When one contributes greatly to their field, goes above and beyond the norm, not only affecting their peers, but history as we know it, they deserve, and usually earn special recognition and are enshrined in the annals of history. For activist, it’s called the Nobel Prize. For writers, Pulitzer is the top prize. For actors it’s the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For those inclined to athletic pursuits, those who persevere and make a large enough impact, have a shot of immortality as a member in the Hall of Fame.
Throughout history African-American players have had a major impact in all walks of life, and the athletic arena is no exception. There are numerous names and stories of men and women who have gone against the grain and dominated their competition. Many of these men and women are products of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Gaining not only their competitive spirit, many of them were able to capitalize on the pride and level of the competition from other black athletes in their era that they took to even larger stages. All in all over 20 HBCUs are represented in the Baseball, Football, Basketball, and Olympic Hall of Fames and upwards of 50% of players in the Hall of Fame in these sports are of African descent.
The pioneers of African-American dominance of sports started ironically with America’s favorite past-time, the sport of baseball. Though African-Americans would not be allowed to play on the same fields as whites until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1946, African-American athletes were imaginative enough to compete and star in their own leagues. This gave way to a tradition of many of baseball’s best players not being able to play at the supposed highest level of competition, though it can be argued that the Negro Leagues were just as, if not more, competitive as Major League Baseball at the time. These men starred in America’s favorite past-time during a time where they were not welcomed, and as time has went on many Historically Black Colleges and Universities have developed baseball teams, however; only one player from a HBCU has ever made it to the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Perhaps no sport has been so overrun with talented African-American athletes as what has become America’s new favorite pastime, the sport of football. Since the color barrier was broken in 1946 by Kenny Washington the game has never been the same. Many players came through to dominate the game and only a select few would end up in the Hall of Fame. However; out of the players that have thus far been enshrined in Canton, 15 HBCUs would be represented with four of those colleges (Jackson State, Grambling, South Carolina State University and Tennessee State University ) having multiple members.
1. Lou Brock
From Southern University the only HBCU product in Cooperstown. Following in the footsteps of great African-American players before him, Brock was able to become a weapon on the base paths being one of the most talented players in concerns of stealing bases during his era. This didn’t sum up his talents though. After signing with the Cubs in 1960 he broke into the majors in 1961 and becoming a full time starter by his second season in 1962. After only four years with the Cubs Brock was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals and only got better. That year and the next he helped the Cardinals win the National League pennant and then bested the Yankees in the World Series in 1967. The change of scenery also served Brock well as he became the first player to ever steal 50 bases and hit 20 Home Runs in the same year. Before he retired Brock would own the all time stolen base record that would stand until 1991. He also would be elected to six All Star games over the course of his career and become the 20th player to ever be selected in their first year of eligibility in 1985.
2. Ernie Banks
Better known as Mr. Cub was one of the premier stars of baseball in the mid 20th century playing all 18 of his MLB years with the Chicago cubs. Prior to this Banks played in the Negro Leagues for the famed Kansas City Monarchs during the 1950 and 1953 seasons, serving a brief stint in the military. In 1953 his contract was purchased by the Cubs and he would become the first black player to ever play for the franchise. During his first full year for the Cubs in 1954 he would start every single game at Shortstop and finish 2nd in NL Rookie of The Year Voting. During the 1958 and 1959 seasons Mr. Cub was voted the Most Valuable Player though his team never even made the playoffs. During his playing days he would win a Golden Glove award in addition to being named to 11 All Star teams and being named “Greatest Cub Ever” before he even retired. He also had the honor of being named one of three shortstops on the MLB All-Century team. Banks was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1977, the first year he became eligible.
3. Jackie Robinson
Is perhaps the most celebrated player in baseball history due to how he broke the color barrier in 1946. Prior to playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946, Jackie played in the Negro Leagues for the Kansas City Monarchs. Upon being chosen to break the color barrier, Robinson paid off both on and off of the field. As quiet and reserved as his demeanor was his impact on the game was the complete opposite. Robinson was voted NL Rookie of the Year and won the MVP award in only his third season. Out of the 10 season in which Robinson played professional ball the Dodgers were a force winning the NL pennant in six of those years and the World Series in one. Six times throughout his career he was chosen to participate in the All Star game.
