- Race riots broke out across the U.S. when Jack Johnson beat James Jefferies, who was white, to become the first black world heavyweight boxing champion.
- Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the presence of Adolf Hitler, who espoused the supremacy of the so-called Aryan race.
- Earl Loyd was the first black player in the NBA, but Wataru Misaka was the first to break the league's color barrier, as a person of Asian descent.
There was a time when elite sports were the exclusive domain of white athletes. It took the courage and perseverance of several notable athletes to break the color barrier. Without them, great athletes like Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Ichiro Suzuki, and Tyson Fury may never have gotten the chance to perform at the elite level, let alone become among the greats of their respective sports. Here is a list of some iconic athletes who broke racial barriers.
10. Jack Johnson
He was nicknamed, “The Galveston Giant,” and became the first African American to become the world heavyweight boxing champion. In addition to being an outstanding pugilist, he was also a shrewd businessman who lived a lavish lifestyle. Many whites in America hated him for his success, especially since he used his wealth to help him flaunt racist laws. One of his acts of defiance, bringing his white girlfriend across state lines before their marriage, earned him a prison sentence.
9. Charlie Sifford
Long before Tiger Woods hit the links, Charlie Sifford was making waves as the first black golfer to play in the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA). It was another trailblazing black athlete, boxing champion Joe Louis, who gave Sifford his first invitation to play in the PGA’s Phoenix Open in 1952. He was reviled for his participation, even receiving death threats. But his determination and success on the golf course eventually brought down the PGA’s color barrier. In 1960, Sifford was finally given an official PGA player card, and a year later, the association’s ban on non-Caucasian players was officially lifted.
8. Althea Gibson
Gibson was the first-ever black athlete to compete in international tennis. In 1950 she was the first black player to compete in the U.S. National Championships. A year later, she became the first black player to compete at Wimbledon. She did not stop there, however. In 1956, Gibson became the first African American to win a Grand Slam title at the French Open. She then won back-to-back Wimbledon and U.S. Nationals titles in 1957 and 1958. Gibson would finish her career with eleven Grand Slam wins.
7. Larry Kwong
He played just one shift, lasting about one minute, in one game for the New York Rangers on March 13, 1948. Nevertheless, Larry Kwong broke the color barrier in the National Hockey League for the first time ever, becoming the first non-white player as well as the first Asian player to break in to the NHL. He was nicknamed, “The China Clipper” and “King Kwong”, and lived in Canada at a time when there were specific laws to prevent people of Chinese descent from fully participating in Canadian life. Though he would never get another crack at the NHL, Kwong had a stellar career in minor hockey, scoring 52 and 71 assists for the Rangers’ farm team, which helped him get his shift with the big club. One of his jerseys is now displayed in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
6. Willie O'Ree
O’Ree was the first black player to play hockey in the NHL. He played 45 games for the Boston Bruins. His first game was on January 18, 1958, when the Bruins beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-0. About three years later, he became the first black NHL player to score a goal. Although O’Ree’s NHL career was short-lived, his contribution to hockey and racial equality has finally been recognized after years of campaigning by many of those involved in the game. To that end, he was finally inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018.
5. Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall
Pollard and Marshall were the first black players to break into the National Football League in 1920. Pollard was on the first team ever to win an NFL championship, the Akron Pros. He was actually the star player on the team, playing the position of tight-end. Marshall was a running back. Before he became one of the first black players in the NFL, he was the first black player to play in the collegiate Big Nine (later Big Ten). He also excelled at other sports, including baseball, track and field, hockey, and boxing. His NFL career included stints in both Duluth and Rock Island, from 1920 to 1924.
4. Earl Loyd
The National Basketball Association (NBA) got its first-ever black player, when Earl Loyd suited up to play for the Washington Capitols in 1950. He would end up playing only seven games that season, however, as he was suddenly drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces, serving in the Korean War. After he returned, he played for the Syracuse Nationals, who would later become the Philadelphia 76ers, then ended his career in Detroit after nine seasons. And as if being the first black player in the NBA wasn’t enough, he also became the league’s first black full-time head coach in 1970, with the Detroit Pistons.
3. Wataru Misaka
Earl Loyd was the first black person to play in the NBA, but he wasn’t the first non-white player. That honor goes to Wataru Misaka, a Japanese American, who began his career in 1947 with the New York Knicks of the Basketball Association of America (BAA), the precursor of the NBA. Wataru “Wat” Misaka was actually the first player ever drafted by the Knicks, though he ended up only playing three games for the team. Before playing for the Knicks, he helped his team at the University of Utah win a championship in 1944, when the U.S. was still at war with Japan. In fact, in order to protect him and his teammates from anti-Japanese sentiment, people were told that he was Hawaiian-born.
2. Jesse Owens
Owens didn’t just break racial barriers as a black athlete. He also set records for the sport of track and field. When he was a student at Ohio State University, he set five world records. But his real claim to fame was in the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin, Germany, under the shadow of the Third Reich. Adolf Hitler had intended to use the Olympic Games to showcase the superiority of Germany and the Aryan race. Owens threw a wrench into his plans, however, by winning four gold medals, right in front of the Fuhrer’s eyes.
1. Jackie Robinson
Robinson was the first-ever black player in Major League Baseball. He began playing baseball professionally in the Negro Leagues after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. His big break came when he was discovered by the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers. On April 15, 1947, Robinson played his first game with the team. He faced racism everywhere, from the fans to his own teammates, especially at the beginning of his career. But he excelled nevertheless, winning Rookie of the Year, and later, becoming the National League’s MVP. Robinson would go on to help the Dodgers win six World Series. He also became an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement, advocating for desegregation and racial equality.