Firsts In African-American History

February 1, 2012 by staff 

Firsts In African-American History, 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”.

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, featuring many talented athletes.

18th century
First known African-American published author: Jupiter Hammon (poem “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries”, published as a broadside)
First person shot to death during the Boston Massacre: Crispus Attucks, called the first martyr of the revolution.
First known African-American woman to publish a book: Phillis Wheatley (Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral)
First separate African American church: Silver Bluff Baptist Church, Aiken County, South Carolina
First African-American Baptist congregation: First Baptist Church, Petersburg, Virginia
First known African-American church congregation: First Colored Baptist Church, renamed First African Baptist Church, Savannah, Georgia. This claim is contested by the First Baptist Church, Petersburg, Virginia (1774) and historians of the Silver Bluff Baptist Church (1773-1775) of Aiken County, South Carolina
First African-American U.S. military regiment: the 1st Rhode Island Regiment
Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, popularly known as “The Father of Chicago”, was the first known settler in the area which is now Chicago, Illinois.
First African American to formally practice medicine in the U.S.: James Derham, who did not hold an M.D. degree (See also: 1847)
First major African-American Back-to-Africa movement: 1,200 slaves who escaped to settle in Settler Town, Sierra Leone
First African Methodist Episcopal Church established: Richard Allen founded Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
First African Episcopal Church established: Absalom Jones founded African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

First African American ordained as an Episcopal priest in the United States: Absalom Jones in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
First African Presbyterian Church opened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

First fully independent African-American denomination established: Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was elected bishop. Several black congregations withdrew from the Methodist Episcopal Church and created their own denomination.

First African American to hold a patent: Thomas L. Jennings, for a dry-cleaning process
First African American to receive a degree from an American college: Alexander Twilight, Middlebury College (See also: 1836)
First African-American owned-and-operated newspaper: Freedom’s Journal

First African American elected to public office and to serve in a state legislature: Alexander Twilight, Vermont (See also: 1823)
First African-American doctor: Dr. James McCune Smith from the University of Glasgow, Scotland (See also: 1783, 1847)

First African American licensed to practice law in the United States: Macon Allen from the Boston bar
First African American to graduate from a U.S. medical school: Dr. David J. Peck (Rush Medical College) (See also: 1783, 1837)
First independent African-American nation and first African-American president of any nation: Joseph Jenkins Roberts, Liberia
First African-American college professor: Charles L. Reason, New York Central College

First African-American member of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), Patrick Francis Healy. (See also: 1866, 1874)
First novel written by an African American: Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter, by William Wells Brown.
First African-American Roman Catholic priest: James Augustine Healy. (see 1875 and 1886)
First institute of higher learning created to educate African Americans: Ashmun Institute in Pennsylvania, renamed Lincoln University in 1866. (See also: 1863)
First published play by an African American: The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom by William Wells Brown
First African-American female college instructor: Sarah Jane Woodson Early, Wilberforce College

First North American military unit with African-American officers: 1st Louisiana Native Guard of the Confederate Army
First African-American U.S. federal government civil servant: William Cooper Nell
First African-American woman to earn a B.A.: Mary Jane Patterson, Oberlin College
First recognized U.S. Army African-American combat unit: 1st South Carolina Volunteers
First college owned and operated by African Americans: Wilberforce University, Ohio. (Founded earlier; not fully owned and operated by African Americans until 1863) (See also: 1854)
First African-American president of a college: Bishop Daniel Payne (Wilberforce University)
First African-American field officer in the U.S. Army: Martin Delany
First African-American attorney admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court: John Swett Rock
First African American to earn a Ph.D.: Father Patrick Francis Healy, S.J. (from University of Leuven, Belgium). (See also 1851, 1874)
First African-American woman enlistee in the U.S. Army: Cathay Williams
First elected African-American Lieutenant Governor: Oscar Dunn (Louisiana). (See also: 1871, May)
First African-American mayor: Pierre Caliste Landry, Donaldsonville, Louisiana
First African-American U.S. diplomat: Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett, minister to Haiti
First African-American woman school principal: Fanny Jackson Coppin (Institute for Colored Youth)
First African American to vote in an election under the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, granting voting rights regardless of race: Thomas Mundy Peterson
First African American to graduate from Harvard College: Richard Theodore Greener
January: First African American elected to either chamber of the U.S. Congress: Senator Hiram Rhodes Revels (R-Miss.)
May: First African-American acting governor: Oscar James Dunn of Louisiana from May till August 9, 1871, when sitting Governor Warmoth was incapacitated and chose to recuperate in Mississippi. (See also: Douglas Wilder, 1990)
December: First African American elected to U.S. House of Representatives: Joseph Rainey (R-S.C.)
First African-American governor (non-elected): P. B. S. Pinchback of Louisiana (See also: Douglas Wilder, 1990)
First African-American nominee for Vice President of the United States: Frederick Douglass by the Equal Rights Party.
First African-American president of a major college/university: Father Patrick Francis Healy, S.J. of Georgetown College. (See also: 1851, 1863, 1866)
First African-American Roman Catholic bishop: Bishop James Augustine Healy, of Portland, Maine. (See also: 1854)
First African American to earn a doctorate degree from an American university: Edward Alexander Bouchet (Yale College Ph.D., physics; also first African American to graduate from Yale, 1874) (See also: 1866)
First African-American graduate of West Point and first African-American commissioned officer in the U.S. military: Henry Ossian Flipper.
First African American to graduate from a formal nursing school: Mary Eliza Mahoney, Boston, Massachusetts

