Here we are in the Christmas Season! Are you busy planning for this “most wonderful time of the year?” Will your plans include family and community traditions that have been handed down for years? Here in the United States faith groups have the freedom to celebrate their heritage any way they want. Sadly, this was not always so for African Americans.

In the last few posts, we related the fascinating stories of black women in the entertainment industry including television, music, and stage. With special attention for the Holiday Season, I want to turn now to Black traditions. This week we want to give special attention to a very special black woman who has been forgotten or overlooked – Bessie Jones. Bessie lived in the early twentieth century when African Americans were still being stereotyped and were not allowed to take pride in their own traditions.

God blessed Bessie Jones with the gifts of music, singing, and dancing. Bessie said she was “called to teach” the children about their African ancestors. She had the inspirational idea to use games that were widespread among Southern black people as a way to get past religious prohibitions against physical movement and dancing that had existed since the times of slavery.  Bessie understood that she could teach people the little-known history of African Americans and slavery through the stories, songs, and dances that she had learned as a child. Bessie used the power of music and dance to reveal to the world the overcoming spirit of African Americans.

Bessie Jones – Black traditions in Music (Feb 8, 1902 – July 17, 1984)

Bessie recognized that she could communicate to a wider world the little-known history of African Americans and slavery through the stories, songs, and dances that she had learned as a child.

The Lord blessed me not to forget these things … and keep them up among people who weren’t studying it. White people know our backgrounds, but they’re going to try to hold it back and keep us back as long as they possibly can.[1]      

Mary Elizabeth “Bessie” Jones was born in Smithville, Georgia on February 8, 1902. While she was still an infant her mother moved to her uncle’s farm in a black community. She never knew her biological father. Her mother married James Sampson whom Bessie thought of as her father, calling him “Poppa”. 

Bessie only went to school occasionally and quit altogether after fifth grade. She got a job babysitting. At age 10 she became a full-time nursemaid to a white family. She loved children. She felt called to teach them. She recognized the value of using songs, plays, and movement games in socialization and education.

The children, they don’t even know how to play those things now, see. But it’s just good fun games, keeps you out of devilment, keeps you from fighting. I never had fights with children when I was little — didn’t have time to fight, we had to play. When we wasn’t eating or sleeping or working — and so that was it. But now they got time to talk about the grown things.[2]   

Bessie also used the games to help the children develop physical and mental strength. Bessie probably inherited some of her talent from her musically gifted mother, Julia. Her stepdad also played many musical instruments. In fact, practically everyone in the family sang or played on home-made banjos or guitars. Bessie learned traditional songs, many over a hundred years old. 

Bessie’s grandfather, Jet Sampson played the accordion. He had been enslaved in Africa and then brought to the Western Hemisphere with his five brothers around 1843. He taught Bessie about “the old ways” including slavery. Jet died in 1941 at the age of 105. 

Bessie was able to combine all of her musical gifts with the storehouse of knowledge from her family, especially her grandfather and turn it into educational experiences for children that she loved so much for all of her life.

I remember a hundred games, I suppose… We had all kinds of plays…house plays, outdoor plays. Some… have songs … some have just plays… just acts or what not…The parents… would have songs they would sing while they were quilting and we would listen…. And we would have egg crackings and taffy pullings and we would hear all those things —riddleses and stories and different things. That’s why I’m so loaded [with knowledge] . … And then I has a great remembrance of those things.[3]

Bessie’s personal life was mixed with blessings and challenges. She married young; she had a daughter at age 12. Her husband, Cassius Davis also came from a musical family. He later died. Bessie left her daughter, Rosalie, with her mother and went to find work in Georgia. She married her second husband, George Jones, around 1928. They worked in Florida as migrant workers, “following the spring crops north as they ripened, as far as Connecticut. Periodically they visited both George and Cassius’s families in St. Simons and nearby Brunswick.” Bessie had a baby boy in 1935, George L. and in 1937 she gave birth to Joseph. 

In 1932 while attending a Pentecostal church, Bessie became a born-again believer. She felt it was time to make some significant changes in her life. She worked as a maid or cook during this time while she an George lived on St. Simons Island, Georgia. Bessie became a founding member of the Harlem Church of God in Christ on St. Simons.

On St. Simons Bessie met the Spiritual Singers of Coastal Georgia. This group was seeking to preserve the ways of their African ancestors. The group was really impressed with Bessie’s “buoyant personality, extensive repertoire, and experienced singing style that they invited her to join their group… one of the only mainlanders to be so honored. Bessie ‘in her turn, felt at home with the Singers’ dignity and with their pride in their African and African-American heritage — the same kind of pride and dignity that had been so carefully taught her by her own parents and grandparents” (Step It Down, xii–xiii). Singer John Davis said of Bessie, “Bessie can’t shout, but she move just fine.”

Bessie went on to make many recordings and even took part in a movie. The famous Alan Lomax wanted to make a movie about the music of the Colonial Williamsburg era. Bessie took part. After the movie was made, many of the black artists hung around for a day of extraordinary music. Bessie was touched deeply by this experience.

Her grandfather had been enslaved in Virginia and had talked about having to eat from a trough and other, worse indignities. In Williamsburg she saw concrete corroboration of her grandparents’ testimony about slavery days. She felt suddenly “called to teach.” In a restaurant one day at a birthday party for a child of one of the film crew she was asked to sing a lullaby:

I had on a dress look like my grandmother used to wear — with those long wide skirts and a whole lot of underskirts. I was delighted to put it on. When I got up … I said I was glad to do it because this is where my grandfather was brought up at, and that gave me a head to speak right there. When I said that, they stopped the beer right there and everything, and I was getting ready to sing to the child but wasn’t nobody saying nothing. Then something told me “You got to tell them everything in your mind.”[4]

Bessie then went to Alan Lomax and asked for his help in preserving the old ways. The result was many recordings of taped interviews. In 1963, the Georgia Sea Island Singers were formally organized as a troupe. They toured all over the country. They participated as staff culture-workers for the Poor People’s March in Washington in 1968, during which they taught their music to thousands of African Americans and poor whites.

The singers participated in such famous places as Carnegie Hall, the Newport Folk Festival; at The Ash Grove in Northridge, California; at the Montréal World’s Fair; in an outdoor concert at Central Park (1965); and at successive annual Smithsonian Folk Life Festivals in Washington, D. C. In 1964 they were featured in the Sing for Freedom Workshop in Atlanta, Georgia (organized by Guy Carawan, Dorothy Cotton, Andrew Young, and Bernice and Cordell Reagon and sponsored by the Highlander Folk School, SCLC, and SNCC) along with SNCC Freedom Singers from active civil rights movements in Albany, Selma, Birmingham, and several towns in Mississippi. They were joined by northern folksingers, Len Chandler, Phil Ochs, and Tom Paxton. SNCC Freedom Singer Bernice Johnson Reagon, who later an important historian as well as the well-known leader of Sweet Honey in the Rock, wrote that her meetings with Bessie Jones and the Sea Island Singers changed her life. Jones, who felt strongly about civil rights, was also member of a prayer band that marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Beulah, Mississippi.[5]

Here are some links for you to view more. 

1. For more information on her films go here: https://www.media-generation.com/DVD%20PAGES/Bess/master.pdf

2. Her book, Step It Down, available on Amazon and many other places.

3. A Performance on You Tube “Death in the Morning”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ouixlhXDfE&t=25s

4. Playing with children interview. – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TLv2ffdYH4E

I hope you have been blessed as I was with a small taste of African American Heritage as lovingly, blessedly preserved for us by Bessie Jones. Next time we will continue to explore Black Traditions with the story of Kwanza.

[1] Bessie Jones: For the Ancestors, Autobiographical Memories, John Stewart, editor (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), p. 53.

[2] Step It Down: Games, Plays, Songs, and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage (1972; reprint, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1987), p. 172.

[3] The quotes are from a wonderful article that I hope you will go to and read. With my left wrist broken, I am typing with one finger. I will summarize Bessie’s life, but I hope you will go here: https://www.culturalequity.org/alan-lomax/friends/jones-0

[4] Bessie Jones: For the Ancestors, Autobiographical Memories, John Stewart, editor (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), p. 51.

[5] All of this and more from the article. https://www.culturalequity.org/alan-lomax/friends/jones-0

Black American Women in Music – Part 2

Dear Reader,

I fell and broke my left wrist, so I am typing this with one finger! I had already done research in Black American First Singers. I will just list them and indicate what their claim to fame is. please get some of their music and be inspired and blessed. I have to say that all of these women make me feel good when I hear them, and I thank God for their music.

This week we will continue with our stories of black female firsts in entertainment. In the last few posts, we related the fascinating stories of black women in television and stage. We began last time to look at the stories of black women in music. 

Today there are so many gifted black female singers that we cannot cover all of those who are deserving of our adulation in this short series on black female firsts. We will just concentrate on our theme – Black American Women Firsts. – Women whose warm voices still inspire and make us feel glad

Black Women Firsts in Music –Gospel, Soul, Jazz, Smooth Pop

Aretha Franklin – Queen of Soul (1942-2018) 

As a young woman, Aretha traveled with her father’s revival show singing and playing the piano. Since then she has released many popular singles that are now considered classics. She became the FIRST female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2008 she won her 18th Grammy Award, making her one of the most honored artists in Grammy history.

In 1967, the album I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) was released, and the first song on the album, “Respect” reached No. 1 on both the R&B and pop charts and won Franklin her first two Grammy Awards. 

Dubbed the ‘Queen of Soul’

Aretha Franklin’s chart dominance soon earned her the title Queen of Soul, while at the same time she also became a symbol of Black empowerment during the civil rights movement. She also had Top 10 hits with “Baby I Love You,” “Think,” “Chain of Fools,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” 

Aretha retired in 2017. She had been collaborating with Stevie Wonder to release a new album. Her health deteriorated after that and she died on August 16, 2018, of pancreatic cancer. We miss her, but she left the world a tremendous legacy in music. She has been honored by having things named for her such as a subway.

Mahalia Jackson – International Gospel Star (1911-1972) 

Mahalia Jackson began her singing career as a child at Mount Moriah Baptist Church. She went on to become one of the most revered gospel figures in the United States. Her recording of “Move On Up a Little Higher” was a major hit. She has become an international star for music lovers from a variety of backgrounds. She was on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956. She was active in the Civil Rights Movement. She sang at the March on Washington at the request of her friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963. In 1966, she published her autobiography Movin’ On Up. After King’s death in 1968, Mahalia sang at his funeral and then withdrew from public political activities. 

When she was older, she suffered major health problems and finally succumbed to a heart attack January 27, 1972. Mahalia is remembered and loved for her passionate singing, her deep commitment to her faith and her lasting inspiration to listeners of all faiths.

Ella Fitzgerald – First Lady of Song (1917-1996)

Ella was an immensely popular jazz vocalist. She began singing after a difficult childhood. She debuted at the famous Apollo theatre in 1934. She remained the top female jazz singer for decades. In 1958, Ella made history as the FIRST African American woman to win a Grammy Award. She went on to win 13 Grammys in total. Ella worked with many great artists such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Frank Sinatra. 

