List of African-American firsts

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African Americans are a demographic minority in the United States. The first achievements by African Americans in various fields historically marked footholds, often marking more widespread cultural change. The shorthand phrase for this is "breaking the color barrier".[1][2]

One commonly cited example is that of Jackie Robinson, who was the first African American of the modern era to become a Major League Baseball player, ending 60 years of segregated leagues. Segregated Negro Leagues had been established for decades.[3]


18th century
19th century: 1800s1810s1820s1830s1840s1850s1860s1870s1880s1890s
20th century: 1900s1910s1920s1930s1940s1950s1960s1970s1980s1990s
21st century: 2000s2010s
See also

18th century[edit]




  • First known African-American published author: Jupiter Hammon (poem "An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries", published as a broadside)[4]






  • First African American to formally practice medicine in the U.S.: James Derham, who did not hold an M.D. degree[10] (See also: 1847)




19th century[edit]








  • First African-American captain to sail a whaleship with an all-black crew: Absalom Boston[13]





  • First African American elected to public office and to serve in a state legislature: Alexander Twilight, Vermont[14] (See also: 1823)




  • First African American licensed to practice law in the U.S.: Macon Allen from the Boston bar [16]





  • First African-American woman in the United States to receive a college degree: Lucy Sessions, literary degree from Oberlin College


















  • First African-American president of a major college/university: Father Patrick Francis Healy, S.J. of Georgetown College.[20] (See also: 1851, 1863, 1866)





  • First African-American police officer in Boston, Massachusetts: Sergeant Horatio Julius Homer.[47]









  • First African-American female principal in Massachusetts and the Northeast: Maria Louise Baldwin, supervising white faculty and a predominantly white student body at the Agassiz Grammar School in Cambridge.


  • First African-American woman to earn a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree: Ida Gray, University of Michigan







20th century[edit]




  • First African-American professional basketball player: Harry Lew (New England Professional Basketball League)[63] (See also: 1950)
  • First African-American boxing champion, Joe Gans a lightweight


  • First Broadway musical written by African Americans, and the first to star African Americans: In Dahomey
  • First African-American woman to found and become president of a bank: Maggie L. Walker, St. Luke Penny Savings Bank (since 1930 the Consolidated Bank & Trust Company), Richmond, Virginia[64]


  • First Greek-letter fraternal organization established by African Americans: Sigma Pi Phi
  • First African American to participate in the Olympic Games, and first to win a medal: George Poage (two bronze medals)[65]
















  • First African-American woman to become an aviation pilot, first American to hold an international pilot license: Bessie Coleman[81]
  • First African-American NFL football coach: Fritz Pollard, co-head coach, Akron Pros, while continuing to play running back[79]
  • First African-American women to earn Ph.D. degrees in the United States: Georgiana Simpson, German, University of Chicago; Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, economics, University of Pennsylvania; and Eva Dykes, English philology, Radcliffe College[82]


  • First African-American woman to earn a degree in library science: [Virginia Proctor Powell Florence]], from the Carnegie Library School, which later became part of the University of Pittsburgh




  • First African-American woman to receive a degree (Ph.D.) from Yale University: Otelia Cromwell, who had previously been the first African-American graduate of Smith College.
  • First African-American woman to graduate from the University and Bellevue Hospital Medical College: May Edward Chinn













  • First African American to star in her own television program: Ethel Waters, The Ethel Waters Show, on NBC[93]




  • First African American to give a White House Command Performance: Josh White[97]






















  • First African-American U.S. presidential candidate: Rev. Clennon King, on the Independent Afro-American party


















  • First African-American woman elected officer of international labor union: Addie L. Wyatt
  • First African American appointed as a judge in Federal District Court in Virginia: Robert H. Cooley III (1939-1998), appointed to the Eastern District[170]



  • First African-American broadcast network news anchor: Max Robinson
























21st century[edit]






  • First African American to win a Career Grand Slam in tennis: Serena Williams (See also: Althea Gibson, 1956; Arthur Ashe, 1968)











See also[edit]