First African American to command a U.S. ship: Captain Michael Healy.
First African American whose signature appeared on U.S. paper currency: Blanche K. Bruce, Registrar of the Treasury.
First known African-American woman to graduate from one of the Seven Sisters college: Hortense Parker (Mount Holyoke College)
First African American to play professional baseball at the major-league level: Moses Fleetwood Walker. (See also: Jackie Robinson, 1947)
First African-American woman to hold a patent: Sarah E. Goode, for the cabinet bed, Chicago, Illinois
First African-American Roman Catholic priest publicly known at the time to be African-American: Augustine Tolton, Quincy and Chicago, Illinois
First African-American police officer in present-day New York City: Wiley Overton, hired by the Brooklyn Police Department prior to 1898 incorporation of the five boroughs into the City of New York. (See also: Samuel J. Battle, 1911)
First African American to sing at Carnegie Hall: Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones
First African American named to a College Football All-America Team: William H. Lewis, Harvard University
First African American to earn a doctorate degree (Ph.D.) from Harvard University: W.E.B. Du Bois
First African-American woman to work for the United States Postal Service: Mary Fields
First African American appointed to serve as U.S. Army Paymaster: Richard R. Wright

First African American invited to dine at the White House: Booker T. Washington
First African-American professional basketball player: Harry Lew (New England Professional Basketball League) (See also: 1950)
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
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: George Poage (two bronze medals)
First intercollegiate Greek-letter organization established by African Americans: Alpha Phi Alpha (?‘?¦?‘), at Cornell University
First African-American Greek Orthodox priest and missionary in America: Very Rev. Fr. Raphael Morgan (Robert Josias Morgan)
First African-American heavyweight boxing champion: Jack Johnson
First African-American Olympic gold medal winner: John Taylor (Track and field medley relay team). (See also: DeHart Hubbard, 1924)
First intercollegiate Greek-letter sorority established by African Americans: Alpha Kappa Alpha (?‘K?‘)
First African-American scholar to address the American Historical Association: W.E.B. Du Bois

First African-American millionaire: Madam C. J. Walker
First intercollegiate Greek-letter society established by African Americans at a historically black college: Omega Psi Phi (?©?¨?¦), at Howard University
First African-American police officer in New York City: Samuel J. Battle, following the 1898 incorporation of the five boroughs into the City of New York, and the hiring of three African-American officers in the Brooklyn Police Department. Battle was also the NYPD’s first African-American sergeant (1926), lieutenant (1935), and parole commissioner (1941). (See also: Wiley Overton, 1891)
First African-American alderman of Chicago: Oscar Stanton De Priest
First African-American football player to play in a Rose Bowl game: Fritz Pollard, Brown University
First African-American serviceman to become a colonel in the United States Army: Charles Young
First African-American woman to be a police officer in Los Angeles, seven years after the LAPD hired the first woman officer in the country: Georgia Robinson
First African-American police officer killed in the line of duty: NYPD officer Robert H. Holmes
First African-American woman to win a major sports title: Lucy Diggs Slowe, American Tennis Association

First African-American NFL football players: Fritz Pollard (Akron Pros) and Bobby Marshall (Rock Island Independents)
First African-American bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church: Robert Elijah Jones and Matthew Wesley Clair.
First African-American woman to become a pilot, first American to hold an international pilot license: Bessie Coleman
First African-American NFL football coach: Fritz Pollard, co-head coach, Akron Pros, while continuing to play running back
First African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in the U.S.: Sadie Tanner Mossell, Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania
First African American to win individual Olympic gold medal: DeHart Hubbard (Long jump, 1924 Summer Olympics). (See also: John Taylor, 1908)
First African-American Foreign Service Officer: Clifton R. Wharton, Sr.
First African-American woman to receive a degree (Ph.D.) from Yale University: Otelia Cromwell, who had previously been the first African-American graduate of Smith College.
First African American to star in an international motion picture: Josephine Baker in La Sirène des tropiques.
First post-Reconstruction African American elected to U.S. House of Representatives: Oscar Stanton De Priest (Republican; Illinois)
First African-American sportscaster: Sherman “Jocko” Maxwell (WNJR, Newark, New Jersey)