Ella Fitzgerald recorded more than 200 albums and some 2,000 songs in her lifetime. Her total record sales exceeded 40 million. Other accolades include the Image Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She died on June 15,1996 at her home in Beverly Hills. Since her death she has been honored in many ways including a United States postage stamp.

Diana Ross – Queen of Motown (1944 –  )  

Diana Ross is remembered as singing with the Supremes and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for her part with that group in 1988. The Supremes scored their first No. 1 hit with “Where Did Our Love Go?” (1964). The Supremes then broke music records by having a streak of four additional singles top the charts — “Baby Love” (1964), “Come See About Me” (1964) “Stop! In the Name of Love” (1965) and “Back in My Arms Again” (1965). Diana and her group became the FIRST U.S. group ever to have five songs in a row to reach No 1. 

Diana left the group for a solo career in 1969 where she topped the charts with songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. She starred in several films as well – Mahogany and Lady Sings the Blues. Diana Ross had some ups and downs during her life. Her father’s death hit her especially hard. She but her career as a singer has withhold the test of time for over four decades. She was married twice and has five children.

Awards include in 2007 when she was presented with Black Entertainment Television’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Diana was honored by the Kennedy Center for her contributions to the arts. 

In 2012 Ross received her first Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement; it would become her first Grammy ever, despite having been nominated twelve times. Four years later, Barack Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor to Diana in 2017. In addition to these she also won many other Lifetime Achievement honors at the American Music Awards.

Whitney Houston – Numerous Number One Singles (1963-2012)

Like so many of these other talented ladies, Whitney debuted at a fairly young age of 22 wen she produced three #1 singles. In 1987 she delivered four more No. 1s and earned a Grammy. Later albums including I’m Your Baby Tonight (1990) and My Love Is Your Love (1998) as well as soundtracks to The Bodyguard (1992) and Waiting to Exhale(1995). 

Whitney’s life was filled with struggles, and she went off track several times. She worked hard to pull herself together and released a new album, I Look To You, in 2009. In early 2012, Whitney seemed to be trying for a comeback. She was working on a film. Unfortunately, she died from accidental drowning at a party on February 11, 2012. Sadly, heart disease and drugs may have been contributing factors.

She had many troubles in her life, but I will always remember her as the beautiful woman who sang “I Will Always Love You” from 1974. The song proved to be Whitney’s biggest hit ever, spending a record-breaking 14 weeks atop the U.S. charts. 

Roberta Flack – Genius – Classical and Gospel (1937- )

Roberta Flack will always be one of my favorite singers. Learning classical and church music at her mother’s knees, Roberta’s music would be some of the most beautiful and inspirational for me. “This Roberta strove to understand both Chopin and Methodist hymnody and was precocious enough to gain admission to Howard University at 15. She was a shy, awkward, diligent girl with her nose always in a book and fingers tired from practicing piano scales.”[1]

Roberta was able to blend the genres together to produce a unique and compelling sound. Her music never fails to bring a smile or make me feel good.

Dionne Warwick, Queen of Smooth Pop (1940-), Patti Labelle – Godmother of Soul (1944- ), and Gladys Knight – Empress of Soul (1944-)

These three black women have inspired generations of artists who came after them. They have remained popular themselves.

Patti LaBelle – Godmother of Soul

Like many other stars, Patti Labelle began with girl groups – Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles in the ’60s and Labelle in the ’70s. She began a rising solo career in the late ’70s. She is known for her amazing vocals as well as her hits like “Lady Marmalade”, “If Only You Knew,” “New Attitude” and “On My Own”—just to name a few. From her stage presence to her vocal prowess, she has inspired many of today’s R&B/soul powerhouses—like Fantasia.

Gladys Knight, Empress of Soul

Another incredible woman who inspired so many others is Gladys Knight. Gladys said “I can’t be no Pip!” Can a Pip be her though? She’s the Empress of Soul who fronted her own group—Gladys Knight & the Pips and joined Motown Records in the ’60s—scoring mega hits like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” before continued success throughout the ’70s with the chart-topper “Midnight Train to Georgia.” She is known for her distinctively soulful contralto voice.[2]

Fun fact: Many know the Marvin Gaye version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which was released in late October 1967, but Gladys Knight & the Pips originated the song, which was released in September of the same year. While Gladys Knight & the Pips’ original version peaked at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, Gaye’s version topped the chart. Both soulful versions are iconic and distinctive, right?

Dionne Warwick, Queen of Smooth Pop

Dionne Warwick did the unthinkable in the ’60s—she became the FIRST Black female pop star. She made purely smooth traditional pop music unlike many of her counterparts like Aretha Franklin. Her smooth voice yet powerful vocals, vocal control and ability to read music only catered to her success—inspiring artists like her cousin and pop icon Whitney Houston. Some of my favorite songs: “Walk on By”, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”, and “What the World Needs Now”.


[1] “The Virtuoso”: Roberta Flack’s Career demands a new way of thinking about the word “genius”. https://www.npr.org/2020/02/10/804370981/roberta-flack-the-virtuoso

[2] From – https://www.pennlive.com/life/2020/09/phillys-patti-labelle-gladys-knight-and-the-black-women-in-music-who-paved-the-way-in-the-60s-70s.html

Black American Women in Music

Many black female firsts have been breaking down barriers of race and gender going all the way back to the 1700’s in America. In the last two posts we related the fascinating stories of black women in television. These women all led very different lives, but each one of them contributed to raising the perception of black artists to a new high. Through the medium of television millions of Americans invited black women into their homes and appreciated their talents.

These next two posts will cover black women in music. It took a lot of boldness on the part of a black woman to step into an all-white space. Some, like Marian Anderson, were refused a place on a stage. Many rose above their circumstances to follow their calling anyway. I included some YouTube videos for you of what are significant moments in American history as Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price helped to remove prejudice against African Americans and open the way for many more black artists to follow. 

Thanks to the resolve of the women in the early years whose stories we have been covering for the last few months, things have begun to change in the United States. It is hard for us today to imagine the kinds of discrimination that Black women suffered in those days. We have come a long way in granting equal opportunity for all persons. There still exists some blind prejudice. These stories are my effort to raise the awareness of the true equality of all people. 

Black Women Firsts in Music 

Marian Anderson – First to perform at New York Met Opera (1897-1993)

“What I heard today one is privileged to hear only in a hundred years.” Arturo Toscanini, Salzburg, 1935.

This is a Christian blog and so I am thrilled when I read about the Christian testimony of many of the black women “firsts” in America. Most of the women have been religious though some have been more vocal about their faith than others. Both Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price grew up in Christian homes. Both continued to sing gospel music throughout their lives, even though they went on to be famous for secular music.

Marian attended Union Baptist Church as a child where she loved singing hymns and spirituals. Her musical ability was apparent by the time she was 6 years old. Her father bought her a used piano and Marian and her sister taught themselves to play. By age 13 she was singing in the adult choir. Her voice range was an incredible three octaves, low D to high C. Singing in the choir gave Marian opportunity to practice her range of voice. She took home the music and learned all of the parts, so she could substitute for any choir member, soprano, alto, tenor, or bass. Few singers in history have ever matched this!

Marian was advised to get training, but her parents were poor and struggled to raise the children. Union Baptist church had so much faith in Marian that they raised the money to pay for private lessons with Giuseppe Boghetti, a famous teacher. After two years of study, she was performing all over her community and entering national music competitions. 

Marian was talented enough to be a soprano in opera if she had trained that way, but she remained a contralto. Of course, there are contralto parts in opera as well, but the sopranos usually become the divas. As a young woman Marian was interested in the German lieder (songs) and pursued study in Berlin. In 1933 she toured Europe giving over 100 concerts in a year in the Scandinavian countries. She visited the home of Sibelius who dedicated his composition “Solitude” to her. She continued to study in Europe singing music by Handel, Scarlatti, Strauss, Brahms, Schubert, Schuman, Dvorak, Rimsky-Korsakov, Pergolesi, and Rachmaninoff. When Arturo Toscanini made his famous remark about her, he was complimenting not only her voice, but also the entire way Marian practiced the art of music. When she sang, people were inspired[1].

Marian had a brilliant international career performing classical works as well as African American spirituals. In 1957 the State Department sent her on a tour of Asian Nations where she sang for the people and listened to their concerns. In 1958 she served as a delegate to the United Nations. She continued to entrance audiences around the world for over thirty years. She was constantly asked to sing Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. 

Eventually Marian decided to return to her family in the United States. In the spring of 1939, she was planning to give a concert in Washington, D.C. She wanted to appear at Constitution Hall. It was owned by theDaughters of the American Revolution. The D.A.R. refused to allow Marian on the stage because she was African American. An outraged Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her membership in the D.A. R. Marian was invited to sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter morning. She thrilled an audience of over 75,000 people who attended. Millions more were enthralled by the songs of this courageous woman over the radio.

Marian’s brave, forthright, and non-abrasive reactions to the bigotry helped to open the way for more black entertainers in America. Being refused a place on the stage due to her skin color was a shocking event for Marian, but the incident focused public attention on institutionalized racism in the United States. On the historic, ground-breaking day, she sang “America”, an aria from a Donizetti opera, and Schubert’s “Ave Maria”.

Marian also helped to break down racial barriers when she sang at the White House for Franklin D. Roosevelt. She also opened the way for other black artists in 1955 when she became the first African American to perform at the New York Metropolitan Opera when she sang the part of Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera

Marian sang at two presidential inaugurations – those of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. She also served as a delegate to the United Nations. President Kennedy awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. In 1986 she received the National Medal of Arts. Marian made a rare appearance to help with the dedication of St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children’s pediatric sickle-cell anemia clinic and research center which was named in her honor. She received many life-time achievement awards. Below – Marian receives the Springarn Award from Eleanor Roosevelt.

Marian died at the home of her nephew in Portland, Oregon at the age of 91. Thankfully, many concerts are available on YouTube. I encourage you to go and listen to especially the gospel recordings. 

Leontyne Price – (b. 1927). First to appear on an opera on television

“The color of my skin or the kink of my hair or the spread of my mouth has nothing to do with what you are listening to.”      Leontyne Price

Though Marian Anderson was the first black woman to sing at the Met Opera, Leontyne Price was the first black woman to sing as a prima donna with the New York Metropolitan Opera. On January 27, 1961, when she sang in Il Trovatore, she received a standing ovation that lasted for forty-two minutes!! Her beautiful, lyrical, warm, and passionate soprano voice had already begun to enthrall millions for many years.

Mary Violet Leontyne Price was born in 1927. Her parents recognized her extraordinary musical talent when she was just a toddler. They bought her a toy piano when she was just three years old. She took lessons and by the time she was five they bought her a real piano. When she was nine years old, she heard Marian Anderson sing in a concert and was determined to become an opera singer. She said of the experience, “When I first heard Marian Anderson, it was a vision of elegance and nobility. It was one of the most enthralling, marvelous experiences I’ve ever had. I can’t tell you how inspired I was to do something even similar to what she was doing. That was what you might call the original kick-off.”[2]

Leontyne studied music at Wilberforce College in Ohio and voice at the prestigious Juilliard School. She made her debut at New York’s Town Hall in 1954. She became the first African American to sing in a leading operatic role on national television. She made appearances in the United States and internationally. In 1960, she made her first appearance at La Scala in Milan, Italy. She performed throughout the 1970’s.

