From all-black clubs to all-stars
A timeline of black women’s participation in basketball, golf, gymnastics and track
From the first club basketball teams to gold medal winners in Olympic track and field, the story of African-American women’s involvement in sports is one of both adversity and accomplishment. Here is just a taste of what these women have achieved in a handful of sports over the past century.
James Naismith invents basketball in a Massachusetts YMCA school gym as a means for his students to exercise.
The first recorded women’s basketball game is played at Smith College. Men were barred from watching the game.
– Senda Berenson, a gymnastics instructor at Smith, is credited with adapting basketball rules for women’s play. Berenson believed women might not be permitted to play the game if it didn’t enhance their womanliness. Under Berenson, women’s games were held along with social affairs, with formal dinners frequently held afterward. Berenson’s changes to basketball included a ban on snatching at the ball, holding it for more than three seconds or dribbling the ball more than three times.
The New York Girls, one of the first independently organized all-women’s teams, is formed in Manhattan. The team was coached by Conrad Norman and was formed as the sister team to the Alpha Physical Culture Club men’s team, also founded by Norman.
The first recorded basketball game between two independently organized all-black women’s teams, the New York Girls and the Jersey Girls. The game was described in the New York Age, one of the leading black newspapers of the day, as “a pleasing innovation.” It added that “these lassies demonstrated that they could play!” The New York Girls won 12-3.
Edward “Sol” Butler, an editor and basketball and track star, forms the Roamer Girls, one of two noteworthy Chicago-based all-black women’s basketball teams that played black and white teams in the city. The Roamers, who were mostly schoolteachers, played both women’s and boys teams before joining the women’s division of Chicago’s City League in 1924. They won the league that year but lost the following year to a white team.
– True to their nickname, the Roamers went as far west as Oakland, California, to play. Besides claiming the banner as Negro women’s champions, the Roamers beat 41 men’s teams. However, as a concession to the Roamers, the men’s teams were not permitted to shoot from inside the free-throw line extended to the sidelines.
The Philadelphia Tribune Girls, an amalgam of Philadelphia-area all-black women’s teams, becomes one of the era’s dominant barnstorming squads, appearing in cities such as New York, Washington, Cleveland, Chicago and Pittsburgh.
– Ora Washington, a champion tennis player, came to be the face of the Tribune Girls. But Inez Patterson was, in many respects, the driving force behind the team. Patterson, the team captain of the Quick Steppers, the predecessor of the Tribune Girls, persuaded the Tribune to sponsor and promote her team. In turn, she renamed it for the paper.
Led by 6-foot-7 Helen “Streamline” Smith, the Chocolate Coeds roar out of Chicago to take on men’s and women’s teams across the Midwest and West. Smith was billed by team coach and promoter Dick Hudson as 7 feet tall. Indeed, a newspaper in Lethbridge, Alberta, contributed to the hype, calling Smith “the tallest lady in the world.”
In one of their barnstorming tours, the Philadelphia Tribune Girls meet a team from Bennett College, an all-female historically black college in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Bennett team had amassed a 24-0 record playing college, high school and community teams over two years, but were outclassed in their three-game series with the Tribune Girls, which drew attention in the local white press. The first game took place before a crowd of 1,000 at Greensboro’s downtown sports arena. Lucille Townsend, one of the Bennett players, remembered that the Tribune players were flashy – wearing red and white uniforms in one half, with gold and purple outfits in the next.
– The Bennett-Tribune Girls highlighted the differences in style between the college girls and the older, more worldly Tribune Girls. Lucille Townsend, a Bennett player, said the teams shared a locker room during their games. At halftime of one of the games, Townsend said, some of the Tribune players pulled out half-pint jars with corn liquor in them. Townsend also remarked on the appearance of Tribune star Ora Washington, who had won eight American Tennis Association singles titles. While Washington’s talent was remarkable, Townsend said she “looked like the worst ruffian you ever wanted to see. She looked like she’d been out pickin’ cotton all day, shavin’ hogs and everything else.”
The National Association of College Women (now known as the National Association of University Women) issues a position statement opposing intercollegiate athletics for women. The NACW had firmly opposed strenuous activities for college women for more than a decade, with Maryrose Reeves Allen, the director of women’s physical education at Howard, writing that activities other than dance, light games, archery and badminton “have no place in a woman’s life; they rob her of her feminine charms and often of her good health.” Many historically black colleges and universities dropped basketball and other competitive sports during the 1930s. Bennett College dropped its support of women’s intercollegiate basketball in 1942.
Title IX is enacted, requiring federally funded schools to devote as many resources to women’s educational programs as men’s, including athletics. This opens the door to fully funded athletic scholarships for women.
Lusia (Lucy) Harris plays at Delta State (Mississippi) University. The 6-foot-3 center becomes the first women’s college superstar of the modern era, averaging nearly 26 points and 14 rebounds a game while leading the Lady Statesmen to three national championships. Among her accomplishments, Harris was the first woman to score in an Olympic women’s basketball game in 1976. She later became the first African-American woman to be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
– Harris became the first woman to be drafted in the NBA. The New Orleans Jazz selected her in the seventh round of the 1977 draft. Harris never showed up at the Jazz’s training camp, believing her selection was a prank. Instead, she played for a year with the Houston Angels of the fledgling Women’s Professional Basketball League.
