5 Black Pioneer Athletes You May Never Heard Of.
Major Taylor – Champion Cyclist and First African American World Champion
Arguably one of the best cyclists of all time is a man that 99 percent of the world has never heard of. Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor, born on November 26, 1878 was a champion cyclist, multiple multiple world record holder and the first African American to become a world champion – in any sport.
The son of a Civil War veteran Marshall Taylor was raised and educated in the home of the Southards, a wealthy Indiana family that employed his father. Taylor developed a strong friendship with Dan Southard who was the same age as Marshall and at age 12 the Southards gave young Marshall his first bicycle. Young Marshall immediately took to the bicycle, becoming an expert trick rider and catching the eye of a local bike shop owner who subsequently paid Taylor $6 per week to perform stunts outside of the bike shop. Taylor performed the stunts wearing a soldiers uniform and gained the nickname “Major”.
Taylor was not only an excellent trick rider, but he was an extremely gifted racer as well. At age 13 Major Taylor entered and won his first race, an amateur event in Indiana. At age 16 he won a 75 mile race in Indiana competing against the best white racers of the day and experiencing extreme racism before during and after the race. It was racism that ultimately drove Taylor out of racing in Indiana and he subsequently took his talents to Massachusetts where he won his first east coast race.
Major Taylor turned pro at age 18 and immediately began to dominate racing. He won his first professional race, lapping the entire field. Taylor raced in America, Australia and Europe and beat all comers. By 1898 Major Taylor held seven world records and had won 29 of his 49 races. In 1899 Taylor set seven world records in a one week period and won the World Championship; the first African American to ever do so. In 1902 he won 40 of 57 races on the European Tour beating competitors in Germany, England and France. His record for the mile stood for 28 years and he continued to set world records from 1989 to 1908.
Although Taylor enjoyed unparalleled success as a racer, he was always dogged by racism, enduring taunts death threats, bad sportsmanship and downright cheating leveled against him. through it all Taylor maintained an amazingly high moral code and never engaged in retaliation against his competitors. The racism within the sport did eventually wear him down and in 1910 at age 32 he retired.
Oliver Lewis, First African American Jockey to Win the Kentucky Derby – 1875
At a time not too far removed from slavery, opportunities for African Americans to excel equally in sports were few and far between. Caretaking for horses and eventually becoming jockeys however was an avenue where African Americans were initially given an opportunity to excel – and they did. From 1875 to 1903 14 of the first 28 jockeys to win the Kentucky Derby were people of color, and the first to win was Oliver Lewis.
At age 19 Oliver Lewis rode in and won his first Kentucky Derby in front of 10,000 spectators at the Louisville Jockey Club (later known as Churchill Downs). After this victory Lewis went on to place second After this initial period of success on the track the backlash from racist whites surfaced and many black jockeys were driven out of the sport by racist white landowners and hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan. By 1921 there were no more African American jockeys riding horses at the Derby, and another one would not be seen for 80 years.
Charlie Sifford – First African American on the PGA Tour
Traditionally in America golf has been a sport reserved for the elites, relegated to country club members and those with means. In the 1950’s most African Americans who had an affinity for the game were caddies or groundskeepers who picked up the game by playing in off hours or watching others. As difficult as golf is to learn in this manner, there were many African Americans who not only learned the game, but became champions. One of these was Charlie Sifford.
Born in 1922 in Charlotte North Carolina, Sifford became a caddy at age 13, learned his craft and excelled in the negro-only tournaments of the day. By age 30 Sifford was an excellent golfer and went on to win the UGA Negro Open 5 years in a row from 1952 to 1956. In 1952 Sifford got his first opportunity to qualify for a PGA tournament via a sponsorship from Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis, but was met with multiple racially motivated threats and intimidation. It was 5 years later in 1957 that Sifford got his first opportunity to compete against and beat some of the best white players of the day at the PGA co-sponsored Long Beach Open, and it wasn’t until 1961 (at age 39) that Sifford was allowed to turn pro as the first African American on the PGA Tour.
Charlie Sifford went on to win two PGA Tour events, but really excelled on the PGA Senior Tour (for golfers over 50). He won the Senior PGA Championship in 1975 and from 1988 through 2000 he dominated at the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf Tournament winning the 2-man team senior tour event 6 times; 3 wins with Roberto DeVicenzo (1988, 1989, 1991) and 3 times with Joe Jimenez in the Demaret Division (1998, 1998, 2000). In 2004 Charlie Sifford was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Althea Gibson – First African American Woman to Win a Tennis Grand Slam Event
Before there was Venus and Serena there was Althea Gibson, the first African American woman ever to win a Grand Slam event in tennis. Gibson in fact went on to win 11 grand slam titles (including 5 singles events) and was the world #1 tennis player in 1957 and 1958. Back then there were no major endorsements and prize money for tennis players and subsequently she retired in 1958, but her heroics did not stop there.
Gibson became the first African American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour, in 1964. Her best finish on the tour was a tie for second after a three-way playoff at the 1970 Len Immke Buick Open. Gibson retired from professional golf at the end of the 1978 season.
Earl Francis Lloyd – First African American in the NBA
Today the number of African American players in the National Basketball Association is at 78 percent, and has the highest concentration of people of color of any major American sport. In 1950 however there were only 3 African Americans and Earl Lloyd was the first. Earl Lloyd made his debut with the Washington Capitols a few days before Chuck Cooper, the first black draftee into the league. The pair was also joined in the 1950 season by Nat Clifton of the New York Knicks.
Earl Lloyd was a defensive specialist and played in the league for eight seasons, averaging 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. He also was the first African American to win a championship as in 1955 his Syracuse team won the NBA Championship. Feeling the immense pressure of being the first African American to break the NBA color barrier Lloyd famously said “Luckily, letting people down was not a part of my DNA.