This February, to celebrate Black History Month, we’re sharing the stories and legacies of the often overlooked Black athletes who helped desegregate sports in America.  

Like America itself, American sports remained largely segregated throughout the beginning of the 20th century. Sports teams and leagues were often divided by stark racial lines irrespective of the ability of their players. While professional football started integration efforts around the 1930s, followed by the integration of professional baseball in 1950, the fight for equality was slow and much progress still remains to be made. As recently as 2020, The NFL’s ‘Rooney Rule,’ was revised to encourage diversity in leadership positions which still remain exclusionary. 

Learn more about some of the inspiring men and women athletes who have made a lasting impact on the fight for desegregation and civil rights with the resources below.



“Earl Lloyd: The Man Who Broke the NBA’s Color Barrier” by Benedict Tagle, NBA

In 1950, Earl Lloyd changed the course of American basketball forever by becoming the first African American player to sign with an NBA team. Today, the majority of NBA players are minorities.


“Althea Gibson, Tennis Star Ahead of Her Time, Gets Her Due at Last” by Sally H. Jacobs, The New York Times

Althea Gibson made history twice when she became the first Black female athlete to desegregate both tennis and golf in the 20th century.


“Jack Johnson: The Black boxer who sparked race riots after world heavyweight win” by Ben Morse, CNN

When Jack Johnson, the son of former slaves, became the first Black heavyweight boxing champion in 1905, the world was outraged, leading to violent race riots for days afterwards.


“Boston Bruins to honor Willie O’Ree NHL’s first Black player” by Emily Kaplan, ESPN

Despite being legally blind in one eye, Willie O’Ree broke barriers when he became the first Black player to join the National Hockey League.


“The day Kenny Washington ended NFL’s unofficial blackout” by Rhiannon Walker, The Undefeated

Kenny Washington became the first African American to sign an NFL contract in 1946, opening the door for hundreds of Black athletes after him.


“A brief history of Black jockeys in the United States” by Teresa Gonero, Forbes

While Black jockeys dominated races in the early 1900’s, few remain in the sport today, due to decades of institutionalized racism.


“For Baseball and the Country, Jackie Robinson Changed the Game” by George Vecsey, The New York Times

Jackie Robinson left a lasting mark on America’s civil rights movement when he became the first African American to play in Major League Baseball in 1947.




“The Significance of African Americans in Sports with Damion L. Thomas, PhD”, by the National Museum of African American History (2021)

Curator Damion Thomas takes a deeper look at at the history of African American athletes in the U.S. and what their legacies mean for the world of sports and civil rights in America.



The Ghosts of Football Past,” by Radiolab, WNYC

In this podcast segment of “American Football”, Radiolab hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich dive into the origins of American football, it’s difficult past rooted in colonialism practices, and the Native American boarding school students who changed the sport forever.