4. Larry Dobby
Is probably one of the most overshadowed players in baseball history. Besides becoming the first and only African-American player to play professional basketball in the ABL, Dobby played in the Negro leagues for the Newark Eagles where he won the Negro League Championship in 1946. Shortly after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier Dobby got a call from the Cleveland Indians and would become the second black baseball player in the majors and the first in the American League. Dobby would impact the game on the field in just as many ways as anyone else if not more during his time with the Indians. In only his second season Dobby became the first African-American player to ever hit a homerun in the World Series and by 1952 he led the league in homeruns becoming the first Black player to do so. Dobby was chosen to be an All Star five times over the course of his career and had eight 20 homerun seasons. After his playing days Dobby would become the second ever African-American manager in 1978. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1998.
5. Rayfield Wright
One of the many men that were able to overcome the stigma of coming from a small school and being able to garner success at the largest stage. Born in Griffin, Georgia, Rayfield would go on to hone his athletic talents at Fort Valley State University. After a stellar colligate career that started off going in the direction of basketball, Mr. Wright would be drafted in the 7th round of the 1967 draft by the Dallas Cowboys. Biding his time for a couple of years his first game as a starter came against another former HBCU standout and Hall of Famer in Deacon Jones. His performance against this known dominant force was good enough to earn him the starting position at right tackle, one which he would never relinquish. In a career spanning 13 years Wright would be selected to 6 straight All-NFL teams (from 1971 to 1976) as well as to 6 straight Pro-Bowls in those years too. Wright also was named to the 1970s All-Decade Team. In addition to these honors Wright helped the Cowboys win two Super Bowl Championships during his tenure. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 2006.
6. Jackie Slater
Another big man that was able to make a significant impact in the league. Drafted by the then Los Angeles Rams in the third round, Jackie would set many records for a career spanning 20 years and three different decades. A native of Jackson, Mississippi, Slater stayed very close to home and went to Jackson State to play football. After a stellar colligate career, Slater would have an even more storied career once he got his opportunity. Becoming a starter at offensive tackle in the 1976 season, he would go on to help set the line for a number of explosive offenses, including seven 1,000 yard rushers including the former single season record holder for rushing yards Eric Dickerson. To his name Jackie has seven Pro Bowl appearances as well as seven All-Pro nods. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 2001.
7. Art Shell
One of the more storied members of the Hall of Fame. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Shell would go on to play football at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. After playing left tackle at UMES for four years he would be drafted in the third round by the Oakland Raiders in 1968. Like many other players Shell waited and learned the finer points of the professional game from the sidle line before grasping the starting spot in his third year. Setting the strong left side of the offensive line, with fellow Hall member Gene Upshaw, Art Shell would be selected to six consecutive All-Pro teams from 1973 to 1978 and a total of eight Pro Bowls during his 15 year career. During his time in Oakland the Raiders only suffered one below .500 season and won two Super Bowls. After his playing career he would become the first modern era African-American head coach when he was hired by his former team, The Oakland Raiders in 1992. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1989.
8. Roosevelt Brown
One of the earliest HBCU players to change the game of football. In 1953 after being named a Black All-American at Morgan State University, the New York Giants took a flyer on Brown in the 27th round after 320 picks. Brown would make this pay off big time due to his work ethic and sheer athletic ability. Early in his career he was able to earn the starting left tackle position and would never let it go until he retired. Behind his finesse and strength the Giants won their division six times and a NFL title. Through his time in the NFL Brown was able to earn eight straight All-NFL honors and elected to nine Pro Bowls. He continued to set history even after retirement becoming the second offensive lineman to ever be elected into the Hall of Fame in 1975.
9. Larry Little
Personified perseverance throughout his career. After being a leader at Bethune-Cookman University Little went undrafted in 1967. This set back would not be his last and did not hold him back. After being undrafted Little signed with the San Diego Chargers and didn’t enjoy much success during his time there. After two years he was traded to the Miami Dolphins which could have set back his career once again, instead he was able to turn the tables. After being traded Little was able to immediately win the right guard position and power the Dolphins offensive attack in the mid 70s. Little was able to earn the honor of being selected to six All-Pro teams and five Pro Bowls. In addition he was a participant in three Super Bowls, winning two of them. He was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
10. Elvin Bethea
Was able to overcome being over-looked out of North Carolina A&T after being drafted in the third round by the Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans). Through sheer grit and determination Bethea became a dominant force playing in 210 regular season games and 135 consecutively, registering 105 unofficial sacks during his tenure (sacks did not become an official stat until 1982). This dominance led to Elvin being named to eight Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams in his 16 year career. He was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003.
