This is part one of The Black Sportswoman’s Starter Kit: the history makers.
This list features history-making athletes from various countries who competed in various sports. Keep in mind that this is a starter kit, and doesn’t go in-depth on each person, doesn’t include every legend and doesn’t include legends that are currently active in their sports. Parts two and three of the starter kit include current and future legends, respectively.
This list was compiled with the help of The Black Sportswoman community on Twitter. I asked, “If you had to make a canon – but of Black sportswomen in history from around the world – who would you include?” And that led to the making of this starter kit.
For every “first” or “only”, there’s at least one, or even a dozen, Black women who were qualified to take a position or break a record but were derailed due to the racism, sexism, etc. ingrained in our societies. While I believe Black women athletes shouldn’t have to be generational talents for you to know their names, the sportswomen listed here are names to know to get started and dig deeper.
The athletes are listed in alphabetical order. Here are 28 historic Black sportswomen to know.
- Enith Brigitha (b. 1955) is the first Black woman to medal in Olympic swimming, winning bronze in the 100 and 200 freestyle in 1976. Brigithia competed for the Netherlands in 1972 and 1976. The East German athletes who won gold and silver ahead of her were later revealed to have been involved in “systematic doping.”
- Earlene Brown (1935-1983) is the first American woman to earn an Olympic medal in the shot put. Brown was a discus and shot thrower who set the American shot put record at the 1956 Olympics and won bronze at the 1964 Games. She eventually became a roller derby skater.
- Surya Bonaly (b. 1973) is a French figure skater famous for her flips and athleticism. She is a three-time World silver medalist, a five-time European champion and a nine-time French national champion. She's also infamous for her one-legged backflip in 1998. She didn’t accept silver in 1994 Worlds because she thought she deserved gold. Though she says there’s more to her life than the controversies.
- Alice Coachman (1923-2014) is the first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal, winning the high jump in the 1948 Olympics in London. She also won national titles and broke records while competing at Tuskegee.
- Emma Clarke (1876-1905) is considered the first known Black British women’s football player, competing for British Ladies as a right winger and goalkeeper.
- Cynthia Cooper (b. 1963) is the WNBA’s first MVP (1997) and is now a member of both the Women’s Basketball and Naismith Hall of Fame. Cooper won two national championships at the University of Southern California and competed professionally from 1986 to 2003. She won four consecutive WNBA titles and four Finals MVP awards along with three total scoring titles, an additional league MVP award and an Olympic gold medal.
- Dominique Dawes (b. 1976) is the first Black person to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics. She competed for the U.S. gymnastics team for 10 years, competed in three Olympic Games and was a part of the 1996 “Magnificent Seven” Olympic team.
- Laura Flessel-Colovic (b. 1971) is a French fencer who has won the most Olympic medals of any French sportswoman (5). That includes two gold, one silver and two bronze along with numerous world and European championship medals.
- Althea Gibson (1927-2003) is the first Black tennis player to win the French Open (1956), US Open (1957, 58) and Wimbledon (1957, 58) singles titles. Gibson is in the International Tennis Hall of Fame and dominated the global game in the late 1950s and later became a professional golfer.
- Driulis González (b. 1973) is a female Cuban judoka (practices judo) who has won four Olympic medals – a gold medal in 1996 – and is the first female judoka to compete at five Olympics.
- Florence Griffith-Joyner (1959-1998) set world records in 1988 for both the 100 and 200 meter. They have never been broken. She won four medals at the Seoul Olympic Games with the U.S. track & field team – three golds and one silver and is the fastest woman of all-time.
- Lusia Harris (b. 1955) is the first woman to score during an Olympic basketball game. One of the first college basketball stars, she won three consecutive AIAW championships and tournament MVP titles with Delta State, is an Olympic silver medalist with the U.S. national team and the first Black woman inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1992.
- Flo Hyman (1954-1986) is the inaugural winner of the award for best female collegiate volleyball player (1977). A dominant volleyball player, Hyman won an Olympic silver medal (L.A. 1984) with the U.S. national team and played professional volleyball in Japan.
- Angela James (b. 1964) is in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, having played top-level hockey from 1980 to 2000. She is considered the first superstar of modern women's hockey.
- Mamie Johnson (1935-2017), Toni Stone (1921-1996), Connie Morgan (1935-1996) are the first three women who played in the Negro leagues. Stone entered the league first, followed by Johnson (first female pitcher) then Morgan.
- Jackie Joyner-Kersee (b. 1962) holds the world record in the heptathlon and second-best all-time record in the long jump. She won six Olympic medals – three gold, one silver, and two bronze – in the long jump and the heptathlon from 1984 to 1996.
- Merlene Ottey (b. 1960) competed in Olympics from 1980 to 2004 and is “the first Caribbean woman to win an Olympic medal (Jamaica) and the only track and field athlete to participate in seven different Olympics (Jamaica and Slovenia).”
- Tidye Pickett (1914-1986) and Louise Stokes (1913-1978) are known as the first Black American women to be selected for the Olympics (L.A. 1932). They were left off the 4x100 relay. Stokes traveled but didn’t compete in the 1936 Olympic Games, but Pickett did in the 80-meter hurdles – making her the first Black American woman to compete in the Olympics.
- Fatuma Roba (b. 1973) is an Ethiopian runner and the first African woman to win a gold medal in the women's Olympic marathon race (Atlanta 1996).
- Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994) is the first American woman to win three gold medals (100m, 200m, 4x100) at one Olympics (Rome 1960). She was considered the fastest woman in the world in the 1960s and she retired at her peak in 1962.
- Tessa Sanderson (b. 1956) is a British, six-time Olympian in the javelin who competed from 1976 to 1996, winning gold in 1984, becoming the first black British woman to win an Olympic gold medal.
- Briana Scurry (b. 1971) is the former starting goalkeeper for the United States women's national soccer team who competed for the team from 1994 to 2008. A world cup champion, olympic gold medalist who was a member of the legendary 1999 World Cup team, Scurry made 173 appearances for the USWNT.
- Bonnie St. John (b. 1964) is the first Black American to win medals in the Winter Paralympics and competed in ski racing.
- Derartu Tulu (b. 1972) is the first Ethiopian woman and the first Black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal, winning the 10,000m run in 1992 (Barcelona) and 2000 (Sydney) as well as bronze in 2004 (Athens).
- Wyomia Tyus (b. 1945) is the first person to win the 100m run in back-to-back Olympics, winning gold in 1964 and 1968. Tyus also competed in the 200m.
- María Isabel Urrutia (b. 1965) is a world champion weightlifter who won the first ever gold medal for Colombia at the Summer Olympics (Sydney 2000). She previously competed in the 1988 Olympics and South American games in the discus and shot put.
- Ora Washington (1898-1971) is considered America’s first Black woman sports celebrity and played both tennis and basketball. On the tennis court, Washington won 12-straight American Tennis Association doubles titles and nine-straight singles titles. In basketball, Washington won 11 consecutive world titles and played for the Philadelphia Tribunes and Germantown Hornets.
- Natasha Watley (b. 1981) is an American softball legend, winning gold and silver medals at the Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 Olympics, respectively, as well as a professional all-star and college All-American who set records while competing for UCLA.
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