34 of the Greatest Black Athletes in American History

34 of the Greatest Black Athletes in American History

At the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Jesse Owens became the first American track and field athlete to win four gold medals at a single Olympic Games. He simultaneously went down in history as having single-handedly smashed Adolph Hitler’s myth of Aryan superiority in Nazi Germany. An American hero, Jesse Owens came back to the U.S. only to struggle to find work after U.S. athletics officials withdrew his amateur status and prohibited him from making appearances at amateur sporting events.

Back in a segregated home country, Owens still faced the everyday hurdles of racism and prejudice. Countless trailblazing Black athletes including baseball legend Jackie Robinson and heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson famously withstood atrocious treatment from competitors and the public during the Jim Crow era. Many of them became icons and outspoken activists in the civil rights movement, helping to pave the way for integration in professional sports. (Read about Martin Luther King and 49 other most important civil rights leaders of the 21st century.)

Thanks to the efforts and determination of these and other pioneering athletes, there is now much more Black representation in professional sports. 24/7 Tempo has compiled some of the greatest Black athletes that America has ever seen by reviewing data sources including Sports Reference and Olympedia. The list is obviously representative, not exhaustive.

Some of these athletes broke barriers, becoming the first African-Americans allowed to enter their respective fields, or the first to win the accolades they did as sports became more integrated. Others have reached legendary status as the GOAT (greatest of all time) in their sport or position. Many have represented the U.S. at the Olympic Games, winning numerous gold, silver, and bronze medals. (Here are the greatest winter Olympians in American history.)

Although Black athletes are now a majority in the NBA and NFL, representation in baseball, tennis, and golf is still lacking, and athletes in the so-called “minor sports” – like figure skater Debi Thomas, Alpine skier Andre Horton, and fencers Ruth White and Ibtihaj Muhammed remain outliers in their fields. 

It goes without saying that more often than not Black athletes have had to work twice as hard to get half the recognition that they deserve, and that no matter how famous they are, many are still subject to mistreatment by the media, sports officials, and fans.

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Willie Mays
> Team(s): New York Giants / New York Mets
> Sport: Baseball
> Career: 1948-1973
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 2x MVP, 1x World Series Champion, 20x All-Star

One of the best baseball players in history – both in the outfield and while batting – Willie Mays is known for catching impossible balls with theatrical leaps and dives. When he retired, he was one of very few players who’d made over 3,000 career hits.

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
> Team(s): Milwaukee Bucks / Los Angeles Lakers
> Sport: Basketball
> Career: 1969-1989
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 6x MVP, 6x NBA Champion, 19x All-Star

With 38,387 points, this 7 ft. 2 in. basketball legend is the highest scoring player in NBA history. During his college years, the NCAA banned dunking in an effort to curb his dominance on the court. He responded by developing his signature unbeatable move – the skyhook.

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Muhammad Ali
> Team(s): Team USA
> Sport: Boxing
> Career: 1960-1981
> Accolades: 56-5 record, 37 KOs, 1x Gold Medal, 3x World Heavyweight Champion, 19x Title defenses

Not only the greatest heavyweight boxer in history, but often considered the greatest sportsman who ever lived, Muhammad Ali did more than dominate opponents in the ring with both his wit and his agility: He became an outspoken cultural icon and symbol of Black pride, unapologetic about his political and social ideology.

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Jerry Rice
> Team(s): San Francisco 49ers / Oakland Raiders
> Sport: Football
> Career: 1985-2004
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 3x Super Bowl Champion, 13x Pro Bowl, 2x Offensive Player of the Year

Known as the greatest wide receiver in NFL history, Jerry Rice is renowned for his speed and extraordinary fitness. He holds numerous wide receiver records, including most receptions (1,549), receiving yards (22,895), and touchdown receptions (197), as well as the record for total touchdowns (208). Rice is also the highest scoring non-kicker in NFL history.

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Serena Williams
> Team(s): Team USA
> Sport: Tennis
> Career: 1995-present
> Accolades: 23x Grand Slam Winner, 4x Gold Medal

Undoubtedly one of the greatest tennis players of all time, the record-breaking Serena Williams has overcome incredible odds to become the highest paid woman athlete ever. She’s spent 186 consecutive weeks (and 319 total) as the WTA top player, and is the only American tennis player ever to win more than 20 major tournaments.

