February is the time in which Black History Month is observed in the United States. Originally know as Negro History Week it was developed in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson an African American historian, educator, and academic. It is pivotal that a history of a people be preserved. Black women not only had to deal with sexism, but also vicious racism. Black woman have made significant accomplishments in various fields. Sports are just one of these fields. There were many great Black women athletes, that have been ignored. They were pioneers that made it possible for future generations of African Americans to enter professional sports.
One champion of importance was Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994). She was one of the best track and field athletes of the 1960s. She was born in Clarksville, Tennessee and was very sick as a child. Not only did she have to confront illness, but racial discrimination. When attending high school she played basketball and was later noticed by a coach from Tennessee State University. She was the youngest member of the US Olympic team in 1956 .Her real success did not come until the Rome Olympics in 1960. Wilma Rudolph won the 100-meter dash just in 11 seconds. Then she won the 200-meter winning her second gold medal. After her competition, she became famous. She retired from track in 1962 and became involved in activism. She went on to establish the Wilma Rudolph Foundation in 1981. The organization was designed to help young people in school and sports. Wilma Rudolph sadly passed away from a brain tumor in 1994. The Tennessee Tornado as she was called still is remembered.
Before Venus and Serena Williams, there was another great tennis player known as Althea Gibson (1927-2003). Early on in her life she demonstrated athletic talent. She was involved in stickball, basketball, and paddle tennis. Althea Gibson broke into a sport that was dominated mostly by whites and the upper class. She began playing tennis at age 13. She learned how to play Tennis at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club, which was opened to African Americans and whites. Althea Gibson in 1949 became the first black player in both the United States Lawn Tennis Association tournament and National Indoor Championships. Althea Gibson also became the first African American to compete in the Fort Hills Tournament in 1950. At one point she was losing interest in the game. However, major victories in the Indian National, the Asian Women’s Title, the Italian including French Crowns changed her mind. Althea Gibson’s major win was the 1957 Wimbledon. The following year came more victories.Althea Gibson also played golf professionally as well. She also became the first African American woman to become a member in the Ladies Professional Golf Association. Althea Gibson was the Serena Williams of the 20th century.
Tidye Pickett (1914-1986) was a lesser known track and field athlete. She was the first African American woman to compete in the Olympic games. Pickett competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics at a time of serious international contention. Nazi Germany was growing more powerful, preparing for war, and espousing odious race hatred. Jesse Owens humiliated Hitler with his athletic performance disproving “Aryan superiority.” Tidye Pickett did the same, but was overshadowed in a way. Her success at the 1936 games inspired other African American women to get involved in sports. She won a gold medal for the fifty yard hurdles. Tidye Pickett faced much racism and discrimination. When her team mates went to victory celebrations, she was often excluded. This did not stop her success in her sport. After her athletic career, she became a teacher.
The reason these women are great is because they confronted numerous challenges. They overcame the hostility of a white supremacist society to be the best in their sports. No one was going to stop them from being successful. There still is progress to be made, but black women in sports owe a huge amount of gratitude to these pioneers. These athletes faced racism, sexism, and detractors, but still performed excellently. Their stories are a true inspiration. To all who struggle, remember never let challenges defeat you.
Macy, Sue. Winning Ways A Photohistory of American Women in Sports. New York:Henry Holt and Company, 1996.
Sherrow, Victoria. Encyclopedia of Women’s Sports. Santa Barbra: ABC-CLIO, 1996.