The first NCAA Final Four for women occurs. The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women had run women’s collegiate championships throughout the 1970s, with smaller schools such as Delta State, Immaculata (Pennsylvania) and Old Dominion (Virginia) winning championships. As bigger schools began offering women’s athletics programs, the NCAA moved into women’s athletics, effectively crushing the AIAW.
– The names of many African-American stars of the 1970s, such as Lusia Harris of Delta State and Maryland’s Myra Waters, are largely mysteries to many modern basketball observers because the NCAA has not incorporated the records accumulated during AIAW play.
Lynette Woodard becomes the first female member of the Harlem Globetrotters. Woodard, who broke the NCAA scoring record at Kansas in the late 1970s, played on the first American women’s Olympic team to win a gold medal in 1984. With few professional opportunities in the United States after the Olympics, Woodard, a cousin of former Globetrotter Geese Ausbie, tried out and played with the Globetrotters for two years.
– Woodard did not remain the lone female Globetrotter for long. Jackie White, a 5-foot-10 guard from Long Beach State, joined the team in December 1986, leaving her job as a youth counselor at a Chino, California, correctional facility.
Sanya Tyler, the former women’s basketball coach at Howard, is awarded $1.1 million in damages when a Washington, D.C., jury found that the school discriminated against her in not offering the same salary and resources that it gave to men’s coach Butch Beard.
Texas Tech forward Sheryl Swoopes scores 47 points in the NCAA championship game to lead the Lady Raiders to a win over Ohio State, setting a record for most points scored in a title game, men’s or women’s, that still remains. Afterward, Nike designed a shoe in Swoopes’ honor, making her one of the first female athletes to receive such a designation.
The U.S. women’s basketball team, with eight African-American players, wins the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta. The squad embarked on a yearlong goodwill and training tour, playing most of the top NCAA teams as well as foreign teams, finishing with a 52-0 mark. Arguably the greatest women’s team of all time, the U.S. team won all but eight games by double digits.
Two professional leagues, the American Basketball League and the Women’s National Basketball Association, are formed in the wake of the Olympic team’s success. While most of the former Olympians choose the ABL, which played its games in the winter and offered higher salaries, three high-profile players — Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo — choose the WNBA, which was funded and supported by the NBA. The ABL folded in two years, while the WNBA survives.
Carolyn Peck guides Purdue to the NCAA championship, becoming the first African-American female coach to win an NCAA title. Peck, who inherited the Boilermakers job when previous coach Nell Fortner left to coach the 2000 U.S. Olympic team, led Purdue to a 28-1 regular season record.
In 2005, Swoopes becomes the first American athlete in a major team sport to come out while still an active athlete. In an interview with The Advocate, Swoopes said, “You have your Rosie O’Donnells, your Ellen DeGenereses … and I was trying to figure out what gay African-American woman has come out and can represent the gay African-American community. And I can’t really think of one. I’m proud of that, that I am doing it — not just for the African-American community, but for me, for my peace of mind. But I know it’s going to be hard — I know I’m going to take a lot of flak from a lot of different people, but probably especially the African-American community.”
The morning after Rutgers lost the NCAA championship game to Tennessee, radio/TV host Don Imus refers to the Scarlet Knights as a group of “nappy-headed hos.” Imus was fired by both CBS Radio and MSNBC, which had jointly carried his show.
– C. Vivian Stringer, the Rutgers head coach, remains the only woman and one of only two coaches overall to take three different schools to the NCAA Final Four. Stringer led Rutgers, Iowa and Cheyney State to the national semifinals. She was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.
Former Girl Scouts marketing executive Laurel Richie succeeds Donna Orender as president of the WNBA. Richie is the first African-American woman to head a major U.S. sporting league. Richie remains until 2015 and is replaced by Lisa Borders, another African-American woman.
– Before Richie’s ascendance, Renee Brown was the most visible African-American woman in sports management as the chief operating officer for league operations and player relations from the WNBA’s inception until she stepped down in 2016.
Wendy Hilliard became the first African-American to represent the U.S. rhythmic gymnastics team in international competition, competing in world championships in 1979, 1981 and 1983. She remained on the team a record-setting nine times, serving twice as national team captain.
“There is always challenges when you are the first at anything. The challenges were that not a lot of African-Americans existed in the sport. There were so few blacks competing. I had competed in three world championships, and at some point I was left off the team. My coach said that I stood out too much. Places like Bulgaria and Poland were not used to seeing black gymnasts perform.”
Luci Collins becomes the first black woman to make a U.S. Olympic team. But Collins, 16, did not compete because the U.S. boycotted the games in Moscow.
“It was not until my career was sidelined … two years later that the full impact of the boycott really hit me. My one chance to compete on the Olympic stage had passed me by.”
Dianne Durham became the first African-American all-around champion at the national championships in Chicago.
Dominique Dawes becomes the first African-American woman to make the U.S. national team.