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Satchel Paige
> Team(s): Cleveland Indians / Kansas City Monarchs
> Sport: Baseball
> Career: 1927-1965
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 8x All-Star, 1x World Series Champion, 1x Negro League World Series Champion

The greatest baseball pitcher of his time, Satchel Paige was the first Black player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was known for his impeccable control of the ball – landing it exactly where he wanted it every time – as well as for his slapstick showmanship, including theatrical windmill wind-ups, trash-talking, and the practice of intentionally loading the bases just to watch the next batter strike out.

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Carl Lewis
> Team(s): Team USA
> Sport: Track & Field
> Career: 1984-1996
> Accolades: 9x Gold Medal, 1x Silver Medal

Olympic track and field athlete Carl Lewis has been named the “Sportsman of the Century” by the International Olympic Committee. Dominating both sprinting and long jumping, Lewis set multiple world records during his athletic career and won 10 World Championship Medals.

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Wilt Chamberlain
> Team(s): Philadelphia Warriors / Los Angeles Lakers / Philadelphia 76ers
> Sport: Basketball
> Career: 1959-1973
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 4x MVP, 2x NBA Champion, 13x All-Star

One of the greatest offensive basketball players in history, Wilt Chamberlain remains the only NBA player who has ever scored 100 points in a single game, and was the first player to score over 30,000 points in his career – a record he held until Kareem Abdul-Jabbar surpassed it in 1984.

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Simone Biles
> Team(s): Team USA
> Sport: Gymnastics
> Career: 2016-present
> Accolades: 4x Gold Medal, 1x Silver Medal, 2x Bronze Medal

With 32 Olympic and World Championship medals, Simone Biles is one of the most decorated gymnasts of all time. She is also commonly referred to as the greatest gymnast in history. Biles is known for her perfect technique and her ability to perform difficult moves that no other gymnast ever has; she even has four gymnastic skills named after her.

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Floyd Mayweather
> Team(s): Team USA
> Sport: Boxing
> Career: 1996-2017
> Accolades: 50-0 record, 11x Title winner, 22x Title defenses, 1x Bronze medal

One of the best defensive boxers in history and the best boxer of his generation, Floyd Mayweather is an undefeated champion, having won all of his 50 fights – 27 by knockout. He’s known for the accuracy of his punches and for rarely getting hit, as well as for being one of the highest paid athletes ever.

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Allyson Felix
> Team(s): Team USA
> Sport: Track & Field
> Career: 2004-present
> Accolades: 7x Gold Medal, 3x Silver Medal, 1x Bronze Medal

One of the greatest sprinters of all time and the most decorated American athlete in Olympic track and field history, Allyson Felix has won 11 medals in five consecutive Olympic games. She is also the most decorated athlete in World Athletics Championship history, with 18 medals.

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Reggie White
> Team(s): Green Bay Packers / Philadelphia Eagles
> Sport: Football
> Career: 1985-2000
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 1x Super Bowl Champion, 2x Defensive Player of the Year, 13x Pro Bowl

Nicknamed the Minister of Defense, Reggie White is considered to have been the greatest defensive lineman ever. At the time of his retirement, he held the NFL record for most sacks (198) and was posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.

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Hank Aaron
> Team(s): Atlanta Braves / Milwaukee Brewers
> Sport: Baseball
> Career: 1954-1976
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 1x MVP, 1x World Series Champion, 21x All-Star

During his 23 seasons in the major leagues, “Hammerin’ Hank” hit 755 home runs, surpassing the record set by Babe Ruth, a distinction he maintained for 33 years. He holds many other batting records and is known as one of the greatest baseball players in history. He’s also the namesake of rapper M.C. Hammer, who met Aaron as a child.

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Althea Gibson
> Team(s): N/A
> Sport: Tennis
> Career: 1950-1958
> Accolades: 5x Singles Grand Slam titles, 6x Doubles Grand Slam titles,

An international tennis champion during the civil rights era, Althea Gibson unflinchingly overcame prejudice to become the first Black player to win a Grand Slam title. After her retirement from tennis, she took up golfing and became the first Black player on the LPGA tour.

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Lisa Leslie
> Team(s): Los Angeles Sparks / Team USA
> Sport: Basketball
> Career: 1997-2009
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 3x MVP, 2x WNBA Champion, 4x Gold Medal

WNBA league MVP and Olympic gold medalist Lisa Leslie broke multiple WNBA records during her career, including becoming the first player to score over 6,000 points and being the first to dunk a ball in a WNBA game.

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Rickey Henderson
> Team(s): Oakland A’s / New York Yankees
> Sport: Baseball
> Career: 1979-2003
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 1x MVP, 2x World Series Champion, All-time leader in steals and runs

Known as the greatest base-runner and lead-off hitter in baseball history, Ricky Henderson holds the MLB career record for stolen bases (1,406) as well as the record for most bases stolen in a single season (130 in 1982) – which helped him earn the nickname “Man of Steal.” He was also famous for starting games with a home run.

