Hidden Figures: The Dynasty of Black Athletic Excellence

While most of the sports we know and love are dominated by black athletes, this wasn’t always the case. We know the names like Jackie Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, and Satchel Paige just to name a few; but there some historical giants that are hidden figures in the sports we love and grew up playing. Men and women who without their sacrifice and endurance, we may not have known about NBA juggernauts like Michael Jordan and the late great Kobe Bryant. NFL legends like Walter Payton, Jim Brown and Barry Sanders. Or MLB heroes like Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. and Andrew McCutchen. For the sequel to my Hidden Figures series, I want to name drop some of the athletes I am most enamored by. Let’s start it off with the ladies:

Alice Coachman

Alice Coachman was the first African-American woman to win a Gold Medal. Growing up, she was unable to train in athletic facilities or participate in organized sports because she was black, so she trained by running on dirt roads and jumping over makeshift hurdles. At the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, she set the record for the high jump leaping 5 feet and 6 1/8 inches. Over her career, she won over 30 national titles and was inducted to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2004.

Ora Washington

The Philadelphia born, two sport athlete was one of the groundbreakers in women’s tennis and basketball. During her time playing in the all-black American Tennis Association, she won eight national women’s singles titles between 1929 and 1937. She was also won eleven straight Colored Women’s Basketball World Championships between the 1930’s and 1940’s with the Philadelphia Tribune women’s team. Charlie Mays, (founder of the Black Athletes Hall of Fame), once said, “She had was an all around athlete who had speed and a smashing serve, but racial barriers were too strong to break during her day, so many of her achievements were never acknowledged.”

Althea Gibson

Gibson was a sports giant to say the least. She is the first black athlete to break the color barrier at the highest level of tennis. She was also the first African-American woman to win championships in the French, U.S. and Wimbledon Open. In 1950, during the the national women’s tennis championships at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens, Gibson beat the favorite – and reigning Wimbledon champion – Louise Brough. Doing so under the degrading chants of “beat the nigger.” Considered the Jackie Robinson of tennis, she went on to become the first black tennis player to achieve a No. 1 world ranking.

Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall

Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall were the first two black players in the American Professional Football Association (what is now known as the NFL). Pollard grew up in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood and Marshall grew up in Minneapolis. Fritz was the first black Quarterback & Running Back in the league and Bobby the first black Tight End in 1920. Pollard’s teammates were said to have only favored him once they realized he was capable of breaking 60-70 yard runs at a time. These gentlemen paved the way for eleven more black players to join the league between 1922-1933 before an “unwritten rule” among owners kept back players out of the league until 1946.

These men were more than athletes though. Bobby Marshall is considered not only one of Minnesota’s greatest football players, he’s also the first African-American to graduate Minnesota’s law school and was appointed to the state grain department. In 1956, Fritz Pollard produced “Rockin’ the Blues”, a concert featuring prominent African-American rock n’ roll artists of the 1950’s. The “Fritz Pollard Alliance”, a group dedicated to promoting the hiring of minorities throughout the NFL was named after him. Pollard was also an available free agent pickup in Madden ’09 and ’10.

“Sweetwater” Clifton

Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton is a Chicago hoops legend and the first African-American to sign a contract in the NBA and alongside Chuck Cooper and Earl Lloyd, he was one of the first three blacks drafted to the league in 1950. Prior to being drafted, “Sweetwater” played for the New York Rens, the Detroit Metropolitans, and the Harlem Globetrotters. He was signed to a $10,000/year contract which was unheard of for black players during that time. He was also said to have been the first “black star” in the NBA with being a fan favorite, often shocking the crowds with what he could do on a basketball court.

“Sweetwater” got his nickname from his love of soda; but it was also discovered that since his family couldn’t afford soft drinks, he’d often pour sugar into bottles of water growing up. As a starter for the Knicks, the 6’7″ Clifton averaged 10.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game from 1950-57 and made the 1957 NBA All-Star team. Upon retiring, he was a taxi cab driver in Chicago.

The New York Renaissance

The New York Renaissance or the “Rens” were all black professional basketball team established in February of 1923. The Rens played their games at the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom in Harlem. After each game, a dance took place on the ballroom floor. The success of the Rens shifted the focus of black basketball from amateur teams to professional teams.They were one of the most dominant teams of the 1920’s and 1930’s, going 120-8 over a one year span. Over the history of this ball club, they amassed a record of 2588-539 between 1923-1949; winning the World Professional Basketball Tournament in 1939. In 1936, the Rens signed a four-year African American college star and pioneer of integration, David “Big Dave” DeJernett of Indiana Central (now known as The University of Indianapolis). In 2011, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote, produced and narrated a documentary about the Renaissance called “On the Shoulders of Giants”.

Writing and reading about these heroes has made me grateful to them. Because without them, I’d possibly never have had the chances I was offered. Without their efforts and courage, I wouldn’t have had the teammates I’ve gone to war and won championships with. And without these hidden figures, the game would be plain. Black history is all around us and it goes beyond a 28 day span. These were multiyear struggles and feats that these athletes dealt with and it’s time to wake up and realize they are key players in why sports are as great as they are today.

About the author

A Los Angeles native, AJ grew up watching sports from the age of two and his love for basketball and football never died. He started playing sports at age seven and went on through collegiate and minor league levels (local and overseas) as well. After nearly twenty years of athletics, AJ decided to hang it up and retired from minor league football in June of 2018. Since then, he has continued his love of sports by writing for the Suave Report as a sports and culture contributor as well as coaching and refereeing sports in the OKC metro area. He currently lives with his wife, Beth and daughter, Gianna in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, working as a coach and gym owner.


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