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List of African-American firsts

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Title: List of African-American firsts  
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Language: English
Subject: Lists of African Americans, African-American history, African-American culture, African-American studies, Black Power
Collection: African American-Related Lists, Lists of Firsts
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

List of African-American firsts

African Americans are a demographic minority in the United States. The first achievements by African Americans in various fields historically establish a foothold, providing a precedent for 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: 1800s • 1810s • 1820s • 1830s • 1840s • 1850s • 1860s • 1870s • 1880s • 1890s
20th century: 1900s • 1910s • 1920s • 1930s • 1940s • 1950s • 1960s • 1970s • 1980s • 1990s
21st century: 2000s • 2010s
See also

18th century




  • 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



  • First African American ordained as an Episcopal priest in the U.S.: Absalom Jones in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania[11]






  • 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 member of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), Patrick Francis Healy.[20] (See also: 1866, 1874)








  • First college owned and operated by African Americans: Wilberforce University, Ohio.[28][Note 3] (See also: 1854)
  • First African-American president of a college: Bishop Daniel Payne (Wilberforce University)[29]










  • First African-American president of a major college/university: Father (See also: 1851, 1863, 1866) [20]


  • First African-American Roman Catholic bishop: Bishop James Augustine Healy, of Portland, Maine.[23] (See also: 1854)




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


  • First African American to graduate from a formal nursing school: Mary Eliza Mahoney, Boston, Massachusetts.[49]

First Black American Major League Baseball Player William Edward White http://articles/William_Edward_White



  • First African American to command a U.S. ship: Captain Michael Healy.[50]





  • First African-American Roman Catholic priest publicly known at the time to be African-American: Augustine Tolton, Quincy and Chicago, Illinois[55] (See also: 1854)







20th century



  • 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: [65]



  • First African-American [66]





















  • First African-American composer to have symphony performed by leading orchestra: William Grant Still, Symphony No. 1, by Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra








  • First African American to star in her own television program: Ethel Waters, The Ethel Waters Show, on NBC[92]




  • First African American to give a White House Command Performance: Josh White[96]



  • Martin A. Martin, first African American to become a member of the Trial Bureau of the United States Department of Justice, was sworn in on May 31, 1943.[98]
  • First African-American artists to have a #1 hit on the Billboard charts: Mills Brothers ("Paper Doll"), topped "Best Sellers in Stores" chart on November 6 (See also: Tommy Edwards, 1958; The Platters, 1959)














  • First African-American member of the Metropolitan Opera: Marian Anderson[136]
  • First African-American male dancer in a major ballet company: Arthur Mitchell (New York City Ballet; also first African-American principal dancer of a major ballet company (NYCB), 1956.[137] (See also: 1969)
  • First African-American singer to appear in a telecast opera: Leontyne Price in NBC's production of Tosca
  • First African-American pilot of a scheduled US airline: August Martin (cargo airline Seaboard & Western Airlines)[138][139] (See also: 1964)
  • First African American to serve as a presidential executive assistant: E. Frederic Morrow, appointed by President Eisenhower as Administrative Officer for Special Projects.[140]







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


  • First African American to win the Heisman Trophy: Ernie Davis
  • First African American to serve on a U.S. district court: James Benton Parsons, appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
  • First African-American tenor to sing leading roles for the George Shirley
  • First African-American delegate to the Edith S. Sampson (See also: 1950)
  • First African-American to go over Niagara Falls: Nathan Boya a.k.a. William FitzGerald

















  • 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[168]



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








  • First African American to win a delegate-awarding U.S. presidential primary/caucus: Jesse Jackson (Louisiana, the District of Columbia, South Carolina, Virginia and one of two separate Mississippi contests).
  • First African-American coach to win the Georgetown)
  • First African-American New York City Police Commissioner: Benjamin Ward

















21st century






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











See also


  1. ^ This claim is contested by the 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.[111]
  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.[155]
  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  
  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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  • Smith, Jessie Carney (2002). Black Firsts (2 ed.). Detroit: Visible Ink Press.  
  • Potter, Joan (2002). African-American Firsts: famous, little-known and unsung triumphs of Blacks in America (Rev. and expanded ed ed.). New York: Dafina Books.  

External links

  • President Obama's Speech to the NAACP on July 16, 2009 – full video by MSNBC
  • Weiner, David * "African-American Firsts In New York", The Huffington Post, August 4, 2009
  • Mance, Ajuan "Timeline: Black Firsts in Higher Education",, November 5, 2009
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