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Crystal Dunn
> Team(s): North Carolina Courage / USWNT
> Sport: Soccer
> Career: 2014-present
> Accolades: 2x NWSL Champion, 1x NWSL MVP, 1x World Cup Champion, 1x Bronze Medal

A current defender for the Portland Thorns FC, Crystal Dunn is known for her adaptability and excellence in every position she plays, and has been on Team USA at two Olympic Games. At age 23 she became the youngest person ever to win the NWSL MVP and Golden Boot Awards.

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Jesse Owens
> Team(s): Team USA
> Sport: Track & Field
> Career: 1935-1936
> Accolades: 4x Gold Medal, Presidential Medal of Freedom

Track and field star Jesse Owens is best remembered for being the first American track and field athlete to win four gold medals at a single Olympics, which he did in Berlin in 1936. He’s also known for setting four world records in a single tournament.

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Bruce Smith
> Team(s): Buffalo Bills / Washington Football Team
> Sport: Football
> Career: 1985-2003
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 2x Defensive Player of the Year, 11x Pro Bowl, 8x All-Pro

During his 19-season career with the NFL, defensive end Bruce Smith set the record for most quarterback sacks (200), which is doubly impressive considering that most of his career was spent playing defensive schemes not aimed at creating sack opportunities for defensive ends. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

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Michael Jordan
> Team(s): Chicago Bulls / Washington Wizards
> Sport: Basketball
> Career: 1984-2003
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 5x MVP, 6x NBA Champion, 14x All-Star

Considered the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan is known for his soaring jumps and game-changing performances. He won three NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls before briefly retiring to play major league baseball, only to return to the Bulls and win three more championships.

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Laila Ali
> Team(s): N/A
> Sport: Boxing
> Career: 1999-2007
> Accolades: 24-0 Record, 21 KOs, 4x Title winner, 11x Title defenses,

The daughter of Muhammad Ali and one of the best woman boxers of all time, Laila Ali retired undefeated, winning 24 fights total with 21 of those by knockout. In her first professional bout, she knocked her opponent out only 31 seconds into the first round.

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Jackie Robinson
> Team(s): Brooklyn Dodgers
> Sport: Baseball
> Career: 1945-1956
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 1x MVP, 1x World Series Champion, 7x All-Star

After standout performance in the Negro Leagues, Jackie Robinson became the first Black baseball player allowed into major league baseball. He withstood torrents of prejudice and abuse to excel at his sport, and helped break barriers for future Black athletes. Robinson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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Jim Brown
> Team(s): Cleveland Browns
> Sport: Football
> Career: 1957-1965
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 3x MVP, 1x NFL Champion, 9x Pro Bowl

Widely considered one of the greatest running backs in history as well as one of the top five NFL players ever, Jim Brown broke most rushing records during his nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns. According to sports writer Jim Murray, “Nobody ever ran with a football like James Nathaniel Brown.”

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Buck O’Neil
> Team(s): Kansas City Monarchs / Memphis Red Sox
> Sport: Baseball
> Career: 1937-1951
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 1x Negro League World Series, 3x All-Star

Playing for over ten years in the Negro Leagues, Buck O’Neil eventually became a manager and helped the Kansas City Monarchs become the leading NAL team. He went on to become the first Black coach in major league baseball and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.

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Tamika Catchings
> Team(s): Indiana Fever
> Sport: Basketball
> Career: 2002-2016
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 1x MVP, 1x WNBA Champion, 4x Gold Medal

A highly decorated defensive basketball player, Tamika Catchings is the WNBA’s all-time leader in steals (1,074), second place in free throws (2,004) and third in scores (7,380) and rebounds (3,315). She retired with a win share of 93.66, which is 28 percentage points higher than her closest competitor, and is often referred to as the best player in WNBA history.

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LeBron James
> Team(s): Cleveland Cavaliers / Miami Heat / Los Angeles Lakers
> Sport: Basketball
> Career: 2003-present
> Accolades: 4x MVP, 4x NBA Champion, 18x All-Star, 2x Gold Medal

Right up there with earlier greats, LeBron James is widely considered the best active player in the NBA, and some argue that he’s the greatest player who ever hit the court. A basketball prodigy since childhood, James has amassed more accolades than we can list and holds the record for highest all-time playoffs points.