11. Ken Houston
Simultaneously one of the most underrated and most appreciated players during his time in the NFL. Drafted in the 9th round in 1967 out of Prairie View A&M, Ken Houston would make an instant impact his first year in the league snagging four interceptions for 2 touchdowns. This man out of Lufkin, Texas would spend his whole career in the state until the Washington Redskins pulled a blockbuster trade and gave up 5 players for his services in the prime of his career. The remaining eight years of his career would be spent in D.C. where he would go on to end his career with a total of 49 interceptions and 9 touchdowns. He also scored a number of touchdowns on special teams and off of blocked kicks. By the time Houston retired he had been elected to 12 straight All Star/Pro Bowl games and was All League or All-Pro every season but two(1970 and 1972) from 1969 to 1979. He was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.
12. Shannon Sharpe
Able to go from being one of the last picks in the draft to an important cog on Super Bowl winning teams over the course of his career. Drafted by the Denver Broncos during the 1990 NFL Draft in the 7th round out of Savannah State, this Chicago, Illinois native caught fire during his third season in the league. That year he would lead the Broncos in catches and earn his first ever Pro Bowl Selection. He would go on to selected to seven more during the course of his career. From then on Sharpe only had one season in which he had less than 60 passes except during a season in which he suffered an injury. Sharpe was a winner of two consecutive Super Bowls with the Broncos before joining the Ravens in 2000 and helping to lead them to their first Super Bowl berth and win. In addition to being named All-Pro five times during his career, when he retired, Sharpe held the record for number of career touchdowns, yards, and catches by a tight end. was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
13. Harry Carson
Parlayed a stellar career at South Carolina State into a legendary career with the New York Giants. Selected in the fourth round in 1976, Carson would be converted from a defensive end to a linebacker to start his professional career. He would take a hold of the starting middle linebacker position in his rookie season and would never look back, being named to the All-NFL Rookie team that year. During the course of his career he would dominate the middle of the defense leading the team in tackles numerous times. Throughout his career he would help lead the Giants to htheir first ever Super Bowl victory in 1986 while being named to seven All-Pro teams and nine Pro Bowls. Carson was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
14. Michael Strahan
Another New York Giants standout to come from a Historically Black University. Drafted during the second round in 1993 out of Texas Southern University, Strahan would go on to become a sack master at the professional level ending his career with 141.5 sacks. He was able to have six seasons with at least 10 sacks during his career, leading the league in sack totals during two year, including 2001, in which he set the record for sacks in a season with 22.5.In addition to being named to seven Pro Bowls and being named All-Pro five times, Strahan led the Giants to two Super Bowls retiring after he finally won on in 2007 against the New England Patriots. He was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014.
15. John Stallworth
Tuscaloosa, Alabama would go on to be an all time great wide receiver for the Pittsburg Steelers. Drafted in the fourth round out of Alabama A&M, Stallworth teamed with Lynn Swann to create one of the most heralded passing attacks in the NFL at the time. During his 14 years career Stallworth started out slow but came onto the scene strong during his fourth year in which he had seven touchdown grabs. While only selected to four Pro Bowls and being named All-Pro twice, Stallworth would hold many Super Bowl and team records at the time of his retirement including receptions and receiving touchdowns. Stallworth helped to lead the Steelers to four Super Bowl victories including catching the game deciding touchdown in Super Bowl XIV. He was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002.
