9 Black Athletes Who Integrated Professional Sports
After Jackie Robinson started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, ending a six-decade ban on Black players in Major League Baseball, opportunities slowly began to expand for athletes of color. Robinson’s historic achievement—a formative moment of the postwar civil rights movement, along with the 1948 desegregation of the U.S. military—led to the gradual integration of other professional sports, such as football, basketball, hockey, tennis, motor sports and golf.
In most of these sports, racial barriers had long denied African American athletes full participation, forcing them to compete in often-segregated leagues that offered less money and visibility than the pros. Both Major League Baseball and the National Football League had so-called gentlemen’s agreements, unwritten rules among owners to not pursue Black players. The PGA Tour had a “Caucasians-only” clause in its bylaws.
The process of integration was slow and, in most cases, painful. Each of the men and women listed below faced varying levels of racism—from racial taunts and Jim Crow-era travel barriers to physical attacks and death threats—as they attempted to compete with their white peers. Most Black athletes who played on pro teams could depend on a modicum of support from at least some of their teammates, while individual competitors like Charlie Sifford in golf and Wendell Scott in Nascar racing often had to brave the abuse and indignities alone.
READ MORE: 4 Black Baseball Players Who Followed in Jackie Robinson’s Lead in 1947
NFL: Kenny Washington and Woody Strode
From 1934 to 1945, National Football League owners made an informal pact to not sign Black players to any of the league’s teams. In 1946, less than a year after Branch Rickey signed Robinson to play for the Dodgers’ farm team, the Los Angeles Rams signed two Black players, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode. The move came after pressure from Black journalists and the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission, which controlled the team’s lease at L.A. Coliseum.
Washington and Strode had played with Jackie Robinson on the UCLA football team. But the NFL’s implicit ban on Black players left Washington, widely considered the top college football talent of his time, undrafted during his prime. “Washington was the greatest football player I have ever seen,” Robinson said in a 1971 interview with Gridiron magazine. “I’m sure he had a deep hurt over the fact that he never had become a national figure in professional sports. Many Blacks who were great athletes years ago grow old with this hurt.”
After the Rams finally signed Washington on March 21, 1946, the team released a statement: “The National [Football] League has never had a rule against the use of Negro players, and no precedent is being set in the signing of Washington.” Two months later, the team signed Strode as Washington’s handpicked roommate for road games. Both players, after several years starring in semi-pro football leagues, were well past their playing primes. Washington, 28 at his Rams debut, was limited as a running back in his three NFL seasons after five knee operations. Strode, 32 when he signed, never got a chance to prove himself and was released after one season. He went on to play in the Canadian Football League before becoming a prolific Hollywood actor, appearing in scores of films, including Spartacus, The Ten Commandments and Pork Chop Hill.
“Integrating the NFL was the low point of my life,” Strode told Sports Illustrated in an unpublished interview before his death in 1994. “There was nothing nice about it. History doesn’t know who we are. Kenny was one of the greatest backs in the history of the game, and kids today have no idea who he is. If I have to integrate heaven, I don’t want to go.”
READ MORE: Meet Kenny Washington, the First Black NFL Player of the Modern Era
NBA: Chuck Cooper, Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton and Earl Lloyd
A trio of Black men integrated the hardwoods of the National Basketball Association. In 1950, Chuck Cooper, a former star player at Duquesne University and a Harlem Globetrotter, became the first African American drafted into the NBA when the Boston Celtics took him as the 13th overall draft pick. On May 24, 1950, the New York Knicks signed another former Globetrotter, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, making him the first Black player to ink an NBA contract. A third player, Earl Lloyd, taken as the 100th pick in that same 1950 draft, became the first Black athlete to play in an NBA game when he appeared for the Washington Capitols in a game just before Cooper’s Celtics started their season.
“There weren’t as many teams, so they played against each other a lot,” said Lloyd’s son, Kevin Lloyd, in an interview with NBA.com. “Every time my father went to Boston, it was Chuck’s responsibility to take care of my father. And vice versa. Same with New York, Sweetwater would take care of either of them. They had to. They were tight knit.”
Cooper, Lloyd and Clifton were joined in that 1950 season by Hank DeZonie, who became the fourth African American to play in the league when he signed with the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. A former forward for the all-Black New York Rens, DeZonie left the Blackhawks after appearing in just five games. “The coach didn’t know basketball, and I couldn’t bother with segregation,” DeZonie said years later in an interview.
Cooper, Lloyd and Clifton would each would go on to solid careers, earning induction into the National Basketball Hall of Fame.
NHL: Willie O’Ree
On January 18, 1958, Willie O’Ree, a 22-year-old Black Canadian, made his NHL debut with the Boston Bruins in a game against the Montreal Canadiens. O’Ree, the first Black athlete in the NHL, played two seasons in the league, both with the Bruins. He played just 45 games, notching four goals, but his impact on the game went beyond his accomplishments on the ice.
Three years before joining the Bruins, O’Ree had lost vision in his right eye after being hit by a deflected slapshot. He kept the injury a secret, one of many things he kept to himself throughout his hockey career. “Every time I went on the ice I was faced with racial slurs because of my color,” O’Ree said in a 2016 interview. “I had black cats thrown on the ice, and people told me to go back to the cotton fields.”