In 1952 Leontyne made her debut singing the role of Bess in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. David Hume of the Washington Post said, “Leontyne Price sings the most exciting and thrilling Bess we have heard…. And her acting is as fiery as her singing.” After this, Leontyne’s career took off. In 1955 Leontyne became the first black to appear on national television in an NBC-TV Opera Workshop. They gave her leading roles in many productions to follow.

Leontyne made an historic appearance at the Met when she sang the part of Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore in 1961. She was the fifth black artist to sing in a major role since Marian Anderson (1955). Leontyne sang in many popular works including Madame Butterfly, Tosca, Aida, Falstaff, Don Giovanni, Antony and Cleopatra. Leontyne continued to enchant audiences worldwide for many years. 

Leontyne gave her last performance at the Metropolitan Opera on January 3, 1985, singing “O patria mia” in Verdi’s Aida.

The telecast was live from Lincoln Center. But this did not end her career in singing. Leontyne retired from Opera in 1985 so that she could appear in other venues. Her programs usually contained Handel arias, German Lieder, French and American art songs. Like Marian Anderson she always included spirituals. She sang in her last public performance at Carnegie Hall in September 2001. This concert was a memorial for the victims of the 9/11 attacks. 

You can find examples of Leontyne singing the beautiful spirituals and hymns on YouTube.

Leontyne has won more than twenty Grammys, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, a Kennedy Center Honor, and the National Medal of Arts. She has won three Emmy Awards for her work on television. She received the highest award possible, the Presidential Freedom Medal from President Lyndon B. Johnson. Leontyne has worked in schools in Harlem providing affordable music lessons to children. She wrote a book, Aida, which won the Coretta Scott King Award for Excellence in 1990. 

Leontyne has also been an ambassador for opera, introducing it to many who never thought they would ever listen to an opera. Ok, Mary, you might say. This is nice information, but I can’t stand opera. All those women with screechy voices really turn me off. Well, let Leontyne introduce you to opera. Many people who did have testified that they didn’t know it could be so beautiful. Please give the following video a try and I think you will agree that it is one of the most beautiful things you have ever heard.

Background to story: Aida was an Ethiopian slave captured by Egyptians in a war. Because of her rank as a princess, she was to be the personal slave of the Egyptian princess. In this video you will hear Aida sing about how she misses her homeland (“O patria mia”) and longs to see it again.

At the end of this YouTube there are many others you can sample to hear this most talented singer of all times. If you still don’t like opera, ok. You can listen to many of Leontyne Price’s spirituals and gospel music.

God bless you.

[1] One of those who was inspired to do great things was Leontyne Price. Her story is below.

[2] From Current Biography, New York: H. W. Wilson Co, 1978, (page 329).

Black American Women in Entertainment

We are now in our ninth month of telling the awe-inspiring stories of Famous First Black Women in the United States. We have covered a few of many fields of endeavor – sports, medicine, education, the arts, and entertainment. These were mostly white professions before the mid-twentieth century. Though facing barriers against race and gender, courageous black women began to make contributions in these areas. Because of their efforts the door has been opened for many more black women to follow.

Last time we showed how the media, especially television raised the perception of black women. Women like Ethel Waters and Hazel Scott who pioneered in this area should get a lot of credit for raising the awareness of Black Americans as equally gifted, intelligent, talented, and just as able to accomplish anything a white person can if only given the opportunity. 

As we mentioned last time, one of the biggest problems with Hollywood was the typecasting – before the 1950’s (or even up through the 1960’s) black women were stigmatized with servant roles. By the 1970’s black women were demanding to be portrayed as everyday women doing the same things as white women. Hollywood responded (slowly) with making the changes. Now we see black women in every role including world leaders.

Following are four stories of Black Female Firsts in Television whose work has significantly influenced America. Since I try to keep my posts short, I included links to sites where you can read more about each of these women. Check them out. You will be amazed. In the coming weeks we will look at stories of Black women in music and movies.

Black Women in Television- Part 2

Oprah Winfrey – First TV News Anchor (b. 1954)

Oprah’s life began in hardship as she was born to an unwed teenage mother. When her mother went to look for work in the North, Oprah lived with her grandmother on a farm in Kosciusko, Mississippi. They were very poor, but her grandmother recognized that she was very gifted and taught her to read. At age three, Oprah was reciting poems and Bible verses in Church. Though her childhood was fraught with hardship, Oprah enjoyed the loving support of her grandmother, the church, and the community.

At age six she was sent to Milwaukee to live with her mother. This proved to be tragic for her as she suffered molestation from abusive male relatives from the time she was 9 until she was 13. By age 14 she was on her own. Not surprisingly, like many abused girls she led a promiscuous life for a short time. Eventually she went to Nashville to live with her father. 

This turned out to be good for her. Vernon Winfrey was strict but provided a secure homelife for her. He made her read and write book reports every week. Oprah realized that Vernon had her best interests at heart, and she worked hard. She became an honor student and won prizes in drama and oratory.

Oprah won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant at age 17. She landed a job on radio and received a scholarship to Tennessee State University where she majored in speech communications and performing arts. When her talent was recognized, she left school and worked at a television station as the anchor. 

June 26, 1978: Oprah Winfrey upon becoming co-anchor of Eyewitness News on WJZ, with cohost Jerry Turner in Baltimore, Maryland. (Getty Images)

In 1976 Oprah moved to Baltimore where she joined WJZ-TV as co-anchor.  In January 1984 she went to Chicago to help with a half-hour morning show, “AM-Chicago”. In 1985 the show went to one hour and eventually became “The Oprah Winfrey Show”. It quickly became the number one talk show in the country.

Her work earned many recognitions.

1. 3 daytime Emmy awards for Outstanding Host, Outstanding Talk/Service Program and Outstanding Direction (1987).

2. International Radio and Television Society’s ‘Broadcaster of the Year’ Award (1988). Oprah was the youngest person ever to receive this award.

3. Nominations for Oscar and a Golden Globe Award as Best Supporting Actress. 

4. Becoming the First to form her own production company, Harpo Productions.

5. Starred in many films and other television productions.[1]

By the 1990’s the Oprah Winfrey Show changed from the usual talk show format of famous guests and flashy stories to a program that emphasized spiritual values, healthy living, and self-help. Her show became more popular than ever as she bravely dealt with social issues. Remembering her own tragic childhood abuse, Oprah campaigned to establish a national database of convicted child abusers. 

Oprah testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of the National Child Protection Act, which President Clinton signed into law in 1993, calling it the “Oprah Bill”. The database that she longed for became a fact and is enforced all across the country. 

UNSPECIFIED – OCTOBER 05: TIME cover 10-05-1998 “The Beloved Oprah” Oprah Winfrey from Camera 5. (Photo by Ken Regan/Time Magazine/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Oprah’s show is one of the most-watched television programs in the country. She was named one of the “100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century” by Time magazine. In 1998, Oprah received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
This tireless social activist has also launched a $10Million Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. It is impossible to calculate the enormous amount of influence that Oprah has had, worldwide even, but she is much to be admired.

06 Dec 2002, Henley On Klip, Gauteng Province, South Africa — Nelson Mandela places his arm around the shoulders of author and talk show host Oprah Winfrey at the launch of her $10 million Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. She described Mandela as her “hero” and he called her a “queen.” — Photo by Louise Gubb/Corbis Saba — Image by © Louise Gubb/Corbis

Oprah now lives on a 42-acre ocean-view estate in Montecito, California, where she enjoys getting away from all the pressure of being a world-wide celebrity. She also owns homes in six states and Antigua. Oprah is the highest paid performer, the richest African American of the twentieth century, and richest self-made woman in America. Some may criticize her, but both Jesus and Paul said that a “worker is worth his wages” (Luke 10:7, I Timothy 5:18). I also think that the compensation for her work just shows how much people value her contributions to society. It shows that a black female can be just as successful as a white male. We have also noted how Oprah spends a lot of money on worthwhile and charitable activities.

Cicely Tyson – Pioneering Hollywood Icon (1924-2021)

Cicely Tyson was the first African American woman to obtain a recurring role in a TV drama series. But there was so much more to the life of this dynamic woman.

Cicely was born to West Indian Immigrant parents in East Harlem in 1924. Rising from humble beginnings, Cicely graduated from high school, worked as a secretary for the American Red Cross, and modeled. She went to acting school. She starred in Off Broadway productions. From there her career took many exciting and successful turns. They are too many to mention in this short post. Please go here to see a lifelong account of her accomplishments: 


The above article lists her many achievements. Of importance to the stories on this blog series on Black Women in America is the fact that besides all of the appearances on Broadway, television, and the movies, Cicely was involved in many charitable activities. She received the Capitol Press Award and awards from the NAACP. She also was one of the 25 women honored for her contributions to entertainment and civil rights at Oprah Winfrey’s 2005 Legends Ball.[2]

Cicely died on January 28, 2021, at the age of 96, feisty to the end.

Diahann Carroll – (1935-2019)

Like Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll performed on Broadway, television, and the movies. She made history in television with her roles in “Julia” and “Dynasty”. One of Diahann’s “firsts” was as the star of the first non-stereotypical role in a primetime network series. As we have already noted, black women in entertainment in the early years were typecast in servant roles. We have seen how Hazel Scott defied this. Hazel’s efforts helped to change things. Another “first” for Diahann was the Tony Award for being the first African American in the lead role in a musical.

Carol Diahann Johnson was born in the Bronx on July 17, 1935. Her father was a subway conductor, and her mother was a nurse. When just a toddler, she was sent to live with an aunt while her parents struggled to earn a living. Because of this she was plagued with feelings of inadequacy all her life.

When she was ten, she began singing in public. She became part of the “Tiny Tot” Choir of Dr. Adam Clayton Powell’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. A few years later she took singing lessons in New York. She won a scholarship from an organization affiliated with the Manhattan Opera. 

When she was seventeen, Carol did some modeling for black-audience magazines, like Ebony. Her parents entered her in Television Talent Shows, like Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts” where she won several times. At this time, she began calling herself Diahann Carroll.  

Diahann’s efforts helped Hollywood to make giant leaps forward in granting equal opportunity, pay, and recognition for black actors. In “Julia” her character was a sophisticated widowed nurse raising a young son. She played the part of an educated, outspoken, upper middle-class woman raising her child. “Julia” premiered in 1968 and finished 7th in the ratings for three years. Diahann received an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe for her work. 

Her life was very full and active. You can find many more details about her recordings, and her appearances on TV and the movies, here:


Diahann Carroll was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 2011. She died on October 4, 2019, at the age of 84 after a long bout with cancer. 

Gail Fisher – (1935-2000)

You may recognize Gail Fisher as Peggy Fair, on the television series “Mannix” (1968- 1975). Gail’s performance helped to rescue this failing TV series. In the second season, the studio decided to add “sidekick” Peggy Fair (Gail) and the show took off with ratings soaring. Gail’s performance was so exceptional that she took home an Emmy Award and two Golden Globes for Best Supporting Actress in a TV Series. 