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Frank Robinson
> Team(s): Cincinnati Reds / Baltimore Orioles
> Sport: Baseball
> Career: 1956-1976
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 2x MVP, 2x World Series Champion, 14x All-Star

The only MLB player to be named MVP in both the American League and the National League, Frank Robinson became the first Black manager in the major leagues when he was named player-manager of the former Cleveland Indians in 1975. Robinson was a feared base-runner with 586 home runs at the time of his retirement.

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Maya Moore
> Team(s): Minnesota Lynx
> Sport: Basketball
> Career: 2011-2018
> Accolades: 4x WNBA Champion, 1x MVP, 6x All-Star, 2x Gold Medal

One of Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020, all-star player Maya Moore won more basketball games than any player in college basketball history before being drafted into the WNBA in 2011 and being named Rookie of the Year. Since 2019, she has been on sabbatical to focus on criminal justice reform.

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Tim Duncan
> Team(s): San Antonio Spurs
> Sport: Basketball
> Career: 1997-2016
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 2x MVP, 5x NBA Champion, 15x All-Star

An aspiring swimmer as a child, Tim Duncan switched to basketball when a hurricane destroyed the pool he trained in on St. Croix. He went on to become the greatest power forward the NBA has ever seen, as well as a selfless and supportive team leader, steering the Spurs to win five championships.

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Oscar Robertson
> Team(s): Cincinnati Royals / Milwaukee Bucks
> Sport: Basketball
> Career: 1960-1974
> Accolades: Hall of Fame, 1x MVP, 1x NBA Champion, 12x All-Star, 1x Gold Medal

The career leader in triple-doubles, career assists, and free throws at the time of his retirement, Oscar Robertson was a high scoring player who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame twice – once as an individual and once as a member of the 1960 U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team and president of the National Basketball Players Association.

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Tiger Woods
> Team(s): Team USA
> Sport: Golf
> Career: 1996-present
> Accolades: 82x PGA Tour victories, 15x Major Championships, 3x Ryder Cup Champion

Tiger Woods revolutionized the game of golf, becoming its most popular and best-known player. Woods burst onto the scene in 1996, when professional golf was almost exclusively played by white men. His passion and overwhelming talent quickly made him a superstar, and he certainly lived up to the hype. Woods racked up wins and championships throughout the 2000s, and is now tied for the most PGA Tour wins with Sam Snead at 82. He also holds 15 Major Championships, trailing only Jack Nicklaus, with 18.

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Arthur Ashe
> Team(s): Team USA
> Sport: Tennis
> Career: 1959-1979
> Accolades: 5x Grand Slam winner, 5x Davis Cup Champion

Arthur Ashe helped break down the color barrier in tennis, and inspired a generation of young players behind him. Learning to play on segregated courts in Virginia, Ashe rose to be one of the top amateurs in the sport, and won the 1968 U.S. Open as an amateur. He remains the only Black man to win the tournament. Ashe would go on to win four singles and one doubles Grand Slam titles. He also represented the U.S. in the Davis Cup 10 times, winning five titles. A tireless campaigner for Civil Rights, Ashe was also an author and helped found the ATP, which helped protect player interests. The U.S. Open is now played at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens.

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Jackie Joyner-Kersee
> Team(s): Team USA
> Sport: Track & Field
> Career: 1984-1996
> Accolades: 3x Gold Medal, 1x Silver Medal, 2x Bronze Medal, 4x World Champion

Named the greatest female athlete of the 20th Century, Jackie Joyner-Kersee is one of the top American Olympians of all time, competing in four straight Olympic Games from 1984 to 1996. After taking home a silver medal in 1984, she came back and blew away the competition in Seoul’s 1988 games, winning gold in both the long jump and heptathlon. In fact, Joyner-Kersee set world records for both events that still stand more than 30 years later. Joyner-Kersee won gold in heptathlon and bronze in long jump in 1992, as well, before rounding out her Olympic career with a long lump bronze in 1996.

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Wilma Rudolph
> Team(s): Team USA
> Sport: Track & Field
> Career: 1956-1960
> Accolades: 3x Gold Medal, 1x Bronze Medal

Wilma Rudolph overcame childhood polio to become one of the greatest sprinters of all time. At just 16 years old, Rudolph made it to the 1956 Olympic Games, where she helped the U.S. win bronze in the 4×100 relay. At the next Olympics, she was in a class of her own – winning gold in the individual 100 metres and 200 metres, as well as helping the U.S. win the women’s 4×100 relay. Off the track, Rudolph helped promote women’s sports and provide athletic opportunities to underprivileged children.

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