This year, Bianca Smith and Jennifer King made sports history as the first black female coaches in both Major League Baseball and the National Football League-Smith was hired by the Boston Red Sox and King joined the Washington Football Team as an assistant running backs coach.
But let’s take a look at the many women that came before them, charting a new path in the male-dominated industry. One of the earliest examples of African American women involved in professional sports was the Philadelphia Dolly Vardens: “The team of women actually began playing baseball two years before the first male professional team and did it in corsets, long skirts, and high button shoes… playing solid ball from the 1890s until the early 1930s. However, the public did not take to well to it. Most people felt the game was far too dangerous for young ‘delicate’ women.” Despite criticism, women’s softball is credited as being invented in 1895, though men’s baseball quickly overshadowed its popularity, and, as it is today, it was rare to find women involved in any capacity in a men’s league.
Three African American women–Toni Stone, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson and Connie Morgan—did just that, in 1953, when they were signed to the Indianapolis Clowns Negro League baseball team. The thought of women playing professionally alongside men did not last long, but softball continued to offer women an outlet for their athletic skills. Journalist Michele Norris described how her cousin broke barriers on the softball field in the 1960s: “My cousin Juanita [ph.], was one of the first black students at the University of Alabama [Tuscaloosa, Alabama], played on the softball team, powerhouse player… and I remember going to games to watch her play and… they yelled the most awful things at her. And she was so strong, and just unbroken by it… she was big, and she was powerful, and she had long, beautiful, hair, and she would step up and shake her hair, put her hand on her hip and just crack that bat… she was fabulous.”
African American women also took to the court. Early basketball teams included the Spartan Girls (1910-1914), Chicago Roamers (1921-1931), Germantown Hornets (1929-1935), Philadelphia Tribune Girls (1930-1945), and the Chocolate Coeds (1930-1950). The Tribune Girls, beginning in 1932, won ten straight Women’s Colored World Basketball Championships with leading scorer Ora Mae Washington, who didn’t start playing until she was twenty-four. Like with baseball, the attitude towards women’s basketball was that it should be slowed down to accommodate the “delicate” players. Dr. Linda Rae Murray explained the common style of play known as “six-on-six,” aimed at limiting contact, which was only enforced on girls’ teams: “I remember liking basketball and I remember trying to be in a league… with our… recreation center right next to the projects [in Cleveland, Ohio]… But at that point in time… if you were in girls’ basketball, you could only dribble twice and pass… it was horrible.” Former Denver City council member Allegra “Happy” Hayne similarly recalled: “I participated in sports… my first year in high school and then I didn’t continue… I think women’s athletics were still… very second class… there was no Title I [sic. Title IX] back then. And I remember… after having… played basketball my entire life and going into the P.E. class and having… [to] dribble three steps and pass it or I couldn’t cross some line… some very crazy… girls’ rules.”
Around the same time as basketball, women’s tennis clubs were being formed. In 1912, one of the first, the Chicago Prairie Tennis Club (still in existence today) was started by Mrs. Maude Lawrence, Madelyn Baptist McCall, Ruth Shockey and Mrs. C.O. “Mother” Seames on the grounds that “athletic competition and good sportsmanship are prerequisites for building personalities and character.” Tennis would be the sport that would launch of the first African American female national champion. A year after the founding of the all-African American American Tennis Association (ATA) in 1916, Lucy Diggs Slowe won the ATA women’s singles tournament, earning her the title of national champion. Ora Mae Washington started playing tennis several years before playing basketball, and held the ATA women’s singles championship from 1929 to 1937, touted as the first African American two sport champion. Prior to the emergence of the young Althea Gibson, Washington and her partner George Stewart defeated Gibson and her partner Walter Johnson for the ATA doubles title in 1947. It was Gibson, though, who was the first to receive an invitation to the National Tournament in 1950, the first to win a Grand Slam title in 1956, and the first to win both the Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1957.
Magazine editor Yanick Rice-Lamb, who wrote Born to Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson, further explained: “She was actually the first black [U.S. Open] tennis champion… some people thought Arthur Ashe [who won in 1958] was first, but… she inspired him, and she had won… I think ten straight American Tennis Association tournaments, so she had kind of gone to the top of… the Black Tennis Association. So she needed other additional challenges… doing Wimbledon and U.S. Open, the French Open, and a number of… tournaments around… the world… she also played for the State Department as kind of an ambassador in different places too… she didn’t really get the endorsements and acclaim… that would normally go to athletes who accomplish what she had accomplished.” Nonetheless, she was a household name, as investment banker Carla Harris recalled: “When my mother talked about people who were influential in her life, Althea Gibson was a name… I remember reading a book about Althea Gibson very early on… and [I] became interested in black people who had accomplished a lot in their life and broke barriers… Gibson was the most prominent black sports figure when my mother was coming along.”
African American women also made their way onto the golf course early on, with Helen Webb Harris forming the Wake-Robin Golf Club in Washington D.C. in 1937. Though these women had their own club, integrating into mainstream golf tournaments did not occur until 1956, when Ann Gregory became the first African American woman to enter a U.S. Women’s Amateur Golf Tournament. PGA Hall of Famer Renee Powell—who first joined the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour in 1967 and who is the only African American to serve on the PGA of America board of directors—explained the importance of golfing: “It originated in Scotland and England… it was always known as a rich white man’s game… but that is changing and I’m seeing nowadays more African Americans getting into the game and… I always try to tell especially African American women… you need to play it because it is one of the few sports that you can play your entire life… it’s the best business contact sport in the world… and I’m really pleased see to see that many more people of color are taking up the sport and… realizing that it’s a great sport from many standpoints… [Including] from a business relations standpoint.”
The long fight for women’s participation in sports has been an important one, putting many women in positions to flourish. As Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal in the women’s 100m hurdles in 1984, concluded while looking back on her career: “Being able to have the confidence in myself in athletics enabled me to have confidence in myself as a human being.” This confidence likely propelled Jennifer King and Bianca Smith into their new coaching positions, where they serve as incredible inspirations in a long line of barrier-breaking African American women in the sports world.