February 5, 2022

African American Women Pioneers in Sports

By Jordan Tetterton

When we look at the history of African American women in sports, we will see a long and strenuous fight that has been going on since the late 1920s. While great strides have been made, the fight is sadly still going on today. However, some of the biggest names in sports are women of color. Serena Williams and Simone Biles are both fitting examples of athletes who are in the spotlight now; both have been affected by the women who have come before them. They have made such an impact on their respective sports, but they still struggle with the same issues as those before them, from the blatant sexism of insisting that women had to be prim and proper to the evil racism that shaped this country. These women persevered. The women we will talk about are only a few of the many that molded the landscape for the sports world. 

Women of the Tuskegee Institute 

The Tuskegee Institute was a pivotal part of the growth of African American women in sports. There were three women during the ’30s and ’40s who created stepping stones for women who came after them. Louis Stokes and Tidy Pickett were students at Tuskegee Institute that qualified for the Olympics in 1932 but were later disqualified due to their race. In 1936 they qualified again and got the chance to compete. They were the first Black women to represent the United States of America. This was an amazing achievement that led, Alice Coachman, another student from Tuskegee Institute to help pave the way as well. Coachman was first eligible to participate in the games in 1948. She had to overcome so much leading up to her competition in London, including propaganda written about her stating she was not fit to run and was not lady-like enough to be a part of the games. At the time Coachman was nursing a back injury, however, that didn't stop her from making history. Not only did she win the gold, but she also set the record for the high jump at 5 feet, 6 ⅛ inches. She was the first Black woman to win the Olympic gold and was a catalyst for more to come. These athletes laid out the red carpet for some of the best athletes yet to come. Simone Biles was directly influenced by these athletes. While she competes in a different sport, she is one of the most accomplished Olympic athletes in the history of the Olympics. With the groundwork built by Strokes, Pickett, and Coachman, this became a reality. 

Ora Washington 

Ora Washington was one of the greatest tennis players in the country. She not only wanted to be the catalyst for tennis but also wanted to do the same in basketball. Adding onto an already impressive resume, she started playing basketball and was a team captain of the Philadelphia Tribunes for 11 consecutive years. She did all this while being attacked for her race, class, and the fact people viewed women playing sports as “unladylike”. Many attacked her image at every angle in an attempt to dethrone her, but it’s hard to dethrone someone who keeps winning. The middle-class wanted to see her succeed for their children to have a “better” role model. At the time men thought it was wrong for women to play sports, especially a sport like basketball. 

Washington pushed forward through all these hardships. She played tennis at a professional level in the 1920s and received her first win in 1924. She then won the championship in Wilmington, Delaware, sweeping in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles. In 1925 she beat the three-time ATA Women’s Champion, Isadore Channels. She then teamed up with Philadelphia native, Lula Ballard and won the women’s doubles in ATA. This was only the beginning of her amazing career. 

Basketball was a much more accessible sport. It had started to get the reputation of “anyone can play, anywhere”. While basketball had only been around for a brief time, women’s basketball was introduced in 1892 at Massachusetts’ Smith College. Basketball became a hit with women because it was a team sport, although it was seen as “unladylike” by men at the time. Their rules required them to dress modestly and focus on teamwork instead of physical power. While basketball was on the rise in high schools, churches, etc., it also became popular in industrial sports programs. Working African American women pushed the boundaries of the sport and ignored rules regarding avoiding physical power. Washington was a powerhouse of strength and talent, and she began playing basketball in the winter of 1930 for the Germantown Hornets. She immediately became a team captain and maintained the position for eleven straight years. In her first season, the team went 22-1 and won the title. Her team did so well they had some better show-outs to games than some men's teams. However, she eventually lost to the Philadelphia Tribunes and ended up signing with them after one season with the Hornets.

Washington’s legacy and the path that she paved directly influenced many athletes. The entire WNBA and USTA have Washington and other athletes like her during this time to thank for their efforts to make a change.  

The process of changing the mindset that women must be ladylike remains an issue today. Serena Williams is a notable example of this. The French Open banned Williams' black catsuit. "I think that sometimes we've gone too far," Giudicelli, the president of FFT said, according to The Associated Press. Giudicelli also stated, “It will no longer be accepted. One must respect the game and the place.” Black women today still have some of the same struggles that have plagued the sports industry for them for a long time. While great strides have been made on improving the issues, it would be an injustice to say that the fight for true equality is over.

Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson started her amazing career in the summer of 1947. She was set to play Romania Peter, the two-time defending American Tennis Association Women’s Singles champion. While Gibson was talented, Peter was a veteran of the game and was able to secure the win. It was Gibson’s first ATA title game, but it was her last ATA title loss. She won the next 10 ATA titles she visited. However, this was not her only remarkable career event. Gibson became the first African American to play in the United States Lawn Tennis Association. Originally, this organization was strictly for white women and banned African American women. Gibson broke this barrier and was able to win eleven titles during her eight consecutive years in Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. She was highly influential in giving women the opportunities available to them today

Despite constant adversity, she was able to overcome it and let her talent speak for itself. Gibson was the best in her class, and people knew it. She was a part of the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club, which was one of the best African American tennis clubs in the nation. Though she spent her life in an uphill battle, one of the hardest lessons was having to learn new ways to fight racism and to become the face of African American women’s tennis. Gibson’s story is that of a warrior. She had a killer instinct that made her want to be the best and she did just that.

Wilma Rudolph 

Wilma Rudolph is one of the most celebrated and decorated female track and field athletes but is much more than her record-breaking career. She became the face of this sport as she broke barriers, making the community finally take women in sports seriously. She grew up in Clarksville, Tennessee with her huge family where she sadly faced many obstacles. She was born with polio resulting in a twisted leg and was the 20th child out of 22 in her household. She spent a lot of time traveling to Nashville, Tennessee to try to correct her impaired leg. Visiting Nashville as a child gave her the itch to try to make it in the city. Once her leg healed, it did not take her long to start getting introduced to sports.

Rudolph started playing basketball in the 7th-grade, as did many other school children. She didn’t get a lot of playing time, so she decided to give track and field a try and began to train for the next season. It soon became obvious that she was a gifted runner. During her first two seasons, she won every race she participated in. Sophomore year came around and she finally got a starting spot on the basketball team, all while remaining undefeated in track. She experienced her first loss at the Tuskegee Relay Carnival and it was then that she knew she had to work harder. She eventually attended a Tennessee track camp where she began to better her skills and made a connection with Ed Temple, who had already been scouting her for the Tennessee State track team. 

In 1955, she and her teammates won the AAU National Outdoor Championships. They retained that title for the next 5 years. In 1956, all 6 members of the Tennessee State Tigerbelles qualified for the Olympic track and field team.

During her senior year of high school, Rudolph discovered that she was pregnant and had to sit out of both basketball and track. However, she was still scouted by Tennessee. In 1960 she went to the Olympics for the second time, and she had her eyes on winning the gold. She won three gold medals that year, while also breaking some records in the process. The media began calling her “the fastest woman in the world.” 

With this performance, Rudolph caught the world’s attention. Sportswriters did not enjoy writing about female sports and mainly focused on men's sports. Winning Olympic medals, however, was considered an “American victory”, regardless of sex. This created a small shift in culture. Women who played sports were no longer publicly ostracized by the nation’s media. While women, and especially women of color, continue to face similar struggles, the shift begun by Rudolph had a lasting impact on normalizing and respecting women in sports.

The history of sports could not be told without these amazing women. They shaped and formed the landscape for women who came after them. Oftentimes people will take their privileges for granted, forgetting the sacrifices of those who came before them. Highlighting some of those people who built the road with their blood, sweat, and tears ensures their contributions are not forgotten. So many more talented women athletes in our past are missing from this blog. Their collective history cannot be told with a blog or even a textbook. Every effort should be made to recognize past and current women of color who overcame barriers. We, as a world, have a long way to go before people of all colors and genders are treated equally on every account. 

Sources

  1. https://www.biography.com/athlete/alice-coachman
  2. Lansbury, J.H. A spectacular leap: Black women athletes in twentieth-century America. University of Arkansas Press, 2014.
  3. https://www.tennisfame.com/althea-gibson
  4. https://www.npr.org/2018/08/24/641549735/one-must-respect-the-game-french-open-bans-serena-williams-catsuit
  5. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/wilma-rudolph

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