First African-American Secretary of State: Colin Powell
First African-American president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: Wilton Daniel Gregory
First African-American president of the Unitarian Universalist Association: Rev. William G. Sinkford
First African-American president of an Ivy League university: Ruth J. Simmons at Brown University, also the first permanent female president of Brown.
First African-American woman to win the ASCAP Pop Music Songwriter of the Year award: Beyoncé Knowles
First African-American woman to be appointed National Security Advisor: Condoleezza Rice (See also: 2005)
First African-American billionaire: Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television (see also 2002)
First African-American female billionaire: Sheila Johnson
First African-American woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress: Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball, 2001)
First African-American Winter Olympic gold medal winner: Vonetta Flowers (two-woman bobsleigh). (See also: Shani Davis, 2006)
First African American to become majority owner of a U.S. major sports league team: Robert L. Johnson (Charlotte Bobcats, NBA) (see also 2001)
First African-American female combat pilot in the U.S. Armed Services: Captain Vernice Armour, USMC
First African American to hold the #1 rank in tennis: Venus Williams, February 25, 2002.
First African American to hold the year-end #1 rank in tennis: Serena Williams
First African American to be named year-end world champion by the International Tennis Federation: Serena Williams
First African-American Arena Football League head coach to win ArenaBowl: Darren Arbet (San Jose SaberCats), ArenaBowl XVI
First African-American general manager in the National Football League: Ozzie Newsome (Baltimore Ravens)
First African American to win a Career Grand Slam in tennis: Serena Williams (See also: Althea Gibson, 1956; Arthur Ashe, 1968)
First African American General Manager for World Wrestling Entertainment: Theodore Long
First African American to win Broadway theater’s Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play: Phylicia Rash??d
First African-American NBA general manager to win the NBA Finals: Joe Dumars (Detroit Pistons), 2004 NBA Finals
First African-American Canadian Football League Head Coach to win the Grey Cup: Pinball Clemons (Toronto Argonauts), 92nd Grey Cup
First African-American woman appointed Secretary of State: Condoleezza Rice (See also: 2001)
First African-American woman U.S. Coast Guard aviator: Jeanine Menze
First African-American individual Winter Olympic gold medal winner: Shani Davis (men’s 1,000 meter speed skating) (See also: Vonetta Flowers, 2002)
First African-American Extreme Championship Wrestling champion: Bobby Lashley
First African American to command a United States Marine Corps division: Major General Walter E. Gaskin
First African American to reach the peak of Mount Everest: Sophia Danenberg
First African-American Governor of Massachusetts: Deval Patrick
First African-American NFL head coaches to reach the Super Bowl: Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy, Super Bowl XLI
First African-American NFL head coach to win the Super Bowl: Tony Dungy (Indianapolis Colts), Super Bowl XLI
First known African-American woman to reach the North Pole: Barbara Hillary
First African-American female professional wrestler to win the NWA World Women’s Championship: Amazing Kong
First African American to be nominated as a major-party U.S. presidential candidate: Barack Obama, Democratic Party
First African American to referee a Super Bowl game: Mike Carey (Super Bowl XLII)
First African-American NFL general manager to win the Super Bowl: Jerry Reese (New York Giants), Super Bowl XLII
First African-American woman elected Speaker of a state House of Representatives: California Rep. Karen Bass
First African-American governor of New York State: David Paterson (elected as lieutenant governor, succeeded on resignation of previous governor)
First African American to own a movie and TV studio: Tyler Perry
First African American elected President of the United States: Barack Obama
First African American to be appointed to the United States Senate by a state governor: Roland Burris
First African-American female combat pilot in the United States Air Force: Major Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell
First African-American President of the United States: Barack Obama
First African-American First Lady of the United States: Michelle Obama
First African-American chair of the Republican National Committee: Michael Steele (See also: 2002)
First African-American United States Attorney General: Eric Holder
First African-American woman United States Ambassador to the United Nations: Susan Rice
First African-American United States Trade Representative: Ron Kirk
First African-American woman Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency: Lisa P. Jackson
First African-American White House Social Secretary: Desirée Rogers
First African American to appear by himself on a circulating U.S. coin: Duke Ellington (District of Columbia quarter).
First African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for History: Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family
First African-American Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration: Charles F. Bolden, Jr.
First African-American woman rabbi: Alysa Stanton
First African-American woman CEO of an S&P 100 Company: Ursula Burns, Xerox Corporation.
First African-American doubles team to be named year-end world champion by the International Tennis Federation: Serena and Venus Williams
First African-American to win an Academy Awards for an Adapted screenplay (Push by Sapphire) Geoffrey S. Fletcher
First African-American Disney Princess: Tiana

First African-American to win the WWE Diva’s Championship: Alicia Fox
First African-American Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court: Roderick L. Ireland

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