During the 1961 season, O’Ree had a bloody brawl with Eric Nesterenko of the Chicago Blackhawks, whom he said called him a racial epithet and butt-ended him with his stick, shattering his front teeth and breaking his nose. In his book, The Autobiography of Willie O’Ree: Hockey’s Black Pioneer, O’Ree explains how he handled racism on the ice.
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“Remember, hockey players love to get under each other’s skin,” he wrote. “If I tell the whole league on national television that racial barbs really bother me, I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll hear more of them.
“Above all, you want to be team-first. That’s just hockey culture. Talking about your own unique challenges is about as far from team-first as you can get. So I gave the hockey answer, and let viewers figure it out for themselves… I’ve heard a few jeers, but I guess all hockey players get that. Which is true, but they didn’t get the type of jeers I was getting in some arenas.”
In 2018, O’Ree, who retired in 1979 after playing most of his career on minor league affiliate teams, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
PGA: Charlie Sifford
At the peak of his career in the 1950s, Charlie Sifford was a top player on the all-Black United Golf Association Tour, winning tournaments that included leading white golf professionals. But he couldn’t qualify to be a card-carrying member of the PGA Tour with the best players in the world. The reason: The PGA of America’s bylaws contained a “Caucasians-only” clause.
In 1961, at age 38, Sifford became a PGA Tour rookie after the PGA of America was forced to strike that clause from its bylaws after nearly 30 years. That victory was won in part due to the efforts of other Black golfers like Bill Spiller and Ted Rhodes, who fought to play in PGA events, filing a lawsuit against the association. Stiller bent the ear of then-California Attorney General Stanley Mosk, who ultimately forced the PGA of America to move its 1962 PGA Championship out of his state because of the organization’s discriminatory practices, and who called other state AGs to join the pressure campaign.
Even with a PGA Tour card, Sifford had difficulty competing in tournaments in the early ’60s—especially in the segregated Deep South. At the 1961 Greater Greensboro Open, Sifford was greeted with a litany of racist remarks as he played the course at the Sedgefield Country Club. Don’t miss it darkie. Go back to the cotton fields. Hey, boy, carry my bag.
“I wondered what it would feel like to take a swing, just one sweet swing, at one of their heads with a 3-iron,” Sifford wrote in his autobiography Just Let Me Play. “But I couldn’t do that. I knew that if I blew up, it would all be over. It would just ensure that all Blacks, beginning with me, would be permanently barred from the tour.”
Sifford won twice on the PGA Tour and received many honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, before his death in 2015 at the age of 92. But the sting of losing his prime playing years to racism never left him. “I still wonder how good I might have been if I had the same opportunities to play and practice as the white pros did in their prime,” he wrote. “I can’t tell you how much it hurts that I never did find out how good I could be.”
Tennis: Althea Gibson
Althea Gibson made history as the first Black woman to play on both the women’s tennis circuit and the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), but she’s best remembered for breaking through in the lily-white tennis world of the 1950s, where she ultimately won 11 grand slam titles. The Harlem native started her ascent to the top echelon of the sport in 1950, when, as the national Black women’s tennis champion, she was admitted to play in the U.S. Nationals. This invitation came after a plea to the tournament’s governing body, the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, by Alice Marble, an 18-time grand slam champion.
In a letter to the American Lawn Tennis magazine, Marble wrote: “I’ve never met Miss Gibson but, to me, she is a fellow human being to whom equal privileges ought to be extended.”
By 1956, Gibson ranked as one of the best female tennis players in the world. That year, she won the French Open in both the singles and doubles. In ’57, she won the first of her two consecutive titles at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, the first African American to win those championships. “Ain’t that a blip,” Gibson wrote in her autobiography, I Always Wanted to be Somebody, “that a Harlem street rebel would go to become a world tennis champion.” The women’s tennis game would not have another elite-level Black champion until 1999, when Serena Williams won the first of her many grand slam titles.
READ MORE: Trailblazing Black Women in Sports
NASCAR: Wendell Scott
Between 1961 and 1973, Wendell Scott, a mechanic and World War II veteran, drove in 495 races on the NASCAR circuit. On December 1, 1963, Scott won at the Jacksonville, Florida Speedway, becoming the first African American to win a NASCAR race. However, he wasn’t declared the winner until hours later because race promoters didn’t want him to appear on the winner’s podium receiving a trophy from a white woman.
“Daddy said, ‘Look, if I leave in a pine box [referring to death threats he received], that’s what I gotta do. But I’m gonna race,’ ” his son, Frank Scott, told NPR in 2015. “I can remember him racing in Jacksonville, and he beat them all, but they wouldn’t drop the checkered flag. And then when they did, they had my father in third place. One of the main reasons that they gave was there was a white beauty queen, and they always kissed the driver.”
Competing in races mostly in the South, Scott was denied access to hotels and restaurants, but probably most harmful to him as a race car driver was the lack of financial resources to put the best possible car into competition. He raced used cars and did his own repairs on the car with the help of family members.
“Where other drivers that we were competing against had major sponsorships, providing them engineers, as many cars as they needed,” Frank told NPR. “He did everything that he did out of his own pocket.”
In 2015, Scott, who died in 1990 at the age of 69, was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Fifty-seven years after he won his only NASCAR race, Scott’s family received the trophy that he was denied because of his skin color during a ceremony in 2021 at the Daytona Speedway in Dayton Beach, Florida.