  1. ^ This claim is contested by the First Baptist Church, Petersburg, Virginia (1774) and the First Colored Baptist Church, renamed First African Baptist Church, Savannah, Georgia (1777).
  2. ^ Because it was published in the U.K., the book is not the first African-American novel published in the United States. This credit goes to one of two disputed books: Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859), brought to light by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in 1982; or Julia C. Collins' The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride (1865), brought to light by William L. Andrews, an English literature professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Mitch Kachun, a history professor at Western Michigan University, in 2006. Andrews and Kachun document Our Nig as a novelized autobiography, and argue that The Curse of Caste is the first fully fictional novel by an African American to be published in the U.S.
  3. ^ Founded earlier; not fully owned and operated by African Americans until 1863
  4. ^ Revels, the Mississippi State Senate's Adams County representative, was elected by the U.S. Senate in January 1870 to fill an unexpired term.
  5. ^ Rainey, a South Carolina state senator, was elected to fill the seat vacated by B. Franklin Whittemore. Rainey took his seat on December 12, 1870. John Willis Menard was actually the first African-American elected to the House (1868) but he was denied his seat.
  6. ^ Douglass did not seek the nomination or campaign after being nominated.
  7. ^ Parker graduated from Mount Holyoke when it was still a seminary.
  8. ^ This was previously thought to be Sarah E. Goode (for the cabinet bed, Chicago, Illinois).[54]
  9. ^ His son, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., was the first African-American general in the United States Air Force.
  10. ^ Gravely was also the first African American to command a U.S. Navy warship (1962), and the first promoted to the rank of admiral (1971).
  11. ^ L. Clifford Davis applied to the law school in 1946, and after several failed attempts was granted admission in September 1947, but was unable to enroll in classes. Hunt later enrolled on February 2, 1948.[112]
  12. ^ Clifton was the first to sign an NBA contract and subsequently play, Cooper was the first to be drafted by an NBA team, and Lloyd was the first to play in an NBA regular-season game because his team's opening game was one day before the others.
  13. ^ At that time, nominations were announced in November of the year of release, instead of early the following year.
  14. ^ While two black players won Gold Gloves that year, only Mays is African-American. The other, Minnie Miñoso, is Afro-Cuban.
  15. ^ In 1998, the award would be renamed the Oscar Robertson Trophy after its first recipient.
  16. ^ Harris' milestone came a year after Marlon Green, who had been rejected as a Continental Airlines applicant in 1957, won the United States Supreme Court case "Colorado Anti-Discrimination Commission v. Continental Airlines, Inc. 372 U.S. 714 no. 146" which found Green had been unlawfully discriminated against.[157]
  17. ^ a b c The first Black superhero, Marvel's Black Panther, introduced in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966), is African, not African-American. This is also true of the first Black character to star in his own mainstream comic-book feature, Waku, Prince of the Bantu, who headlined one of four features in the multiple-character omnibus series Jungle Tales (Sept. 1954 – Sept. 1955), from Marvel's 1950s predecessor, Atlas Comics.
  18. ^ At the time, the NCAA had not yet adopted its three-division system. Illinois State was in the NCAA University Division, which became Division I in 1973. The NCAA retroactively considers University Division members to have been Division I members.
  19. ^ The NHL had fielded black players for more than 20 years, with the first being Willie O'Ree in 1958, but all previous black players were Black Canadians and not African Americans. In 1996, Mike Grier (Edmonton Oilers) became the first to have been both born and exclusively trained in the U.S., per Allen, Kevin (January 14, 2008). "Willie O'Ree still blazing way in NHL 50 years later". USA Today. Retrieved June 23, 2014. 
  20. ^ Cuban cosmonaut Arnaldo Mendez was the first person of African descent in space, in 1980.
  21. ^ Lewis Hamilton became the first black Formula One racer in 2006, but he is a British citizen of Grenadan ancestry, and not an African American. Ribbs did not compete in a race, but drove a Formula One car professionally in January 1986 as a tester for the Brabham-BMW at Estoril, Portugal.
  22. ^ Announced as Bobcats owner in December 2002, although team did not begin play until 2004.
  23. ^ Smith and Dungy both reached this milestone on the same day, although Smith was technically the first due solely to scheduling. The NFC and AFC Championship Games are always held on the same day. In the playoffs that followed the 2006 NFL season, the NFC game was played first.



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