Competing at the world championships in Indianapolis, Betty Okino performs a triple pirouette on the balance beam that the International Gymnastics Federation later names in her honor. The next year, she wins a team bronze medal at the Barcelona Olympics.
Dominique Dawes wins a team bronze at the Barcelona Olympics and begins a streak in which she becomes the first black female gymnast to compete in more than one Olympics (1992, 1996 and 2000).
At the U.S. National Championships, Dominique Dawes wins all four individual events and the all-around gold medal, becoming the first gymnast to sweep the competition in 25 years.
USA Gymnastics commissions a study to measure diversity in the sport and finds that a little less than 7 percent of the overall gymnastics population in the U.S. is African-American, compared with 13 percent of the general population.
Gabby Douglas becomes the first African-American to win the all-around gold medal at the Olympics but is criticized on social media for her hair.
After African-American Simone Biles wins the all-around world championships, an Italian competitor and a spokesman for the Italian gymnastics federation make racist comments for which they later apologize.
Gabby Douglas shares the team gold medal but is “heartbroken” over more internet criticism, this time for not putting her hand over her heart during the national anthem as well as her facial expression while teammates were competing.
Simone Biles becomes the first American gymnast, female or male, to win four gold medals at a single Olympics. She also becomes the most decorated American gymnast, with 19 Olympic and world championship medals.
Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes become the first African-American women to qualify for an Olympic team. They were part of the 4×100 relay pool in the 1932 Los Angeles Games but were replaced by slower white runners because of their race.
Pickett becomes the first African-American woman to compete in the Olympics, which were held in Berlin. She ran the 80-meter hurdles and made it to a semifinal heat.
Alice Coachman, “The Tuskegee Flash,” becomes the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal, taking the top prize in the high jump. Audrey Patterson became the first black woman to win a bronze medal for the 200-meter dash.
Sprinter Barbara Jones, 15, becomes the youngest athlete to win a gold medal as a member of the 4×100 relay team in the 1952 Helsinki Games.
Wilma Rudolph becomes the first African-American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics during the Rome Games.
Wyomia Tyus becomes the first American to retain the Olympic title in the 100 meters. She, Barbara Ferrell, Mildrette Netter and Margaret Bailes win gold in the 4×100-meter relay.
Benita Fitzgerald becomes the first African-American woman to win gold in the 100-meter hurdles, Chandra Cheeseborough becomes the first woman to win gold medals in the 4×100 and 4×400 relays, Evelyn Ashford wins gold while becoming the first Olympian to finish the 100 meters in under 11 seconds, and Valerie Brisco-Hooks becomes the first athlete to win gold in the 200 and 400-meter races in a single Olympics.
In Seoul, Jackie Joyner-Kersee sets the heptathlon record and earns gold medals in it and the long jump. Florence Griffith Joyner, “Flo-Jo,” becomes the first U.S. woman to win four medals in track and field in a single Olympics.
Joyner-Kersee takes home another gold medal in the heptathlon and a bronze in the long jump at the Barcelona Games.
Gail Devers becomes the second woman in history to successfully defend an Olympic 100-meter title. Rochelle Stevens wins gold in the 4X400 relay after earning silver in the same event at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
The U.S. women’s 4×400 relay team wins gold at the Sydney Olympics, but team member Marion Jones was later found to be doping. Bahamian sprinter Pauline Davis-Thompson wins gold in the 200 meters, ushering in a series of victories for black women from the Caribbean.
Britain’s Kelly Holmes wins gold in the 800 and 1500 meters at the Athens Games.
Sprinters Shelly-Ann Fraser and Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica beat out the U.S. women for gold in the 100 and 200 meters, respectively, in the Beijing Games; Dawn Harper wins gold for the U.S. in the 100-meter hurdles, while the U.S. 4×400 relay team, led by Allyson Felix, captures gold.
Brittney Reese wins gold in the long jump, the first American gold in the event since Joyner-Kersee won it in 1988.
Michelle Carter becomes the first U.S. woman to win gold in the shot put at the Rio de Janeiro Games.
A group of African-American investors buys the property for the Shady Rest Golf and Country Club in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, the first black-owned and -operated club in the country. There were earlier black-owned golf courses, but none that included the amenities typically associated with a country club, such as tennis courts, locker rooms and a space for dining.
A group of 13 women gathered at a house in Washington, D.C., to form the Wake-Robin Golf Club, the first golf club for African-American women.
The Chicago Women’s Golf Club becomes the first women’s golf association to be affiliated with the United Golf Association, a professional tour for African-Americans.
Ann Gregory competes in the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship, thus becoming the first African-American woman to play in a national championship conducted by the United States Golf Association.
Althea Gibson, the first black female tennis icon, switches to golf after retiring from amateur tennis and becomes the first African-American woman to compete on the LPGA tour.
Renee Powell becomes the second African-American player on the LPGA tour.
Ginger Howard becomes the first African-American member of the Junior Ryder Cup team. Two years later, at age 18, she becomes the youngest black female golfer to turn pro.
Information compiled by the Morgan State University School of Global Journalism and Communication.
Photo illustrations by Masa.
Photos from Getty Images.