Jennifer Jackson (; Jackie Robinson (STR/Getty); Val James (

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. In that spirit, here are 15 other barrier breakers who opened doors for future generations simply by proving that African Americans can do it all.


Alexander Twilight

Twilight was the first African American to earn a degree from a U.S. university when he graduated from Middlebury College in 1823. His accomplishment is even more significant when you consider that he didn't start school at all until he was 20. The Vermont native would also become the first African American elected to a state legislature in 1836.

James McCune Smith

In 1837 Smith earned a medical degree, making him the first university-trained black physician in the U.S. Denied admission to colleges in America because of his race, Smith studied at Glasgow University in Scotland, earning his bachelor's, master's and medical degrees. After returning to the U.S. to start his practice in New York City, where he treated white and black patients, Smith would also become the first African-American owner of a pharmacy.

Hiram Rhodes Revels

Revels became the first African American to serve in Congress in 1870, when the Mississippi Legislature appointed him to the U.S. Senate after the state returned to the Union following the Civil War. It would take until 1966 for another African American, Edward Brooke, to be elected to the Senate by popular vote.

Marshall 'Major' Taylor

In 1899 sprint cyclist Taylor became the first African American to achieve the status of world champion. He was also most likely the first African American to be a member of an integrated professional team and the first to have commercial sponsors. Speaking of which, Nike, not a company to miss an opportunity, used to market shoes inspired by the cyclist.

Eugene Bullard

Bullard, a Georgia native who volunteered in the French army, became the first African-American military pilot and the only African-American pilot to fight in World War I. After the war, he lived in Paris and became an owner of a nightclub, where he became friends with several prominent black artists, including Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes and Louis Armstrong. Read more about him here.

Bessie Coleman

Original fly girl Coleman was the first African-American woman to receive an international pilot's license, earning her wings in 1921 — two years before Amelia Earhart. For the next five years, she would perform daredevil stunts at air shows before dying in a crash on April 30, 1926.

Hattie McDaniel

In 1940 McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award, for best supporting actress in Gone With the Wind. In her will, she left her Oscar to Howard University. However, during riots after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the Oscar was allegedly thrown in the Potomac River. Both the university's and the academy's official stance is that the award is "missing," and the academy refuses to issue a replacement for this historic award.

Camilla Williams

Soprano Williams became the first African-American woman to perform a leading role with a major U.S. opera company in 1946 when she played Japanese geisha Cio-Cio-San in Puccini's classic opera Madama Butterfly for the New York City Opera. Williams has long been overshadowed by Marian Anderson, who became the first African-American singer at the Metropolitan Opera nine years later.

Willie Thrower

The aptly named Thrower was the first African-American quarterback in the National Football League, as a member of the Chicago Bears. He would play in only one NFL game, on Oct. 13, 1953, subbing for George Blanda. Though his stats were modest, his accomplishment paved the way for many black QBs, including Marlin Briscoe (the first starting quarterback in the American Football League), Doug Williams, Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III.

Jennifer Jackson

Jackson became the first African-American Playboy Playmate of the Month in the magazine's March 1965 issue. After it was published, she received more fan mail than anyone, Jackson said in an interview with the Huffington Post.

The Falcon and the Black Panther;

The Black Panther was the first black superhero in mainstream comics, created by Marvel in 1966. He was from the fictional African nation of Wakanda. In 1969 Marvel introduced the first African-American superhero, the Falcon, who was a member of the Avengers. (So when will he be appearing in the movies?)

Thurgood Marshall

In 1967 Marshall became the first black Supreme Court justice. As chief counsel for the NAACP, he argued many cases before the court, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education. Current Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan once served as his clerk.

Robert Henry Lawrence

In 1967 Air Force Officer Lawrence was selected to train for the Pentagon's Manned Orbiting Laboratory, making him the first black astronaut. He would die later that year in a jet crash during a training exercise for the program. Because he was a military astronaut rather than a NASA astronaut, his accomplishments went unrecognized until historians and others fought to have his achievement inscribed in history. 

Val James

James was the first African American to play in the National Hockey League, playing for the Buffalo Sabres — he made his debut with the team during the 1981-82 season — and Toronto Maple Leafs. James played only two seasons in the league, but it was the skills he learned as a Golden Gloves boxer that helped him make a name for himself on the ice.

President Barack Obama

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Need we say more?

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