16. Jerry Rice
Known as the Greatest Receiver of All Time, or the G.O.A.T., and it all started at Mississippi Valley State University. Drafted 16th overall by the San Francisco 49ers in 1985 the Starkville, Mississippi native had an incredible rookie season being just shy of 50 receptions and 1,000 yards. For the next 11 years of his career he wouldn’t be short of neither, many times going above and beyond including a 1,848 yard season in 1995. Rice would be elected to 13 Pro Bowls and named All-Pro 14 times over the course of his 20 year career, many times leading the league in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, setting the record with 22 touchdown receptions in 1987. Leading the 49ers and Oakland Raiders to four Super Bowls and three victories (all with the 49ers), Rice would retire with almost all of the receiving records in the books including yards, receptions, touchdowns, and number of 1,000 yard seasons. He was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
17. Bob Hayes
Perhaps the most heralded two sport athlete to ever exist being named to not only the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but also to the Olympic Hall of Fame. Drafted in 1964 by the Dallas Cowboys Bob wouldn’t play until the next year as he was training and dominating the Olympic Games. In 1964 Bob Hayes won two Gold Medals representing Florida A&M and the United States. When he did start playing football Bob came onto the scene strong with over 1,000 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in his rookie year. Three times over the course of his 11 playing years Hayes would lead the Cowboys in receptions. Hayes would be elected to three Pro Bowl teams and six All-NFL teams while helping the Cowboys to two Super Bowls winning one. At the time of his retirement in 1975 Hayes co-held many of the Cowboys receiving records. He was posthumously elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
18. Edwin Moses
Impacted the sport of track and field in more ways than one. A Morehouse Man from Dayton, Ohio, Moses was a sprinter and hurdler, competing mainly in the 400 meter hurdles. In this event he was able to bring home the Gold in both the 1976 and 1984 Olympics and the Bronze in the 1988 Olympics. In addition to these accolades Moses earned two Gold medals in the World Championships, three Gold medals in the IAAF World Cup and one Gold medal in the Goodwill games between Olympic competitions. After his career Moses again impacted the game spearheading many f the drug testing reforms that are used to this day in Olympic competition. Edwin Moses was elected into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1994.
19. Willye White
One of many members of the Tennessee State University Tigerbelles to go on and have Olympic success being the first woman, or American athlete period, to compete in five Olympic Games. Winning a silver medal at the age of 16 in the long jump, White would go on to be known as the best female long jumper in the United States for a while. In 1964 she would go on to expand her talents and was part of the team that earned Silver in the 4×100 competitions in Tokyo. Between Olympic games White took Gold in the 1963 Pan American Games and Bronze in the 1967 games. In addition to being a member of the Olympic Hall of Fame white is also a member of the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame, being elected in 1981.
20. Alice Coachman
Would set her name in the record books at a young age becoming the first black woman to ever win an Olympic Gold medal The Tuskegee graduate took the Gold in the High Jump during the 1948 games which were the first in over a decade due to World War II. During her career Coachman won 25 national titles, 10 of them being consecutive. Being multifaceted, she would also compete in the 50 meter and 100 meter dash. She was elected into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1975.
21. Ed Temple
Probably the most accomplished man to ever be associated with Track & Field. Starting as a runner at Tennessee State University he was at the top of the sport running a sub 10 second 100 yard dash while a sprinter. Shortly after he graduated Temple would revolutionize the sport through coaching. Beginning as an assistant coach at his Alma Mater TSU in 1953, he would give birth to the name of Tigerbelles and begin to shape perhaps the most prolific woman’s track team ever. He was able to direct many future Olympic Medalist, 23 overall 13 of them Gold, and was named the head coach of the Olympic Woman’s track team in 1960 and 1964, in addition to being an assistant in 1980. In addition to coaching during the Olympics he would head the teams during the dual meets at the height of the Cold War as well as coach during the Pan American games. Temple was able to get the best out of his runners winning 34 team titles during his time at Tennessee State and having many of the runners named to the Hall of Fame. Temple himself is a member of several different Hall of Fames including the USA Track & Field hall of fame which he was elected into in 1989.
22. Lee Calhoun
Record setting hurdler from North Carolina Central University from Laurel, Mississippi. Calhoun would first take the NCAA by storm and then conquer the world. During his time at NCCU Calhoun would win back to back 120 meter hurdles titles which would serve as foreshadowing to his career. First in the 1956 Olympics then in the subsequent 1960 Olympics, Lee Calhoun was able to take Gold in the 110 meter hurdles becoming the first runner to ever do so. After setting these records Calhoun went on to coach at Grambling, Yale, and Western Illinois. He was elected into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1974.
23. Wilma Rudolph
Another member of the Hall of Fame class of 1974. She was one of the first athletes to gain international notoriety after the 1960 Olympic Games were televised for the first time ever. After earning a bronze in the 4×100 in the 1956 games, Wilma would go on to set a record in 1960. That year Wilma Rudolph became the first ever woman to win three Gold Medals in one Olympic Games competition. She took home the gold in the 100 meter; 200 meter; and the 4×100. This all came after Wilma overcame contracting polio at four years old which put her left leg into a brace. Wilma was able to outrun this too and was able bodied by the age of 12. During her time as a runner she set world records in both the 100 meter and 200 meter dash. She was elected into the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1984.