She became the first African American to win both the Emmy and the Golden Globes. 

Gail also became the first black actor with a speaking role in a national advertisement.

Gail was born in Orange, New Jersey in August 1935. She had four siblings. Her father died when she was only two years old, leaving her mother to raise the five kids. Later Gail would say that her mother was her role model, teaching her that there was nothing she couldn’t do.

Gail liked drama and acted in school plays. She also won some beauty contests, becoming the First black semi-finalist in the New Jersey State Fair beauty contest. She also became the First black member of the repertory theater of Lincoln Center. 

You can read more about Gail (including her “firsts”) here:


Unfortunately, Gail’s life after “Mannix” was sad. She married and divorced many men. Her career was damaged forever when in 1978 she was arrested for drug possession, including marijuana and cocaine. At one time she was diagnosed with emphysema. She died of kidney failure on December 2, 2000. 

We still honor Gail Fisher for breaking new ground for black women in television. Up until the 1960’s there were very few black women. Then in the 1970’s thanks to Gail and other brave pioneers the perception of black people changed. This was very important as a first step to erasing prejudice. Though her life ended tragically, we still pay tribute to her for her efforts in raising awareness of the talents of black American women.

[1] Many, many more details of Oprah’s films and other activities can be found in this article: https://achievement.org/achiever/oprah-winfrey/

[2] See more about Oprah below.

Black American Women in Entertainment

I have really enjoyed the stories of all the brave Black Women in the United States. Just as in the other fields we have covered – sports, medicine, education, and the arts, the field of entertainment was a mostly white profession before the mid-twentieth century. During the 1950’s some courageous black women began to seek careers in visual media. Gradually it became more acceptable for Black people to participate in the Movies, Broadway, and Television.

At first, I thought the topic of “Television” might not be as important as other categories. But now I think that the women who pioneered in this area should get a lot of credit for raising the perception of Black Americans as gifted, intelligent, talented, and equally able to accomplish anything a white person can if only given the opportunity. By the 1970’s, Americans could see for themselves the wonderful personalities of Black women on the screen. Prejudice began to decrease as the perception of Black people slowly began to change.

For the next two posts we will cover the stories of six Black Female Firsts in television. This week we will look at two women who were especially talented in music – Ethel Waters and Hazel Scott. Next time we will look at popular television firsts in long-running television shows.

Black Women in Television

Ethel Waters – (1896-1977)

Ethel and Billy Graham

“We are all gifted. That is our inheritance.”

 – Ethel Waters

Yes, Ethel was right. We are all gifted no matter what our gender, skin color, or economic class. It is time to recognize this important truth and make sure everyone is given an opportunity to succeed.

Of course, some people seem “more gifted than others” and that would be the great Ethel Waters.

Ethel was born on October 31, 1896, into abject poverty. She had a difficult childhood, saying later in life that she missed the loving attention that she would have liked to have had from her parents. Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she rose above her circumstances to succeed as a singer, an actress, and a TV personality.

In 1921 Ethel became only the fifth black woman in history to make a record. During the 1920’s and 1930 three of her songs were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

During her lifetime she attained many “firsts”. 

1. She was the first black woman to confront racism in her singing. In 1933 she recorded “Suppertime” and “Stormy Weather”. 

2. Ethel was the first black woman to get billing with white stars on Broadway. In 1933 she starred in the Broadway musical, “As Thousands Cheer”. 

3. In Hollywood, she was the first black woman to establish herself as a major dramatic actress. In 1939 she starred in the matriarchal role of Hagar in “Mamba’s Daughters”.

Ethel was the second black woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for her role in “Pinky” (1949).

4. Ethel was the first African American to star in her own television show, “The Ethel Waters Show” which started in 1939. Some believe that she may have been the first black person on television.

In 1950 she won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award as best actress for her role in “Member of the Wedding”. Other achievements include a nomination for an Emmy award (1962) for her appearance on the television series “Route 66”.

But Ethel may define the most important moment in her life as the time she accepted Christ as her Savior. In her later life she sang for the Billy Graham Crusades for almost 20 years. Her signature song, which is also the title of her autobiography is “His Eye is on the Sparrow”. 

At Billy Graham Crusades, Ethel gave her moving testimony as she sang “His Eye is on the Sparrow”. Ethel Waters helped to pave the way for more black people in entertainment.

For her moving testimony go here:

Hazel Scott – (1920-1981

Hazel Scott was a jazz pianist and singer.  She was the first black woman to host a TV show in 1950. I know we just said that Ethel Waters was the first black woman to have her own TV show; I guess the difference is that Hazel was the first show host.

Hazel Dorothy Scott was born on June 11, 1920, in Port of Spain, Trinidad. She had gifted parents. R. Thomas Scott was a West African scholar from England and her mother, Alma Long Scott, was a classically trained pianist and saxophonist. It must be no surprise then that the young Hazel was soon displaying a talent for music. By the age of three she could play the piano by ear!!

Sadly, her parents separated when she was only four. Her mother and grandmother raised her in New York City. Her mother earned money playing in all women bands. Hazel had the opportunity to be around great musicians, such as Fats Waller, and so she learned a variety of music. She later combined her love of classics and jazz in a unique way.

Though students were supposed to be 16 to audition for a place at the Prestigious Juilliard School of Music, 8-year-old Hazel’s rendition of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-Sharp Minor” convinced the professors that she was a genius and they enrolled her.

When she was 13, Hazel joined her mother’s jazz band. When she was 15, she made a stage debut opposite Count Basie’s big band at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City. 

Hazel won a local competition to host her own radio show. She made her debut in Broadway when she starred in “Sing Out the News” in 1938. Though she was extremely busy with all of these activities, Hazel graduated from high school with honors. 

Soon Hazel found herself playing at Café Society, New York’s first fully integrated nightclub. Hazel loved to “jazz” up the classics and audiences loved it. Hazel broke the sales records for her recording of “Bach to Boogie”. She was also very talented as a singer.

I was able to find some recordings of her on YouTube. I apologize ahead of time for the stupid ADS, but the wait is worth it. I’m not sure any pianist in history has topped her!

A nice video of her jazzy style on the piano. Notice her charming smile.

“A Foggy Day”:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DTtX7QVaQWk

For a great example of how she played in a classical style and then switched to Jazz (Boogey-woogey style):

“Dark Eyes”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3C-lO0buezs&list=RDDTtX7QVaQWk&index=2

Singing and playing – “Black and “White” Again notice her captivating style – Has any other piano artist played two pianos at the same time?

Things went well for Hazel until she moved to Hollywood and signed with RKO. She came up against the racial bigotry there which typecast black people into servant roles. Hazel refused her first four offers because they featured singing maids. Eventually Hazel starred in movies that featured her as herself – a sophisticated woman with musical talents and she insisted on getting proper credit. She demanded equal pay with white actors for black actors. The studio cancelled her movies in 1945 because of her stand for racial justice.

Hazel became one of the first black artists to play for mixed audiences. She gave the credit for her courage for standing up for black artists to her mother, who had remained an independent woman. Hazel’s fame spread and by 1945 she was attracting large audiences and earning the equivalent of 1Million dollars a year in today’s dollars.

Hazel married Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in 1945. Powell was the first African American elected to Congress from New York (1944). She gave birth to Adam Clayton Powell, III in 1946.

In 1950, Hazel made history as the first African American woman to host her own TV show. It aired for 15 minutes, 3 times a week. Unfortunately, it only lasted a few months. An anti-communist group claimed that she was a Communist sympathizer, naming her supposed association with various Communist groups. Hazel had not even heard of any but one of them and she did not know the political affiliation of that one. The network cancelled her show anyway.

Hazel and Adam separated in the 1950’s (finally divorcing in 1960). She moved to Paris for a while and returned to the US in 1967. She performed in small clubs and made a few recordings, but her celebrity days were over. She died from pancreatic cancer on October 2, 1981, just two months after her last performance.

Here is one final video for you to enjoy from the film “I DooD It” (1943). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yBAaEoTdWk&list=RDDTtX7QVaQWk&index=7

May God bless our land with more talented entertainers like Hazel Scott.

Black American Women in Sports

I have really enjoyed the stories of all the great Black Women Athletes in the United States. There are thousands of black women in sports today, but they owe much of their opportunities to participate to a handful of courageous women who dared to take part in the “white-only” sports in the US. Courageous black men and women like Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, and Ann Gregory took advantage of the rare opportunity when it came for them to engage in the sport they loved. As one black face in a sea of white people it took intense resolution, boldness, and heart to participate in sporting events. They deserve honor and respect.

This week is our final post on Black American Women in Sports. We have already told the stories of some great Olympians – Wilma Rudolph, Serena Williams, Michelle Carter, and Florence Joyner. Now we turn to some other great summer athletes in golf, track, basketball, baseball, and gymnastics. We will focus on women who were the very brave Firsts and give mention to some of the many women who were encouraged to compete thanks to the pioneering efforts of Ann Gregory, first Black woman in a USGA championship and Alice Coachman.

Black Women Athletes in Summer Sports

Black Women athletes come from many different backgrounds. Some like Michelle Carter were born into comparative wealth and health, had a famous athletic father, and all the coaching and encouragement she could ever want. Contrast that with Wilma Rudolph who was born into poverty and poor health, suffering from polio. Wilma overcame these handicaps to become the fastest woman in the world!

This week’s story features a woman who also had to overcome sorrow and challenges in her early life to become a Black Woman First in many areas. I don’t do this very often on this blog, but I can’t improve on the story of the amazing Ann Gregory, golf legend who lived a life of many Firsts, tennis player, golfer, civic leader, and church leader as told by her daughter, JoAnne Gregory Overstreet.[1]

Ann Gregory, Pioneer for Black Women

Ann Gregory

“She loved the game of golf,” Overstreet said. “And she didn’t care about the fact the color of her skin should matter. And she lived by that.”

“I’m a resident of Gary,” Ann Gregory told the man in the pro shop, as her daughter recounted it recently. “I pay my taxes. My money’s as good and as green as anybody else’s. I want to play the big course.” Nobody stopped her.

 “They called her a pioneer and a trailblazer,” said Overstreet.

Here is the remarkable story of Ann Gregory as told by her daughter.

JoAnne Gregory Overstreet is a 77-year-old retired teacher who lives in Las Vegas. She’s not a golfer. But she is the daughter of one, the only child of golf’s ultimate secret legend, Ann Moore Gregory. Mrs. Overstreet knows what her mother endured as a Black woman playing amateur golf in mid-century America. She tells her mother’s story because she must.

Her mother was born as Ann Moore in 1912 in Aberdeen, Miss. She attended segregated schools and after the death of her parents in a car crash went to school while working as a live-in maid for a white family. It was not fun and games. As a grown woman, she became the first Black golfer to play the 18-hole city-owned course in Gary, Ind. The “big course,” the locals called it. That was in 1947. Nine years later, in 1956, Ann Gregory became the first Black woman golfer to play in a U.S. Women’s Open and, two months later, a U.S. Women’s Amateur.

