Great moments in Black sporting history


As The Hullabaloo celebrates Black History Month, we’re taking a look at some of the most exciting moments in Black sporting history. These achievements, which often occurred on the playing field or court, have had broader impacts in the fight for civil rights and racial equity. 

Henry Aaron hits homerun No. 715

On July 18, 1921, Babe Ruth hit a 560-foot home run against the Detroit Tigers, breaking MLB’s all-time home run record. At the time, it was Ruth’s 139th career homer, but he would amass a staggering 714 by the time he retired. That record would stand for more than 50 years until a boy from Mobile, Alabama, named Henry “Hank” Aaron surpassed him. Many baseball fans thought the figure would never be broken, but at the end of the 1973 season, Aaron sat at 713 home runs, just one shy of Ruth’s record. Although Aaron had received threatening letters since he entered the big leagues, Aaron was especially fearful he would be attacked or killed before the start of next season. Nevertheless, on April 8, 1974, Aaron hit home run 715 in a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, forever cementing himself in baseball, and America’s, history. 

Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson pave the way, and court, in world tennis

Tennis has long been considered an elitist sport, with deep racist and classist undertones, and remained that way when the first American National tournament was held in the United States in 1881. Despite some Black tennis players breaking into the elite ranks, they were not taken seriously nor given the credit and respect they deserved by spectators and pundits alike. Althea Gibson is widely regarded as the first Black tennis superstar, and paved the way for Arthur Ashe, born in 1943 in Richmond, Virginia, to become the first Black male star in the sport. Ashe won his first singles title in 1960, but he achieved his greatest feat, winning the inaugural U.S. Open, in 1968. Ashe would go on to also win the Australian Open and Wimbledon, turning him into a tennis icon for all time. Gibson, who won 11 Grand Slam titles, has a statue of her featured at the U.S. Open site in Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York, while Arthur Ashe Stadium is the main court at the tournament, hosting the same tournament’s championship rounds.

Jesse Owens wins four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics

James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens was born in Oakville, Alabama, on Sept. 12, 1913. A natural runner, Owens blazed his competition at both the high school and collegiate levels. While attending Ohio State University, Owens set five world records and tied a sixth in a span of 45 minutes. In 1936, with the Berlin Olympics coming up in the summer, the Americans nearly didn’t compete in the games due to the discriminatory and downright harmful tactics of Adolf Hitler, who rose to power as Germany’s chancellor in 1933. Among the groups wary of the U.S competing were the NAACP and its president, Walter White. Owens refused to back down and was a major influence in getting the U.S. to compete in Berlin. Under the watch of Hitler and a highly racist and fascist German population, Owens won gold medals in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, the 4×100 relay and the long jump, the last of which he won over German favorite Luz Long. Owens’ refusal to forgo the Olympics in fear of Hitler’s hate tactics is a testament to his will and was one of the first athletic achievements recognized worldwide in sports and makes this a great moment in black sporting history.

Colin Kaepernick takes a knee and the “Black Lives Matter” movement

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL in the early 2010s. He led the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance in 2013 and threw 72 career touchdown passes. However, his most noble achievement while in the NFL happened on Aug. 26, 2016, when he stayed seated on the team’s bench for the playing of the national anthem during a preseason game. Kaepernick’s actions quickly garnered attention, as he continued not to stand for the anthem and first kneeled before a game on Aug. 30, 2016. Soon, the move became highly controversial, but Kaepernick was backed by teams and players alike, with nearly every player and coach kneeling or locking arms during the anthem at one point or another during the season. Before the 2017 season, amongst rumors that he was going to be released from the team, Kaepernick opted out of his contract on March 3, 2017. He has not played for an NFL team since.

While the battle for racial equality has never stopped in sports, the movement took on a new face this past year. After George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis Police Department officers, protests occurred nationwide. When the NBA returned from its pandemic hiatus on July 22, 2020, NBA players donned shirts reading “Black Lives Matter” in support of the movement that gained momentum after Floyd’s death. The NBA has been the most outspoken against issues of racism of the four major North American sports.

These are just some of the achievements of Black athletes in sporting history, but they highlight just how far reaching the impacts of these achievements can be, on and off the field.

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