24. Earl Lloyd
Sometimes referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of Basketball” was born in Alexandria, Virginia. He attended West Virginia State University before being drafted in the 9th round by the Washington Capitals. While in college Lloyd led WVSU to an undefeated season and a national championship. College accolades also include being named CIAA player of the decade for the 1940s as well as being a member of the NAIA Silver and Golden anniversary teams. While only playing for the Capitals for seven games before the team folded Lloyd was soon picked up by the Syracuse Nationals and played with them for six years before playing for the Detroit pistons for two years. After his retirement he would come back and be the first African American Bench coach the Pistons for two years. Lloyd was able to win a NBA championship in 1955 with the Nationals. He was elected into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003
25. Nathaniel Clifton
Just missed breaking the color barrier by four days. After attending Xavier University (Louisiana) Clifton played for a professional black team, the New York Rens, and the Harlem Globetrotters until he was offered a contract by the New York Knicks. During his seven year NBA career with the Knicks and Detroit Pistons he would be named an All Star once, in 1957, becoming the oldest player to earn sucha distinction at the time at the age of 34. He was elected into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014.
26. Vernon Monroe
Out of Winston-Salem State University was one of the first actual superstars to play in the NBA from a HBCU. After winning the NCAA Division II player of the year award in 1967 while leading WSSU to a national championship was the second overall pick by the Washington Bullets (now the Wizards).Winning Rookie of the Year and NBA All Rookie First Team honors in 1968, Monroe showed that the larger stage was no problem for him right out of the gate. Monroe would eventually win a championship with the Knicks before ending a stellar 13 year career in 1980. He would be named NBA first team once during his career, while being selected for the All Star game four times. Monroe was also selected to the NBA 50th anniversary team. He was elected into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1990.
27. Willis Reed
Was a star while playing at Grambling. After leading Grambling to a NAIA championship in 1961 and being named an All American in 1963 and 1964, Reed was selected in the second round by the New York Knicks. During his 11 seasons with the Knicks Reed was a dominant force on the court. During his rookie season he put up 46 points in one game which is the second highest amount of points scored by a Knicks rookie. This was one of many performances that led to Reed being named the 1965 Rookie of the Year and Rookie First Team honors. Seven times throughout his career he was chosen for the All Star team and in 1970 was named the game’s MVP. The 1970 season was one of the best of Reed’s career in which he received NBA First team honors, NBA All Defensive Team honors, won the NBA Finals, and was named the Finals MVP, the latter two feats which he would repeat again in 1973. By the time Reed retired in 1974 because of injuries he was heralded as one of the great players of his time which earned him an eventual spot on the 50th anniversary All Time Team.
28. Samuel Jones
Is the second most winning player ever in terms of championships only after his former teammate Bill Russell with 10. After attending North Carolina Central University Jones was the 8th overall pick by the Boston Celtics in 1957. Playing on the most dominant team in the history of basketball Jones helped to power the Celtics to 8 consecutive championships from 1959-1966 and then two more in 1968 and 1969. During his time Jones was selected to five All Star Teams and named All Pro three times. Throughout his career he would always score a lot of points averaging 17 points per game. When his career came to a close after winning the 1969 championship Jones was selected for not only the 25th anniversary team but also to the NBA 50th anniversary team. He was elected into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984
A sport commonly associated with the African-American community, basketball in one in which the African-American community has excelled in from the beginning. From the player with the most rings, Bill Russell, to perhaps the greatest player ever in Michael Jordan, black people have dominated the game for decades. Since Earl Lloyd, out of West Virginia State and Nathaniel Clifton broke the color barrier in 1950 the game has only gotten to be more athletically diverse and entertaining.
Like the aforementioned Hayes, many HBCU grads dominated the international track circuit during Olympic trials. Most of these standouts participated in track and field, out running, jumping, and simply out doing their competitors. At a time where many were not accepted in their own country, these brave men and women represented the United States in a glorious fashion to bring honor to their name. The USA Track & Field Hall of Fame honors many of these athletes as does the Olympic Hall of Fame which was established in 1976 to show gratitude many of these and other athletes that paved the way, not only to athletic dominance, but also to unity in the states.
Clearly African-Americans, and HBCUs in particular, have produced women and men who have had a great impact in many different walks of life and the athletic arena is no exception. From teaching pride and humility, to coaching greatness, the prowess and reverence of the descendants of Africa carries on today, with special recognition during the month of February.
Information from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, TeamUSA.org, USATF.org, and baseballhall.org were used in the writing of this article.