling from the stands, she doesn’t back down. After surviving a traumatic childbirth to her daughter, Serena has been outspoken about racial and gender equality.
English World Rugby Hall-of-Famer and former rugby union player Maggie Alphonsi played in two Rugby World Cups, six Grand Slams, and holds a record-breaking seven Six Nations titles. The London-born Nigerian ‘Maggie the Machine’ has since become a TV broadcaster.
In 2016, British sprinter Christine Ohuruohgu tied with Usain Bolt and Merlene Ottey for the world record in successive global championship medals. Ohuruogu has 26 total medals.
British fighter Nicola Adams became the first female boxer to win an Olympic gold medal in 2012. Adams earned her second Olympic gold in 2016 and retired undefeated as the World and European flyweight champion.
Simone Biles was born in Ohio and grew up in Texas. She’s made a name for herself as arguably the most accomplished gymnast ever, with 32 Olympic and World Championship medals. A victim of the notorious U.S. gymnastics abuse cover-up, Simone Biles has supported fellow survivors in testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee and has become an outspoken champion of mental health,making her an inspiring role model for athletic black girls and young women in sports.
So many incredible Black women have succeeded in making sports history—it’s impossible to narrow it down. Tell us on Instagram @goalfive who you feel are the most revolutionary Black women in sports.
Then, head over to our Equal Play page to learn how you can help us make history in sports equality through our Equal Play advocacy.
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