The latter breakthrough was reported in scores of American newspapers. From an AP account: “This tournament is also noteworthy because of the entry of its first Negro woman golfer. She is 38-year-old Ann Gregory of Gary, Ind., twice the winner of the National Negro Association title.” But she was actually 44. The 44-year-old rookie. 

Ann Moore moved to Gary in the 1930s and married Leroy Gregory, a steelworker, in 1939. He was a transplanted Mississippian, too. The warmth of other suns. A bit of poetry from Richard Wright’s typewriter that captured the migration of millions of Blacks from the South, Ann Moore and Leroy Gregory among them.

Mr. Gregory took up golf. Mrs. Gregory took up tennis. Mr. Gregory joined The Par-Breakers, a club for Black male golfers in Gary. Mrs. Gregory asked herself, What is it with these men and that golf? (Same as forever.) Mr. Gregory served on a Navy ship in the South Pacific during World War II. Mrs. Gregory, a young mother with a husband a half-world away, started playing Gary’s city-owned hardscrabble nine-hole course. Mr. Gregory came home and started playing with his wife. Mrs. Gregory beat him like a drum and all his Par-Breaker buddies, too, even when they made her play from the men’s tees.

One day in 1947, Ann and Leroy Gregory went out to play golf. Ann didn’t want to play the little course, the nine-holer to which Black golfers were relegated. But no Black golfer had ever played the big course.

“I’m a resident of Gary,” Ann Gregory told the man in the pro shop, as her daughter recounted it recently. “I pay my taxes. My money’s as good and as green as anybody else’s. I want to play the big course.” Nobody stopped her.

Consider what Ann Gregory endured to get to that first tee, and to others. She was mistaken for country-club help at one USGA event. She wasn’t permitted in the clubhouse for a contestants’ dinner at another. People said rude and threatening things to her. Her attitude was always the same: “Racism is their problem.” Ann Moore Gregory knew who she was, and others did, too. She was invited to play in an exhibition with Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson and Althea Gibson. (What a foursome!) She won hundreds of tournaments, local, regional and national. First the trophies took over a room. Later a basement. 

Ann and Althea Gibson
Ann won many trophies.

She was a church leader at Delaney Memorial United Methodist. She played with the male owner of The Elbow Room, a bar and restaurant in her midtown neighborhood. She was a caterer. She was the first Black woman to serve on the board of the Gary Public Library. She helped Richard Hatcher become the first Black mayor of Gary. 

Her daughter the teacher, JoAnne Gregory Overstreet, married a civil engineer. Now their grandchildren are learning all about their great-grandmother. 

Mrs. Overstreet told me the story of her mother’s life as she has told it to others over the last 30 years. Her mother died in 1990, eight months after her father. Mrs. Overstreet packed the scrapbooks and sold the family’s redbrick house. It had three bedrooms, a one-car garage and a front door framed by distinctive stonework. Everything was nearby: JoAnne’s schools, The Elbow Room, her mother’s golf course and hairdresser and sister, the family’s church. Ann Gregory went in and out that front door a dozen times a day as a mother, wife, sister, civic leader, church elder. As a pioneer and an athlete. As a giant. 

Alice Coachman (1923-2014)

Alice was the First Black woman to win a gold medal at the Olympics when she set a record high jump in the 1948 Olympics. 

Alice was born to Fred and Evelyn Coachman in Albany, Georgia in 1923. She helped to supplement her family income by picking plums and pecans. She also attended school. She discovered that she was very athletic and wanted to play sports, but her father discouraged her, saying athletics were not ladylike. He even whipped her when she tried to play softball and baseball with the boys. And she could run very fast. A teacher and an aunt encouraged her to pursue track, but she didn’t have equal access to the training facilities that were only open to white children.

Alice trained on her own, running barefoot to increase her strength. She used sticks and a rope to practice high jump. While competing in high school track she was noticed by a coach for the Tuskegee Institute (an early historically Black college) and invited to transfer to Tuskegee to finish high school. Alice said that “track and field was my key to getting a degree and meeting great people and opening a lot of doors in high school and college.” She won four national championships.

She was soon encouraged to try out for the Olympics. She trained for track and high jump. From 1939 to 1948 she won the American national title in high jump every year.

The 1940 and 1944 Olympics were cancelled due to WWII. Alice was hesitant about trying out for the Olympics in 1948. She finally decided to try and even though she competed with a back injury, she completely shattered the existing high jump record. At Wembley Stadium in London in August 1948, Alice became the Gold Medalist with a 5 feet 6 1/8-inch bar on her first attempt. King George VI put the medal around the neck of the very first Black woman to win an Olympic gold, and the only American woman to win a gold medal at that event.  

Alice did not continue in sports but finished school and became a teacher and a track coach. She has been inducted into nine halls of fame. In 1994 she started the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation to help young athletes with financial needs. Alice has been an inspiration to many, encouraging them, “when the going gets tough and you feel like throwing your hands in the air, listen to that voice that tell you ‘Keep going. Hang in there.’…Guts and determination will pull you through.” Alice Coachman died on July 14, 2014 at the age of 90.

More Black Women in Summer Olympics

There are so many wonderful Black Female Athletes today. In keeping with our theme of Black Women Firsts we will just mention a few women who deserve to be honored with their achievements. 

Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett

Louise Stokes
Tidye Pickett

We already mentioned Tuskegee Institute where Alice Coachman became the first to win Olympic gold. Two other Black women from Tuskegee qualified for the 1932 Olympics in track and field but were not allowed to compete because of their race. Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett went on to become the first African American women to represent the United States in the 1936 Olympics. (See footnote 2.)


Lynette Woodard – Basketball

Lynette Woodard

Lynette Woodard won an Olympic gold medal in 1984 as captain of the US team. She was very talented, able to play all five positions on the basketball court. She is the all-time leading scorer in women’s basketball with 3,649 points. In 1985, she became the first female member of the famed Harlem Globetrotters. In 1997, Lynette came out of retirement to play two seasons with the WNBA’s Cleveland Rockers and Detroit Shock.

Cheryl Miller – Basketball 

Cheryl Miller

Cheryl is considered one of the best players of all time in basketball. Cheryl won gold at the 1984 Olympics. She also led in scoring at the 1983 Pan American Games and the 1986 Goodwill Games.

She has been inducted into several US halls of fame, and the International Basket Federation Hall of Fame in 2010. She worked as a head coach and a broadcaster for seventeen years. She was named the Female Athlete of the Year by ESPN in 1984-85 and Player of the Decade for the 1980’s. In 2016 Cheryl was named the Pac-12 Player of the Century. In 2018 she was inducted into the Pac-12 Conference’s Hall of Honor in a group that included women for the First time. Her No. 31 jersey was retired in November 2006.

Today Cheryl is the head women’s basketball coach at Cal State LA. 

Sheryl Swoopes- Basketball

Sheryl Swoopes

Another outstanding basketball player is Sheryl Swoopes. Sheryl won three Olympic gold medals and one FIBA World Championship gold medal.

Sheryl was one of the first players to sign on to the WNBA in 1996. She was honored to do so because she had been a First Team All-America in 1992 and 1993 at Texas Tech. She was named the Naismith College Player of the Year and the WBCA Player of the Year in her senior season. She still holds the record for highest career scoring and most points in a season. While she played for the WNBA, Sheryl was named the Most Valuable Player three times (200, 2002, 2005). She was with the Houston Comets (1997-2000) when they won four straight championships. At the All-Star Game in 2011, Cheryl was recognized as one of the 15 greatest players in league history. 

Sheryl returned to Texas Tech University to serve as director of player development for the women’s basketball team and went on to become an assistant coach.

Mo’ne Davis- Baseball and Softball

Mo’ne Davis

Switching now to baseball, in 2014 the then 13-year-old Mo’en Davis became the first Black girl ever to play in the Little League World Series. Leading her team, the Taney Dragons to victory she became the first female to pitch a complete game shutout. This marked a First win for a female pitcher. Not exactly “throwing like a girl” she pitched 70 mph fastballs. Mo’ne switched to softball where she plays as an infielder on the Hampton University softball team.

Look forward to hearing her on ESPN or other places as a broadcaster in the future. Mo’en said, “I just love being around sports, and being able to talk about them from my standpoint is really cool, especially sports that I’ve played, being able to see them from an outside perspective and relate them to people, it’s something I’d like to do in the future, something that I’m still working on.”

Gabby Douglas – Gymnastics

Gabby Douglas

Gabrielle Christina Victoria Douglas was born on December 31, 1995. She grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia where she began practicing gymnastics at age six. She is considered an artistic gymnast. Gabby “the flying squirrel” won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics becoming the first African American in history to win the individual all-around event. She also won gold medals in team competition for the US in 2012 and 2016. 

Simone Biles – Gymnastics

Simone Biles

Simone was nineteen when she made her debut at the 2016 Olympics. Simone has accumulated 30 Olympic and World Championship medals. The is the only woman to hold seven all-around US championship titles and is currently the most decorated US gymnast. 


The overwhelming numbers of Black women in sports today just proves that all they needed was the opportunity to try. Their excellence is proof of their capabilities. It’s a shame the world took so long to recognize this truth.

[1] Michael Bamberger, November 18, 2020, Golf.com, “Golf’s ultimate secret legend, Ann Gregory, lived a life of firsts. https://golf.com/news/features/golfs-ultimate-secret-legend-ann-gregory/

[2] There were 18 Black athletes at eh 1936 Olympics, including the famous Jesse Owens. 

Black American Women in Sports

I have really enjoyed discovering the stories of great Black Women in America from history. Too many of these remarkable women have been forgotten. The Black women who lived many decades ago who were very courageous and persevered in the face of so much prejudice should be given credit for opening the way for Black females to participate in all sports. Women like Vonetta Flowers who was the First ever Black Woman to win a gold medal in Winter Olympics was an inspiration to many Black girls and opened the door for more participation for Black athletes. All Americans should be proud of her. 

Fellow Olympians elect Vonetta Flowers to carry the flag at the 2002 Olympics.

We have also noted that many more black women are playing tennis today due in part to the pioneering efforts of Althea Gibson and Serena Williams. Thanks to the valiant efforts of gold medal winners – Wilma Rudolph, Florence Joyner, and Michelle Carter, there are thousands of Black girls involved in Track and Field today. We can’t say enough for the courage of Wilma Rudolph who went from being crippled from polio as a child to the “fastest woman in the world”. In one of our stories this week, Vonetta Flowers, first Black woman to win a gold inspired Elana Meyers Taylor who has become the most decorated Black athlete in history.

In this post we take brief glimpses into the lives of Black women in winter sports, and next time we will look into some of the many stories of incredible Black women in summer sports. We will continue to follow our theme of Black Women in America Firsts. The overwhelming numbers of Black women in sports today just proves that all they needed was the opportunity to try. Their excellence is proof of their capabilities. It’s a shame the world took so long to recognize this truth.

Black Women Athletes in Winter Sports

Erin Jackson – Speed Skating (b. 1992)

Erin Jackson is the First Black woman to win a gold medal in an individual sport at the Winter Olympics. She won her medal as a Team USA speed skater in the 500m event in Beijing in 2022.

