Juneteenth: Black Firsts in Sports


June 19, 1865 is regarded as the official end of slavery for African Americans.  It is affectionately referred to as Juneteenth, commemorated each year on June 19th with various celebrations and festivals.  “On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday [in Texas] through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator.”

Since that time, African Americans have had many outrageously positive contributions to American society. But, since this is a blog about sports, I’ll focus on a few from the world of sports.  Most of us are familiar with the accomplishments of sport’s heroes such as Muhammad Ali in boxing, Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe in tennis, and of course, Jackie Robinson in baseball who has been honored each year since 2004 with Jackie Robinson Day.  But, here are some contributions that you may not be aware of from several major sports (Source: Smith, Jessie Carney. 2013. Black Firsts: 4000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events. Detroit : Visible Ink Press.).

How will you spend Juneteenth? Most of us will probably be at work, but I do plan to watch my favorite web series, The Unwritten Rules, whose second season premieres on Juneteenth.


1859 – On October 16 the first black director of physical culture at Harvard University was Abraham Molineaux Hewlitt.

1992 – Vivian L. Fuller was named athletic director at Northeastern Illinois University, becoming the first black woman to hold that post in Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

2012 – The first black vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and athletic director at Vanderbilt University is David Williams II.

Automobile Racing

1923 – Rojo Jack became the first black to participate in automobile racing. He drove a 275-horsepower car to victory in 1954.

1963 – Wendell Oliver Scott was the first and only black driver to win a NASCAR Winston Cup (then the Grand National) race.

1995 – Walter Payton, of the Chicago Bears and once leading rushing in the NFL, became the first black team owner in the Indy Car series.


1920 – Andrew “Rube” Foster, a former pitcher, organized the first successful black professional baseball league, The National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, usually called the Negro National League, on February 13.  He was known as the father of the Negro Leagues.

1947 – The first black player in the American League was Larry [Lawrence Eugene] Doby, who joined the Cleveland Indians on July 5.

In 1952 a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the 1952 Rookie of the Year, Joe Black, became the first black pitcher to win a World Series game. The Dodgers beat the New York Yankees on October 1 by a score of 4 to 2. Black later became a vice president of Greyhound Corporation. In 1995 he was inducted into the Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame at the Brooklyn Museum.

The first black woman assistant general manager of the Red Sox was Elaine C. Weddington, on January 26, 1990.  She also became the first black woman executive of professional baseball organization.  From 1988 to 1990 she was associate counsel for the team, having moved from the post as intern in the Commissioner of Baseball’s office.


1966 – Bill [William Felton] “Mr. Basketball” Russell, while still a member of the Boston Celtics basketball team, was signed by the Celtics on April 18 to become the first black coach in the National Basketball Association and the first to coach a major, predominantly white professional team.  In his second year as coach, he produced a world championship team in 1968, and produced another in 1969.

The first black NBA team owners were Chicago businessmen Bertram Lee and Peter C. B. Bynoe.  On July 10, 1989, they purchased the Denver Nuggets for $65 million.

The first black woman to serve as referee in the NBA was Violet Palmer in 1997. The only other woman official in the league at this time was Dee Kanter; together they were the first two women officials in any men’s professional sports league….Kanter was a supervisor of officials in the WNBA before jumping to the men’s game.


In 1904 Charles W. Follis became the first black professional football player, for the Blues of Shelby, Ohio….The Blues were part of the American Professional Football League, formed in Ohio in this year, and a forerunner of the National Football League, which was formed in Canton, Ohio….

1974 – The National Football League’s first black starting quarterback was Joe “Jefferson Street” Gilliam, Jr., who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was benched after his third straight win for Terry Bradshaw who admitted that Gilliam was a better quarterback at the time.

1988 – Doug Lee Williams {from Grambling State University} was the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl game.” He led the Washington Redskins in defeating the Denver Broncos, 42-10.

In 1989 Arthur “Art Shell Jr. became the first black head coach in modern NFL history and only the second in all NFL history when he was appointed coach of the Los Angeles Raiders.

For more historical moments in African American History, visit Because of Them We Can, a photographic look at Black History, 365.

Smith, Jessie Carney. 2013. Black Firsts: 4000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events. Detroit : Visible Ink Press.


About LaKo

I'm a sports enthusiast who looks for lessons and analogies in sports and tries to apply those lessons to my personal and work life. In May 2013 I began my life as a runner with Black Girls Run!. Now, as a member of the Atlanta Track Club, I'm continuing my journey to preserve my sexy.
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