During the month of February, the accomplishments of black people are put on full display. The recognitions of achievements are highlighted in the areas of art, social activism, music, literature, education, and sports. Black History Month is a chance to reflect on the past while advancing the future. It is easy in the sports arena to remember Jackie Robinson as the first black player to play a regular season baseball game on April 15, 1947 for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It is easy to remember that in 1956 at the French Open, Althea Gibson was the first black to win a Grand Slam title. It is easy to remember Doug Williams as the first black quarterback to start in a Super Bowl and win MVP. It is easy to remember Bill Russell as the first black NBA coach and superstar. It is easy to remember in 1936, Jesse Owens became the first black to set multiple world records in a single Olympic game, while winning four gold medals. These were not the only black men and women who made an impact in sports.
Jack Johnson was the first black boxer to be heavyweight champion of the world. He was the third of nine kids to former slaves. Growing up in Galveston, Texas, he became known as the “Galveston Giant”. His very first boxing match he took home an astounding $1.50. He began his professional career in 1898 by knocking out Charley Brooks in the second of a 15-round bout. He would go on to win the World Colored Heavyweight Championship. But that wasn’t good enough for Johnson. He wanted to be the undisputed champion for blacks and whites. For two years, he followed Canadian Tommy Burns around the world, taunting him. He would show up to every match he had begging for a fight. Finally, that opportunity came on December 26, 1908 in Sydney, Australia. It was all Johnson, all day. His boxing style was to tire the opponent out and then strike in the later rounds. That’s exactly what he did that day against Burns, causing the fight to be stopped in the 14th round. Because of racial tension, many tried to find the “Great White Hope” to defeat Johnson. It took seven years of reigning as the heavyweight champion of the world before that took place. Jess Willard won in the 26th round of a 45-round bout in Cuba to do so. By that time, Johnson was a celebrity, appearing on radio and in motion pictures. His prize money was even up to $65,000. He was elected into the boxing Hall of Fame in 1954. He died in 1946 at the age of 68 in a car crash.
Alice Coachman was born in Albany, Georgia in 1923 as one of ten children. Her family had very little materially, so she was accustomed to practicing barefoot. Amazingly, she won the high school and college high jump records in the Amateur Athlete Union (AAU) national championship’s track and field competition – barefoot. She was offered a scholarship to Tuskegee University in 1939, and would continue to dominate the AAU competition. She enrolled at Albany State University in 1946 as the national champion in the 50 and 100-meter races, 400-meter relay, and high jump. In 1948, she competed in the London Olympics. Coachman set a record in the high jump with a mark of 5 feet, 6 1/8 inches, even though she had a back injury. This made her the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal. In 1952, she became the first black person to get an endorsement deal, thanks to Coca-Cola. In 1975, Coachman was elected into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2004. At the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, she was honored as one of the 100 greatest Olympians in history. She passed away in 2014 at 90 years old.
Fritz Pollard grew up in Rogers Park, Illinois, which was predominantly a white suburb of Chicago. He was the seventh of eight children. He was a three-sport athlete at Lane Tech High who wanted to follow his big brother to Dartmouth University. But somehow, someway he ended up attending Brown University in 1913, majoring in chemistry. Pollard played half-back at Brown, and it didn’t take long before he was “the man” on campus. This wasn’t because he was the first black player on the team; he was just that good. He was the first black to play in the Rose Bowl in 1916. In that same year he was also named to Walter Camp’s All America Team, and was the first black in Camp’s backfield. He was given the nickname, “the human torpedo”. It was quite appropriate because he basically beat Yale and Harvard by himself in the same season. This put Brown as the Ivy elite at the time because no team had beaten Yale and Harvard in the same season. After college, he went on to be the first in a lot of other areas. He was the first black coach in the NFL in 1919. The next year, he was among the first black players in the NFL. He was the first black to play on a championship team in 1920 and the first black quarterback in 1923. In 1954, Pollard was elected to the National College Football Hall of Fame, becoming the first black ever chosen. He was elected into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2005. He passed away in 1986 at the age of 92.
Time doesn’t permit to enumerate all the things that black athletes have done in the sporting world. And to think, all of them faced trials that many of us will never face. They were spit on, hit, punched, slapped, refused service, and received death threats on a daily basis. They received this type of treatment because they had a different skin color. Yet, they continued to compete in the sport they enjoyed and loved. Never forget someone’s endurance. Never forget someone’s plight in life. Never forget someone’s hard work. Never forget someone’s journey. Never forget someone’s accomplishments. Never forget.