The Winter Olympics began a century ago and has been a mostly “lily-white” affair. The International Olympics Committee has tried to increase diversity through quota systems but there hasn’t been enough change in society to bring more people of color into winter sports. It is expensive and Black children are not as exposed to winter sports.

Erin said, “I just think it’s really strange to imagine that it’s 2022 and I’m getting the first individual gold medal by a Black woman ever in the history of the Winter Olympics,” Jackson says. “I feel like that’s a pretty strange thing for the year that we’re in.” We agree.

Erin’s love for skating started early in her life. She skated in the driveway of her parent’s home in Ocala, Florida with a pair of plastic skates that buckled to her shoes. She told an interviewer “I started out with those little plastic skates that you attach to your shoes and I grew up what’s called a ‘rink rat’, just like the kids who always go to the rink on the weekends, skating around to music with your friends.” Erin spent two years in artistic skating (figure skating on wheels) at Skate Mania. 

Erin had help to reach the Olympics with some assistance from key people in her life. Her mother worked at a pharmacy where she met Renee Hildebrand, a leading speed skating coach. Renee Hildebrand trained Ocala kids for three decades and many became world-class inline speed skaters. Erin’s mom told Renee Hildebrand about her daughter’s love for skating and Hildebrand invited Erin to a practice rink. There Hildebrand noticed how Erin would skate at “breakneck speeds”. She took Erin on.

Erin had only been ice speed skating for five years before the Olympics. She had some bumps along the road and nearly didn’t make it to Beijing. She had a mishap at the Olympic Trials and placed third. She was the World Cup leader at the time. Her team-mate Brittany Bowe who recognized Erin’s talent, decided to step away from her spot on the Olympic team. Brittany said, “I won the tournament but I know very well how I stand in the world ranking,” Bowe said. “Erin’s ranked No. 1 in the world and now she’s an Olympic champion. It was the right thing to do…. So proud of her, I want this moment to be about her and just enjoy it. That’s exactly what I told her.” This was a very unselfish thing for Brittany to do and she should be recognized for her greatness as well.

Erin is thankful for her opportunities and a chance to fulfill her dreams. Erin is hopeful that more minorities, especially in the United States, will get out and try winter sports. Erin is a great example for young Black kids. 

Elana Meyers Taylor – Bobsledding (b. 1984)

Elana Taylor is the most decorated Black female athlete in winter sports. She is a 4-time World champion, has 8 world championship medals, won 4 times at Winter Olympic games (2010, 2014, 2018, 2022) and was declared World Cup Champion in bobsled in 2015.

PARK CITY, UT – SEPTEMBER 25: Bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor poses for a portrait during the Team USA Media Summit ahead of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games on September 25, 2017 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Elana Meyers was born in California but grew up in Georgia. Her father was a professional football player on the Atlanta Falcons team. His career was not without struggles and he was an encouragement to her to never give up. She was naturally gifted in many sports, playing softball at 9 years of age. She decided she wanted to be an Olympian. She attended George Washington University on a softball scholarship and went on to play professionally with the Mid-Michigan Ice (fastpitch softball). 

Elana tried out for the Olympic Softball Team but did not succeed, calling it “’the worst tryout ever in the history of tryouts’ for the U.S. Olympic Softball Team.” Her parents tried to encourage her to try a different sport. They had been watching bobsled racing on television and suggested that to her. It turned out to be a good turning point for Elana.

Elana also gives credit to Vonetta Flowers for switching to bobsled. Elana noted that Vonetta was the first Black athlete to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics. Elana later said, “There’s a lot of people that came before me … Flowers is the reason I’m here and Shani David and even Erin Jackson. It’s just been such a long legacy of Black athletes at the Winter Olympics and hopefully it just continues.”

Elana went to Lake Placid, N.Y. in 2007 and never left. She made the bobsled team and was noted as one of the most powerful brakemen ever. In only 3 years she took the bronze medal in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. She continued to win medals all over the world for the next few years and eventually won her way back to a podium finish at Sochi, Russia in 2014 for a silver. Later in 2014 she married Nic Taylor a fellow bobsledder.  

In 2015 Elana made one of many Firsts in history as she became the first woman to earn a spot on the men’s bobsled team. She was the pilot of the four-man bobsled team. The team earned a medal. Elana became the 2015 World Champion, winning six of eight World Cup races that year.

Why would a woman want to race on a men’s bobsled team? You can find out in her own words in this interview (2014) when the team was preparing for competition.


Elana won the 2015 World Championships in the women’s two-man event, the first woman in U.S. history to do so. That season she also won six of eight World Cup races and became the Overall World Cup Champion.

In 2018, at the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, Elana battled back and forth with Team Germany over the four heat Olympic competition, missing the gold medal by just .07. Elana then looked forward to return to the Olympic Games in 2022 and once again fight for gold. She didn’t get gold, but she earned the two other medals which put her in first place for the number of medals for a Black athlete.

Erin and Sylvia took the bronze at the 2022 games. At the conclusion of the Winter Olympics in Beijing Elana had made history by becoming the most decorated Black athlete in the Winter Olympics when she and Sylvia Hoffman for Team USA took a bronze medal in the bobsled event. Elana had also won a silver in the monobob event. With these wins Elana passed Shani Davis, a Black male speed skater, for the most medals.

Elana’s Personal Life

Elana has worked with the Women’s Sports Foundation since 2010. Elana has served on the Foundation’s Athlete Advisory Panel and traveled the country sharing her passion for sports and equality with girls in our Sports 4 Life and GoGirlGo! funded programs.

Elana served a six-year term as an athlete director on the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Board of Directors and is currently a mentor for Classroom Champions. Recently, George Washington University honored her with an honorary doctorate degree.

Elana’s son, Nico, has Down’s syndrome. Today she juggles his weekly therapies (5 per week) with training. She is proud of her son and said in an interview, “What’s really amazing is seeing how his language has blossomed, especially as he interacts with the US Bobsled team. He waves and laughs and smiles at our teammates, and he’s getting closer to speaking (outside of mama and dada which he already says) every day and I can’t help but be extremely thankful for the US team’s role in this.

Nico’s schedule may add a bit of complexity into our already chaotic lives- but I wouldn’t change him for the world. I’m honoured to be his mother, to be a parent of a child with special needs, and if I can be a bobsledder while doing it- then that’s pretty cool too.”

Elana is not only an outstanding athlete, but she is a truly remarkable person. She is a wonderful mother and also a great mentor and teacher for young people wanting to get into winter sports today. 

Other Black Women Firsts 

We are running out of space, but I do not want to conclude this post without mentioning a few more notable Black Women Firsts. Please go to the attached links to find out more about them.

Vonetta Flowers –On February 18, 2002, Vonetta Flowers made Olympic history, becoming the First Black woman to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics. Her fellow Olympians chose her to carry the U.S.A. flag in the closing ceremonies. 

You can read much more of her story in her book:

Running on Ice: The Overcoming Faith of Vonetta Flowers. (New Hope Publishers, 2005)

Excerpt from cover: “But this historic feat took the faith of a conqueror. though trained as a track and field athlete since the age of 9, Vonetta did not make the cut for the summer Olympic track team. Her coach and husband, Johnny, later saw an ad for bobsled competitors and convinced Vonetta to go for this previously unconsidered sport. She made it. Her lifetime of track training placed her in the anchor position on the 2-woman bobsled team, and the rest is literally history. Vonetta’s story is one of intense faith in God, whom she freely credits for her victories.

Maame Biney –Youngest skater and first Black woman to make a US Olympic short track speed skating team. And second-ever African-born athlete to represent the US in Winter Olympics in 2018. Maame went to the 2022 Olympics but did not medal. However, she continues to be recognized as an up-and-coming winner!

Mama is known for always smiling.

(Dr.) Debi Thomas – First to win both the US and World figure skating championships. Bronze in 1988 and only African American to win a medal in figure skating that year.

Debi had been interested in a medical career since childhood. She studied at Stanford, pursued her skating, and then returned to Stanford for a degree in engineering.

Good-Bye Skates, Hello Scrubs

She went on the get a medical degree from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in 1997. She went into orthopedics. 


Lauryn Williams – First Black woman to win summer and winter Olympics medals. Lauryn competed in Track and Field and Bobsledding.

As we have noted many times now, great strides have been made in granting equal opportunities to Black women. There is still a long way to go before the prejudice is ended, but as we see in this post and the next one on summer sports, many Black girls have been given opportunities and have excelled! 

Black Women in Sports

I have really enjoyed discovering the stories of great Black Women in America. Too many of these remarkable women have been forgotten. Black women, especially those who lived many decades ago, were very courageous and their testimonies of persevering in the face of so much prejudice should be an encouragement to all.  Great strides have been made in granting equal opportunities to Black women, but we still have a long way to go.

There are so many great Black women; we can only cover the stories of a few. For that reason, we are focusing on “Firsts” in history. We began this series by covering the stories of women who were “Firsts” in Education, including women who earned PhD’s and famous educators. We talked about famous First writers and authors and famous artists. Then we discovered the stories of Black Women Firsts in Science, Inventions, and Medicine. 

Last time we began to look at the stories of outstanding Black female athletes. We started by honoring two tennis players – Althea Gibson and Serena Williams. Many more black women are playing tennis today due in part to the pioneering efforts of these two great women. This time we turn to other great athletes in Track and Field – all gold medal winners – Wilma Rudolph, Florence Joyner., and Michelle Carter. 

Please note the difference in backgrounds of these women. One woman, Wilma Rudolph, went from being crippled from polio as a child to the “fastest woman in the world”. Another woman, Michelle Carter, had every privilege imaginable as the daughter of a famous athlete. One woman overcame many obstacles to remain at the top of her game. All three women had the inner strength and resolution to be the best they could.

Wilma Rudolph (1940 – 1994) – Fastest Woman in the World

We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.
                                                                                        Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Glodean Rudolph was the twentieth of twenty-two siblings. She was raised in Tennessee. As a four-year-old child Wilma was stricken with polio and crippled in her legs. Doctors said she might not ever walk again. But Wilma had an indomitable spirit along with a determined mother. Her mother took Wilma to weekly therapy. Wilma was forced to wear a brace on her leg. Her siblings would often remove the brace and massage her leg. Their hard work and Wilma’s determination paid off.

By the age of six, Wilma was able to hop around on one leg. When she was eight, she removed the brace and was able to walk without it. By age 11, Wilma was outside in the street playing basketball with her brothers and the other kids. Her mother noticed that she was a natural athlete and encouraged her to be active in sports at school. Wilma played basketball in high school and set a state record for high school girls’ basketball by scoring 803 points when she was a sophomore.

One day while playing in a game Wilma was spotted by Ed Temple, coach of the Tennessee State University track and field team. He invited her to train with his track team, the Tennessee Tigerbelles though she was still in high school. Wilma never lost a track meet in high school. In 1956, at age sixteen, Wilma competed in the Olympic games and won a bronze medal in a 4×100 relay. Four years later she was ready to compete for the gold.

