Black History Month is about many things. It’s a way to spread awareness about a racially divided past, as we acknowledge that there is still so much more work to be done. But it’s also an opportunity to celebrate those who have inspired us in the black community. Individuals who broke the color barrier and stood up against social inequality.
To celebrate Black History Month we’re honoring 10 black athletes who taught us about determination, leadership, and athletic ability.
No list that celebrates black history month would be complete without the most decorated American gymnast of all time, Simone Biles. Born in 1997, Biles was first introduced to gymnastics at age six. By training nearly 35 hours a week, she has achieved worldwide success with 32 World Championship medals and seven from the Olympics thus far in her career. Many recall the traumatic abuse she endured but a lesser known fact is that she was once placed in foster care as well. It’s her tenacity and ability to overcome some of life's unbearable moments that makes her a role model and truly the greatest of all time.
2. The Williams Sisters
Perhaps one of the most famous siblings in sports history, the Williams sisters have packed stadiums for decades. Born and raised in Compton, California, the Williams sisters were informally taught the game by their own father. But what’s most surprising, and perhaps even inspiring, is that the two have risen to success in parallel form. Together, Venus and Serena Williams have achieved all-time tennis greatness over a span of over 20 years. But perhaps their true legacy is how they paved the way for other black athletes. Those, too, who come from humble beginnings, just a kid on a public tennis court.
3. Naomi Osaka
Multiracial tennis star Naomi Osaka currently holds the title as the highest paid female athlete in the world– for the second year in a row. But that’s not why she’s on our list of honored black athletes. She has used her abilities in sports as a means of social change. In May of 2020 she boycotted the semifinals as a stance against racial injustice. In a statement on social media she wrote, “Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman.” She continues to use her global fame as a platform to fight against social inequality.
4. Michael Jordan
Hailed as the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan continues to be a name synonymous with greatness both on and off the court. The Bulls shooting guard rose to fame through his athletic ability, but he became an icon in his accessibility. MJ’s endorsement deals (Nike’s Air Jordan, McDonalds, Gatorade, etc) and his role in the original 1990s Space Jam paved the way for true stardom. Popularity aside, MJ is perhaps most remembered for his leadership skills. As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s imperative that we acknowledge all that MJ has taught us. "Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships."
5. Jesse Owens
It was 1936 when track and field superstar Jesse Owens stole the world’s heart at the Olympic Games in Berlin. He won four gold medals, and thus became the first American to do so in a single Olympic game (nevermind being a black man to accomplish this in front of Adolf Hitler). But it was actually the year before that Owens would make his first mark, in what Sports Illustrated calls “the greatest 45 minutes in sports history.” While at the Big Ten Championships in Michigan, in May of 1935, Owns set three world records in under an hour– the 220-yard dash, the long jump, and the 220 low hurdles.
6. Jackie Robinson
Celebrating Black History Month would not be complete without the first African-American baseball player, Jackie Robinson. While many recognize his name with America’s greatest pastime, his true legacy is how he used sports as a means of social change. As the first black man in baseball, Robinson faced threats, discrimination, and resentment head on– not only by society, but by his own teammates. It was his demeanor and grace that made Robinson a beacon of hope. Off the field, Robinson was outspoken about social injustices and never cowered to share what he saw or experienced.
7. Althea Gibson
Althea Gibson holds the title to many firsts. Before Naomi Osaka and the Williams Sisters, Althea Gibson was the first African-American tennis player to become No. 1 in the world. Additionally, she was the first African-American to play in the US Open in 1950, later also being the first at Wimbledon (in 1957 she then became the first to win). In a transition, she additionally became “the first African American to compete on the Women’s Professional Golf Tour.” Gibson’s contributions to sports as an African American, and as a woman, have paved the way for generations after her.
8. Laila Ali
They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Well, it turns out that’s true. Daughter of the legendary Muhummed Ali, Laila Ali is considered the greatest female boxer of all time. With 24 wins, and zero losses, Ali truly is a knockout.
9. Lusia Harris
In January 2022 the world lost the Queen of Basketball, Lusia Harris. In honoring black athletes and a way to celebrate Black History Month, it’s important to acknowledge all that Harris has contributed to the game. Harris was the only woman, across all races, to be officially drafted by the NBA. Today, she still holds the record at her alma mater, Delta State University in Mississippi, for career points and rebounds.
10. Simone Manuel
Simone Manuel made waves in 2016 when she became the first African American woman to win an individual gold medal during the 100-meter freestyle at the Olympic Games in Rio. Manuel has since used her achievement as a platform to advocate for social change. To battle the stigma that ‘black people can’t swim,’ Manuel continues to speak out against negative stereotypes and proactively engages with businesses, brands, and partnerships that aim to foster diversity and inclusion in sports.
What all of these black athletes have in common is perseverance. In the face of adversity they rose to greatness, and inspired generations after them. As we continue to fight for social equality and break the color barriers, there’s a valuable lesson we all can learn: greatness comes to those who work for it, believe in it, and fight for it.