Jackie Robinson’s 100th birthday would have been last week on January 31st and so there were clips and remembrances of him as “the first African American to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era.”
The truth is that he was not the first African American good enough to play MLB. He was not the first African American baseball player with the character to stand up to blatant racism with grace. He was not the first African American baseball player with an extraordinary arm.
Jackie Robinson was the first African American allowed to play Major League Baseball. This can be said for all the major African American “firsts”:
Hiram Revels was the first African American allowed to serve in the United States Senate. (1870)
Mae Jemison was the first African American woman allowed to fly in outer space. (1992)
Richard Theodore Greener was the first African American allowed to graduate from Harvard University. (1870)
Bessie Coleman was the first African American – as well as the first Native American – woman allowed to have a pilot’s license. (1921)
Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African American woman allowed to practice medicine as a licensed physician. (1864)
Charlotte E. Ray was the first African American woman allowed to practice law in the United States. (1872)
Douglas Wilder was the first African American allowed to serve as a governor in the United States. (1990 in Virginia)
There were many others who were never allowed. They had the skills, the brains, the physical gifts, and the temperament to serve in politics, science, sports, engineering, and academics. But they didn’t have the opportunity. (White) People were not “ready” for it.
We must continue to lift up these “first” historic figures while also remembering that – actually – they were the first allowed to fulfill their calling but not necessarily the first who could have had that achievement.
Note to Church: how are opening doors for talented children, teenagers, and young adults to use the gifts God gave them? How are we allowing people with fewer opportunities than we have had to thrive?
Image is the Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon – the first African American woman allowed to be ordained as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church USA.
Note: Robin DiAngelo makes this same point about ‘being allowed’ in her book White Fragility about Jackie Robinson. Great read.