Wilma Rudolph

The 1960 Olympics in Rome was the first ever televised. Wilma was the first woman to win three gold medals and she broke at least three world records. She earned the title of the “fastest woman in the world.” Although many thousands of people watched Wilma achieve victory after victory, few were aware of her background and her triumph over her struggles with crippled legs as a child. They thought they were just watching another great athlete. Little did they know just how great! Wilma received international recognition and was named “athlete of the year” by the Associated Press in 1961.

When Wilma returned home from the Olympics her town wanted to honor her with a parade. Because most of the city’s facilities were segregated, Wilma refused to participate until they agreed on full integration for all events including banquets and parades. The city planners agreed. This was only the first of many times that Wilma would speak out against the injustice of segregation. Wilma used her celebrity status to support civil rights causes.

Program form Wilma Rudolph Day

In 1963, Wilma retired from sports and went back to school, completing a degree in elementary education at Tennessee State University. She worked in education, teaching in public schools and colleges, but never stopped being involved in sports. She worked at community centers all across the United States coaching and mentoring young women and black athletes. She loved to help young people. Wilma considered her greatest achievement to be the establishment of the Wilma Rudolph Foundation in Indianapolis, a community-based amateur sports program. 

Wilma has been inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame. In 1990 she became the first woman to receive the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Silver Anniversary Award. Another honor for her was in the naming of the indoor track and dormitory at Tennessee State University after her. A prime-time television movie was made about her in 1977.[1]

Wilma died after suffering from a brain tumor on November 12, 1994. Her legacy remains, however. She helped many young people as their track coach at DePauw University in Indiana. She is remembered both for her athletic ability and as a voice for the underprivileged. She is still the inspiration for many runners.

Florence Joyner – “Flo Jo” – (1959 – 1998) – Multiple Golds

Florence Delorez Joyner was born on December 21, 1959, in Los Angeles, California. She began running while only seven years old and it soon became apparent that she was gifted. She was very athletic in school and won the Jesse Owens National Youth Games at age 14. She served as the anchor on the relay team at Jordan High School. She continued racing in college in California. She earned a reputation as a track star at UCLA. In 1982 she became the NCAA champion when she won the 200-meter event. In 1983 she took first in the 400-meter event.

Bob Kersee became her coach and in 1984 she went to the summer Olympics in Los Angeles. She won a silver medal for the 200-meter event. There she not only became known for her record-breaking speed but also for the fashionable form-fitting bodysuits that she introduced. A few years later she married Al Joyner, the brother of another black female track star, Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Florence took the legal name Florence Delorez Griffith-Joyner but the public shortened it to “Flo Jo”. Florence had one daughter, Mary.

Her husband began coaching her and so she let Bob Kersee go. She took a break from racing but soon was getting ready for the 1988 Olympics held in Seoul, South Korea. Her hard work paid off! She took 3 gold medals, in the 4-by-100-meter relay, and the 100- and 200-meter runs; and she also took home a silver medal in the 4-by-400 meter relay.

At 1988 Olympics, Seoul

The Associated Press named her the “Female Athlete of the Year” and Track and Field also named her “Female of the Year”.  Flo Jo also won the Sullivan Award as the best amateur athlete. Florence retains first place in some events and still holds records in the 100- and 200-meter events with times of 10.49 seconds and 21.34 seconds respectively.

Florence retired after the 1988 Olympics. Though allegations were made that she was using steroids, drug testing proved the accusations false. Florence underwent many drug tests to prove to her accusers that they were wrong including 11 in 1988 alone. 

Though retired Florence remained active in athletics. She was appointed to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness in 1993 as co-chair. She went on to establish her own organization to help children. In 1995 Florence was abducted into the Track and Field Hall of Fame. She thought about training for the Olympics again, but her right Achilles tendon was giving her problems, so her hopes were dashed.

Tragically, Florence died unexpectedly on September 21, 1998, of an epileptic seizure. She was living in her home in Mission Viejo, California. She was only 38 years old. 

Jackie Joyner-Kersee

Florence’s sister-in-law, Jackie Joyner-Kersee should be mentioned here since we are talking about Black Female Firsts. Jackie became the first American woman to win gold in the long jump. She was also the firstwoman to win consecutive Olympic gold medals in the heptathlon. Like Florence, Jackie was interested in helping children. She founded the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Center Foundation for underprivileged youth in her hometown. Jackie was named the greatest female athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated for Women. She was also inducted into the Track & Field Hall of Fame in 2004.

Michelle Carter (b. 1985) – First in Shot Put

Michelle Carter is another amazing black female athlete. She is the current record holder in America in shot put with a distance of 20.63 meters, set in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Michelle became the first female athlete to win in shot put since the women’s competition began in 1948. She was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Track and Field in Texas in 2018.  


Michelle was raised in Texas as the oldest child of Michael and Sandra Carter. Track and field fans might recognize her father, Michael Carter, as one of the most successful shot putters in Texas history, winning many titles in high school. He was also the men’s shot put silver medalist at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Football fans will remember him as a three-time Super Bowl champion playing with the San Francisco 49ers from 1984 to 1992. It seems his daughter, Michelle inherited his athletic abilities as she went on to set the girls University Interscholastic League state record in shot put with a 53’3” throw and threw the discus 169’3: Both father and daughter have been inducted into the Texas Spirts Hall of Fame (Michael 2002, Michelle 2020), 

Michelle attended the University of Texas on a full track scholarship. She graduated in 2007 with a B.A. in Youth and Community Studies. Her father was her coach throughout her career. She often referred to him as “Coach Daddy”. They receive many invitations to speak at events. Michelle likes to speak to diverse groups about being more positive and the importance of setting goals. She tries to encourage the young people in her audience to strive for self-confidence.

Michelle began her career in junior high school in 1997. Michelle worked hard and reached her life’s goal to win a gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Over the course of 25 years Michelle:

1. participated in the 2001 World Youth Championships where she won silver.

2. followed her father into the Olympics in 2008.

3. captured gold at the USA Indoor and USA Outdoor Championships in 2013, setting her first American record.

4. won many other championships on her way to her crowning achievement at the 2016 summer Olympics where she won gold and set the record that still stands.

Michelle retired very recently. She almost retired a couple of years ago after having a tumor removed from her right ankle. Her coach/dad encouraged her to participate in a few more events. Finally, she decided to “put the shoes up” after a 25-year career. She is thankful that she had such a long and successful career and now turns her efforts to helping others. She has been nicknamed the “Shot Diva”. She founded the You Throw Girl Confidence Camp and One Golden Shot. She wants her camp to build confidence in young female athletes.

There are so many more black females in sports now thanks to the courageous, exemplary efforts of the pioneering women in sports. I thank God that black girls and women have more opportunities and I pray that racial prejudice will continue to decline in our culture.

[1] You can get the movie on Amazon. Interesting piece of trivia – I think this was the amazingly handsome Denzel Washington’s first movie.

Black Women in Sports

We have witnessed many changes for Black women over the last four centuries. Life for black American women has taken many turns from slavery to emancipation and from obscurity to world-wide recognition. In spite of obtaining constitutional freedom in the United States, continued racism still affects black women economically, politically, and religiously. 

But though racism continues to present challenges to Black women, many have not allowed the prejudice to keep them from making contributions to culture including education, writing and journalism, arts, science, inventions, medicine, sports, entertainment, politics, jurisprudence, air and space, religion and missions, and activism. Even with the obstacles against them, many black women bravely have risen above their circumstances to realize their dreams and make life better for themselves and those around them. 

There are so many great Black women; we can only cover the stories of a few. For that reason, we are focusing on “Firsts” in history. We began this series by covering the stories of women who were “Firsts” in Education, including women who earned PhD’s and famous educators. We talked about famous First writers and authors and famous artists. Then we discovered the stories of Black Women Firsts in Science, Inventions, and Medicine. 

For the next few weeks, we will honor tremendous Black female athletes. This week let’s look at women who excelled in tennis.

Althea Gibson -Tennis, Golf, and Much More

The loser says it may be possible, but it’s difficult: the winner says it may be difficult, but it’s possible.                                                  Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson

In our series on Black Female Firsts, Althea Gibson shines as a tennis player, musician, golfer, sports commissioner, and mentor to young athletes.  Althea was the first black woman to win titles in tennis and she has become one of the greatest athletes of all time.

Althea was born on August 25, 1927, in Silver, South Carolina. Her parents moved to New York when she was very young. She grew up on the streets of Harlem in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. She had three sisters and one brother. 

Growing up in Harlem was tough. Althea was often in trouble. She later said, “I liked to play hooky and spend the day in the movies, especially on Fridays, when they had a big show at the Apollo theatre on 125th Street.”[1] Althea was unable to stick to jobs or school. She loitered in the streets playing paddle tennis. A local musician, Buddy Walker, saw her playing in the street and decided to take her to the Harlem River Tennis Club where he was a member to play. Observing Althea’s skill Buddy Walker arranged a match between her and Fred Johnson, a professional. All agreed that she had talent. Club members paid for her to have lessons. She worked on the basic strokes until she mastered them. Her nimbleness and strength were very impressive.

Playing tennis changed Althea’s life. Within a year, after lessons with Fred Johnson, Althea won her first tournament in the New York State Open Championship in 1942. In 1944 and 1945 she won the girls’ singles of the American Tennis Association tournament. It was at this time that Sugar Ray and Edna Robinson, friends that Althea had met before, bought her a saxophone. Music would be an important part of her life.

Not surprisingly, Althea experienced prejudice. Some compared her entry into tennis with Jackie Robinson’s acceptance in professional baseball. In those days segregation existed in many areas. But just as Jackie did, Althea persevered and with the help of others received advanced instruction within the segregated American Tennis Association.

Althea became the first black to win the Grand Slam in Tennis

She became the first African American woman to play in the USTA National Indoor Championship in 1949. One year later she became the first black woman to play in the US Nationals at Forest Hills. Althea continued to break racial barriers with many records during her lifetime by winning eleven Grand Slam tournaments and more than 56 national and international singles and doubles titles by 1958.

In 1946 her friends, the Robinsons, encouraged her to go back to school. Althea realized that an education would help her go further in life. She re-entered high school at age 19. She graduated from Williston Industrial High School in June 1949. Afterward she attended Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College in Tallassee. She concentrated on her studies but found time to play in the marching band. She also played tennis and basketball and worked as a student assistant in the physical education department. This one-time urchin on the streets of Harlem juggled music, classes and tennis practice and pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority for four years.

After college Althea continued to play tennis in many tournaments over the next few years. She became the first black woman to play lawn tennis at the prestigious Forest Hills. Eventually she received a bid to play at Wimbledon. On her first appearance she lost to Shirley Fry. In 1957 she competed again and became the first black woman to win at Wimbledon and Forest Hills.

At age 30, Althea decided to retire making her many fans very sad. One major reason was that in those days there wasn’t much money in tennis. She tried several other careers including singing (appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show) and recording albums. She starred in a movie, The Horse Soldiers (with John Wayne and William Holden), and played golf. It would not be until future generations that there would be enough money in tennis to make a living. But Althea lives on as a legend anyway.

