Black Pioneers of New York
By Laurie Lewis
In honor of Black History Month, this newsletter looks at several Black New Yorkers—some well known, others not—with pioneering, first-of-their kind achievements in the second half of the twentieth century.
Jackie Robinson has gone down in history as the man who broke the color barrier in baseball. Twentieth-century professional baseball teams were segregated—until 1947, when Jackie Robinson donned the Brooklyn Dodgers uniform. He was such an outstanding player that at the end of that inaugural season he captured the brand-new title of Rookie of the Year. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, the first Black player to be so honored. In 1997, fifty years after Robinson joined the Dodgers, Major League Baseball permanently retired his number 42. Whereas individual teams have retired numbers of star players, Robinson’s 42 is the only number retired across the board.
As the first Black player in a white league, Robinson silently endured the vocal prejudice of other players and spectators. That must have been difficult for the former soldier who had been court-martialed after refusing to move to the back of a military bus; he was acquitted and honorably discharged. After his retirement from baseball in 1957, Robinson became active in the civil rights movement, assuming leadership roles in the NAACP and working with Martin Luther King, Jr.
When you think of Black tennis players, the Williams sisters or Arthur Ashe probably come to mind. They might have had few opportunities were it not for Althea Gibson, a Harlem resident. Demonstrating athletic ability at an early age, Gibson won title after title in the American Tennis Association, an organization for Black players. Then in 1950, she became the first Black tennis player to compete at the US National Championship, the precursor of the US Open. She repeated this feat the following year at Wimbledon. In 1957 and 1958, she won both tournaments. She also was the first Black woman to win a Grand Slam. Gibson played during an era when the purse for winning was small and discrimination was rampant; for example, she often couldn’t stay or eat with her competitors. A woman of many talents, she also was the first Black woman to compete on the professional golf circuit.
Marie Van Brittan Brown and Albert Brown
You’ve probably never heard of this couple from the borough of Queens. Marie Van Brittan Brown was a nurse; her husband, Albert Brown, was an electronics technician. In 1966, they applied for a patent for a closed-circuit TV home security system; they received the patent three years later. This by itself was quite an achievement. Although the US Patent and Trademark Office does not collect demographic data, researchers have reported that Blacks apply for and receive far fewer patents than whites.
In the Browns’ invention, an image from a camera mounted on the inside of a front door appeared on a television monitor, enabling the occupant to see who was at the door. After communicating through a microphone, the occupant could push a button to either unlock the door or send an alarm to the police. It was an ingenious invention, but the Browns were ahead of the times. Video surveillance systems for the home didn’t become popular until more recently.
In 1968, Brooklynite Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to the House of Representatives. She served seven terms. Dubbed “Fighting Shirley,” the outspoken Democratic congresswoman was a staunch advocate for women and Blacks. In her first speech on the floor of Congress, she lashed out against the war in Vietnam. These issues—women’s rights, civil rights, and the Vietnam war—were major issues of the day, and Chisholm made sure her concerns were heard.
Early in her congressional career, Shirley Chisholm made history as the first Black woman to run for president of the United States on a major party ticket. Her slogan in the 1972 campaign was “unbought and unbossed.” Like so many others who decide to test the waters of presidential politics, she dropped out early in the race, after just twelve primaries.
New York City policeman David Walker realized that girls had few opportunities for organized sports, and he decided to do something about it. He turned an activity that city girls enjoyed—Double Dutch—into a competitive pursuit. Double Dutch is a form of jump rope in which the jumpers have to go between the highs and lows of not just one but two moving ropes. Sometimes they spice it up by reciting rhymes or doing stunts like handstands. Walker organized the first Double Dutch tournament in 1974. It took place on the plaza at Lincoln Center, and hundreds of New York middle-schoolers participated. Before long, Walker organized a national league and then took competitive Double Dutch internationally.
Many people do not realize that jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis also is a master of the classical repertoire and is a noted composer in both genres. In 1983, the year he turned twenty-two, he became the first person to win Grammy awards in both classical and jazz categories; he took home both honors again the next year. In 1997, his oratorio Blood on the Fields won a Pulitzer Prize, the first jazz composition to achieve this distinction.
Early in his career, Marsalis began a jazz program at Lincoln Center, one of New York’s major music complexes. The program continued to grow and eventually had its own performance spaces. When Jazz at Lincoln Center opened in 2004 under the capable hands of Wynton Marsalis, it was the first venue in the world specifically designed for jazz. Through its programming for children and teens, Jazz at Lincoln Center is making it possible for the youth of today to follow in the footsteps of maestro Marsalis.
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