Before Serena and Venus Williams, there was Althea Gibson. In 1951, Althea Gibson broke color barriers in tennis by becoming the first African-American player to compete in Wimbledon. The rough-and-tumble Gibson was an unlikely icon for tennis — a sport traditionally reserved for rich, white folks during the ’50s.
Gibson persisted despite growing up in a violent home and having no money, husband, or backing. She won the 1956 French Open title and became the first-African American Wimbledon champion in the tournament’s 80-year history. Gibson was also the first to personally receive a trophy from Queen Elizabeth II.
Rosa Parks made history on December 1, 1955, by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger in deeply-segregated Montgomery, Alabama. She had no clue of what was to come.
Her quiet act of defiance inspired Black communities, igniting a 381-day boycott until the city repealed the law on bus segregation. But this was only one of her incredible achievements. She finished high school at a time when that was rare. Parks was already an active member of the NAACP. Her fateful arrest sparked the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
“Where there is love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong." Like her quote, Ella Fitzgerald’s legacy in music is all heart and grit. When people call her the “greatest singer on earth,” it is no exaggeration.
The iconic jazz singer overcame a tumultuous family life, financial troubles, and racial discrimination to get where she did. In 1958, she became the first African-American woman to win a Grammy for best individual jazz performance and best female vocal performance.
In an era when discussions about women’s healthcare or family planning were taboo, Margaret Sanger dared to introduce the term “birth control.” Sanger was one of the most outspoken advocates for women’s reproductive rights in the early 20th century.
She opened a women’s health clinic and wrote numerous pamphlets to educate the public. Decades of research and effort culminated in her biggest achievement in 1960, when the FDA approved Enovid – the first oral contraceptive.
Rita Moreno is best known for her role in the 1961 film adaptation of “West Side Story.” She became a household name and a regular in Hollywood and Broadway. But the road to stardom was far from easy. Movie stars looked like Elizabeth Taylor, did they not? Moreno’s Puerto Rican heritage seemed to be getting in the way.
Many struggles and epiphanies later, she knew the best course was staying true to herself. Moreno went on to have a seven-decade career, becoming the first Latina to earn an EGOT — an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award.