Althea as “Lukey” in Horse Soldiers

She married William A. Darben and was employed by the Essex County, New Jersey, Park Commission for 10 years to head up programs for women’s and girls’ sports activities. She mentored girls through neighborhood and urban tennis clinics. Althea Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971. 

Sadly, Althea’s later years were ones of struggle even as her childhood had been. She nearly went bankrupt, and her health was poor. She suffered a stroke and had serious heart problems. On September 28, 2003, Althea died of respiratory failure in East Orange, New Jersey.  

Althea Gibson has been an inspiration to many young tennis players as well as other famous players like Leslie Allen, Zina Garrison, and Venus and Serena Williams who said, “Althea Gibson paved the way for all women of color in sport.”[2]

Serena Williams – “Serena Slam”

I really think a champion is defined not by their wins but by how they can recover when they fall.                                                                      Serena Williams

Serena Williams is one of the most amazing athletes who ever lived. Many believe that she is the greatestathlete who ever lived. In spite of sports injuries and health problems she had multiple comebacks. She has succeeded in many areas including fashion, product endorsements, and philanthropy. Because of her renown and integrity as a person, she has become a role model for girls. And since these posts are about Black Women Firsts, we must note that Serena is a first as a part-owner of a professional football team.

Venus and Serena

Serena was born in Saginaw, Michigan on September 26, 1981. She learned to play tennis from her father. Her sister, Venus (who is 15 months older than Serena) was also a great player. Everyone enjoyed watching the sisters and many thought that Venus would be the star, but Serena was the first to win the Grand Slam singles title in the 1999 U.S. Open. The sisters teamed up over the years and won many doubles championships.

I can’t possibly list all of Serena’s titles and awards in this short post, but you can find many articles about her on the internet. I will just summarize some of them:

1. At age 20 she was ranked Number One in female tennis.

2. 23 Grand Slam titles, winning her the nickname “Serena Slam”. 

3. 14 Grand Slam doubles with her sister, Venus, and 2 other mixed doubles.

4. 4 Summer Olympic Gold medals.

5. 54 World Tennis titles.

6. Seven titles at Wimbledon.

Serena’s father coached both girls in tennis from the time they were very young. He entered her in her first tournament when she was four and a half and she went on to win 46 out of the 49 tournaments she entered over the next 5 years.

Serena and Venus both excelled and by the time they were teens they were getting offers from many companies who asked for their endorsements for their products. The girls concentrated on tennis while attending a small private school. Serena began her first year as a WTA competitor in 1997. She ended the year ranked 99 though she was only sixteen.

Serena Williams

Serena suffered injuries and setbacks like all athletes, but she always came back. Serena was a tough woman. In 2017, the year she achieved her 23rd Grand Slam, she gave birth to a daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Jr. She continues to succeed on and off court. In 2009, Serena and Venus became part owners of the Miami Dolphins becoming the First Black women to be part-owners of a professional football team. 

In 2018 Serena launched her own clothing line, called S. In 2019 she added jewelry to her line of products. She has also invested in many new companies as a venture capitalist through her company – Serena Ventures. Serena has won more money than any other female athlete. Even now in 2022 at age 40 Serena is ranked at 41 for women’s singles and 422 for women’s doubles. Pretty impressive!!

Serena Williams is popular not only because she is a great athlete, but because she has an outgoing personality, fashion sense, and she is strikingly good-looking. Serena would have been popular in many fields. Serena now lives with her husband, Alexis Ohanian, Sr. in Florida. She still plays tennis. Some have given her the interesting acronym GOAT – the Greatest of All Time.

[1] Jessie Carney Smith, Editor. Notable Black American Women. “Althea Gibson” (Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc. 1992) page 398. 

[2] Cheryl Willis Hudson. Brave. Black. First. 50+ African American Women Who Changed the World. (New York: Random House, 2020) page 9.

Black Women in Medicine – Part 3

We have been highlighting Black women who have made contributions in the field of medicine. In our last two posts, we highlighted four amazing women – Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, first Black woman to receive an M.D. and Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first black licensed nurse, Alice Ball, first Black woman to receive a master’s degree in chemistry, and Dr. Marie Daly, first Black woman to receive a PhD. In chemistry.

Many Black women have made contributions in science and medicine. Up until now their names have been in obscurity. Finally, you can find information about them. I hope that my posts will contribute in a small way to the honor and recognition that they deserve. I thank God for these women and the thousands of people who have been helped by their achievements. We should give credit where credit is due.

The woman in this week’s story encountered incredible prejudice yet persevered to fulfill her dream of helping others by working to save the eyesight of countless thousands. 

Dr. Patricia Bath – Ophthalmologist – Laser Eye Surgery

Philosophically, I like to think that my greatest accomplishment has to be in those moments when I’ve helped someone regain eyesight, when I remove the patient’s patch, and he starts with the big E and goes all the way down to the 20/20 line. But then I realize that many times, you cannot be the surgeon for everyone who needs eye surgery and that there are more people blinded by preventable causes and treatable causes then any given ophthalmologist could ever treat.     Dr. Patricia Bath

There are so many stories of Black women who have done research and made discoveries that have given thousands if not millions of people a better life. Like the other black women in our posts, Dr. Bath had to go up against the prejudice of those who minimized the work of women and non-whites. And like the other women, she wanted to serve others. Millions of people can be thankful that she resolutely carried on. 

Dr. Patricia Bath is a First in several fields including – the First Black woman in the U.S. to hold a medical device patent and the First Black woman to chair an ophthalmology residency training program in the U.S. Dr. Bath also invented a cataract removal procedure that was less invasive than previous surgeries. Her strong desire to serve makes her not only a significant figure in medicine but also a wonderful and admirable person that we can all admire.

Patricia Bath was born on November 4, 1942, in Harlem, NY. Her family physician, Dr. Cecil Marquez was the first of many influences on Patricia’s life. She later said that it was Dr. Marquez who influenced her the most to go into medicine. Her high school teacher enabled Patricia to get involved with the National Science Foundation where she had the opportunity to do scientific research. From there, Patricia pursued her interest in medicine until she graduated with her medical degree form Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C. in 1968.

Dr. Bath did significant research.

There were two other strong influences in her life. One was Dr. Lois A. Young who directed her into a career in ophthalmology. The other was Dr. Daniele Aron-Rosa whose work advanced the application of lasers in ophthalmology. Dr. Bath worked in Dr. Aron-Rosa’s lab at the Rothschild Eye Institute where she began her focus on ophthalmology.  

Dr. Bath lived through the sixties which were tumultuous times for African Americans. Thankfully for the many people she would help, she met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and joined in his work to bring justice for poor Blacks. Dr. King had a vision and a plan for government help for the poor but was assassinated before he could put his project into action. Dr. Bath joined the Poor People’s Campaign of 1963 because she was inspired to help poor Blacks. A camp of 3000 tents was formed and people who shared Dr. King’s vision for better housing, employment and other programs for the poor came to take part in the event. With other medical students Patricia Bath agreed to provide free health services to the people in the camp. 

Dr. Bath wanted to help all of the poor and with her interest in eye health, she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. In 1975 Dr. Bath joined the Jules Stein Eye Institute at the University of California, LA. Here she became the first woman on the faculty at the Department of Ophthalmology. Though UCLA had opened the doors to Blacks, the university was continually discriminating against them. Due to racial and gender prejudice Dr. Bath was at first offered an office in the basement next to the lab animals rather than with her colleagues in the regular office space. Dr. Bath responded by refusing the spot. She didn’t accuse UCLA of racism or sexism. She said, “it was inappropriate and succeeded in getting acceptable office space. I decided I was just going to do my work.” By 1983 she was chair of the ophthalmology residency training program at Drew-UCLA, the first woman in the US to hold such a position.[1]

Because of the discrimination she experienced at UCLA, Dr. Bath took her research to Europe. Her work was accepted at the Laser Medical Center of Berlin, West Germany, the Rothschild Eye Institute of Paris, and the Loughborough Institute of Technology, England. She achieved her goals in research and laser science and she persevered until the fruits of her efforts resulted in the patents that she received for laser eye surgery. Thousands, no maybe millions, can be thankful that she didn’t give up, but did whatever it took to bring better treatment for eye patients.

Perhaps the achievement that she is most well-known for is the invention of the Laserphaco probe. This probe revolutionized cataract removal surgery. Cataracts are one of the leading causes of blindness. Dr. Bath’s method was less invasive, more precise, less time-consuming, and resulted in less eye injuries than the previous methods. The laser makes tiny incisions in the eye. The old lens is removed and a new one is inserted. Patients can go home the same day with few painful side effects and look forward to better eyesight in a shorter period of time than with the old method.

Dr. Bath later said, “When I talked to people about it, they said it couldn’t be done. UCLA did not have the lasers I needed. We don’t have a national laser institute. Our laser superiority is mostly weapon/military-related.” Hence, Dr. Bath went to Europe.

Dr. Bath spent years developing the Laserphaco probe. She received her patent for it in 1988, becoming the first Black female doctor to hold a patent for a medical device. She later received 4 more patents in the U.S. and one each in Japan, Europe, and Canada.

The Laserphaco was a groundbreaking achievement, but Dr. Bath was equally concerned about the inequity in eye treatment for the Black community.  She established a new field called “community ophthalmology”. This venture tries to bring lens replacement to the poor. Dr. Bath noticed while working in a Harlem eye clinic that half the patients were blind or visionally impaired. She contrasted that with the fact that at the eye clinic in Columbia there were very few patients who were blind. She conducted a study and found that Black Americans had a blindness rate that was 3.6 times higher than for white people. Glaucoma was 8 times higher. 

Dr. Bath realized that the disparity was because of lack of education about eye health and lack of treatment in Black communities. Dr. Bath advocated for programs to educate Blacks on eye health and spread awareness of the causes of blindness and the need for early diagnosis and treatment.  Her greatest passion was fighting blindness. She said that her “’personal best moment’ occurred on a humanitarian mission to North Africa, when she restored the sight of a woman who had been blind for thirty years by implanting a keratoprosthesis.[2] ‘The ability to restore sight is the ultimate reward,’ she said.”[3]

Dr. Patricia Bath died on May 30, 2019, in an unsuccessful struggle against cancer. She left behind a tremendous legacy for eye health in the United States and indeed the whole world. Because of her efforts thousands of people in remote communities here and around the world received care and saved their eyesight. 

We can all be thankful to God that women like Dr. Patrician Bath overcame the obstacles of prejudice in our society to achieve their visions. Patricia Bath believed in herself and the work she could do to persevere in the face of the injustice. The whole world should be grateful for her courage. Racial prejudice is lessening but we have a long way to go. What wonderful things have we missed because we denied opportunities to called and gifted women, black or white?

[1] From an article in Biography, “Changing the Face of Medicine: Dr. Patricia E. Bath” at https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_26.html

[2] Keratoprosthesis is a surgical procedure where a diseased cornea is replaced with an artificial cornea. It is used today for patients whose eyes have trouble accepting donor corneal transplants. 

[3] From an article in Biography, “Changing the Face of Medicine: Dr. Patricia E. Bath” at https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_26.html