As part of our celebration of Black History Month, we spotlight one local African American pioneer in every city with an NBA team.
While we often recognize the accomplishments and accolades of NBA players throughout history, it’s vital to shed light on the individuals who contributed in both big and small ways to building the respective communities where NBA teams reside.
These individuals range from civil rights activists, business owners, politicians, artists and more, many of whom broke barriers during times of tumultuous racism in the United States.
Here’s a list of compelling stories from Black pioneers in the NBA’s 28 markets (Los Angeles and New York have two separate teams).
Herman J. Russell, creator of one of the largest Black-owned real estate and construction companies
A native of Atlanta born during the Depression, Russell rose from poverty to reshape the Atlanta skyline. His company broke every racial and economic barrier en route to developing Atlanta-Hartsfield International Airport, the Georgia Dome and Georgia-Pacific headquarters, among other large projects. He also provided bail money for Civil Rights leaders jailed while fighting racial injustice in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Mel King, community organizer and civil rights icon
As the director of the New Urban League of Greater Boston, King organized a protest in 1968 to prevent a parking garage from being built where housing would have to be leveled in order to save Black and brown occupants from being displaced. That led to King organizing an occupation of the lot in his native South End neighborhood where hundreds of people camped to occupy the lot. Celtics star Bill Russell provided food for the protestors at his restaurant, Slade’s Bar and Grill, located down the street.
Although it took nearly two decades, a subsidized housing complex was built in the late 1980s, earning the name “Tent City” after the protests. King’s dedication continues to transcend Boston’s Black community today, encouraging residents to use their voices regarding the city’s urban renewal plans.
Harvey Gantt, first Black Mayor of Charlotte
Gantt’s trailblazing career began in 1963 when he became the first Black student accepted to Clemson University in South Carolina. He went on to pursue his master’s degree at MIT and then relocated to Charlotte where he co-founded an architecture firm, focusing on designing buildings that encourage community. Twenty years after breaking barriers in South Carolina, Gantt made history once again, becoming the first Black mayor of Queen City in 1983.
Tammera L. Holmes, founder and CEO of AeroStar
A West Side Chicago native, Holmes founded AeroStar Consulting Corporation — an aviation company — that provides services and programming for underrepresented youth. The vision of its programs aims to enhance, promote and support the academic awareness of aviation and aeronautical career path opportunities for students, particularly female, minority, underprivileged and at-risk youth.
AeroStar has paved the way for the future of the aviation industry by providing aviation academic curriculum development, programs, activities and support services for youth Grades K-12 interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).
Carl Burton Stokes, first Black Mayor of Cleveland
The first African American to lead a major U.S. city, Stokes became the 51st mayor of Cleveland in 1968. The Ohio native was an advocate for Civil Rights and led a progressive approach during his two terms in office. One of his many defining moments came in 1969 when the Cuyahoga River, which once divided the city along racial lines, caught fire. Stokes used it as an opportunity to shed light on the plight of industrial cities, including poverty and lack of clean water, or what he called the “urban environment.”
He orchestrated pollution tours for the press and later called for funding a Cuyahoga River cleanup. The city and suburbs eventually shared a sewer system, and thanks to the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, stronger mandates for pollution control were implemented throughout the city.
Dr. Opal Lee, the Grandmother of Juneteenth
Dr. Opal Lee helped to preserve the history and timeline of the emancipation of Texas slaves. In 2016 at the age of 89, she began “Opal’s Walk 2 DC,” a plan to walk 1,400 miles from Fort Worth, TX to Washington, D.C. in hopes of gaining support from Congress to finally recognize the “Day of Freedom” June 19 as a national holiday. Five years later at a White House ceremony, President Joe Biden signed legislation that made Juneteenth a federal holiday, and highlighted Dr. Lee’s efforts by calling her “a grandmother of the movement” in 2021. Dr. Lee earned a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2022 for her part in making history.
Tune in NOW to watch the latest session of the The HUDDLE, feat. @cyntmarshall & Opal Lee, the trailblazer who helped make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
Cynt sits down with Dr. Opal Lee about what inspired her to make a difference. Join us for the conversation.
— Dallas Mavericks (@dallasmavs) June 15, 2023
Wilma J. Webb, politician
Webb is a former Colorado State Representative who served for 13 years in this role. During her time in the State Legislature, she became the first woman of color to serve on the Colorado Joint Budget Committee. Webb was the driving force behind Colorado’s Martin Luther King Holiday bill and after years of her tenacious efforts, the bill was passed on Apr. 4, 1984. Coretta Scott King came to Denver the following year to request an official Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission, of which Wilma Webb was named Chairperson.
Wilma went on to become the first Black First Lady of Denver after her husband was elected as Denver’s first Black mayor in 1991. The couple co-founded the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in Denver, which serves as a resource for African American history and culture of the Rocky Mountain West.
Ossian Sweet, physician who served the poor and whose racially-charged trial helped combat housing segregation
One of Detroit’s first Black doctors, Sweet concentrated his practice in Black Bottom, a neighborhood of working-class Blacks who lacked health care. He was charged with murder in 1925 while fending off a hostile mob angry over his decision to buy a house in their all-white neighborhood. The charges were eventually dropped. The Ossian Sweet House is now part of the National Register of Historic Places.
Lonnie Smith, advocate who helped overturn Texas law that allowed political parties to hold “whites-only” primary elections
A popular dentist in Houston, Smith gained notoriety when the Texas State NAACP, banking on his credibility as a respected community figure, filed a lawsuit after he was turned away from the state’s 1940 “all-white” primary. The case, Smith v. Allwright, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where it was overturned in favor of the NAACP, deeming “all-white” primaries unconstitutional in 1944. The decision is considered one of the NAACP’s most important legal victories.
William Edouard Scott, artist and educator
Scott joined Manual High School as an assistant art teacher, making him the first African American to teach in an Indianapolis high school. Scott then attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
From 1913 until his death in 1963, Scott left his artistic impression on Indianapolis with murals in the hallways of public buildings. Known for his portraits, Haitian scenes and murals, Scott challenged the often demoralizing depiction of Black life in art in the first half of the 20th century by utilizing Black subject matter in an uplifting way.
Ida B. Wells, journalist and civil rights activist
Wells first gained notoriety in 1884 after winning a lawsuit against a railroad company in Memphis that had forcefully removed her from a train when she refused to give up her seat to a white man. From then on, the 25-year-old had the attention of the Black community across the country with her writings about her experience in the Free Speech and Headlight newspaper.
This marked only the beginning of Wells’ timeless legacy. Years later, she became one of two Black women to help form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). By 1930, she became one of the first Black women to run for public office in the U.S. in the Illinois state legislature.
Dr. Marvin Dunn, historian and community advocate
Dr. Marvin Dunn is a renowned guardian of Black history in Florida. A former naval officer, the Florida native is a prolific author, speaker, film producer and advocate for dialogue on race relations and racial justice. Dr. Dunn is also a Professor Emeritus of the Department of Psychology at Florida International University. In response to the 2020 murder of George Floyd, he founded the Miami Center for Racial Justice to promote unity while having sincere dialogue about racial terror in Florida.
Vel Phillips, politician, attorney and civil rights activist
One of the most accomplished and influential leaders from Wisconsin, Phillips is a trailblazing community leader of many firsts. Phillips was the first Black woman to graduate from UW-Madison Law School, became the first woman alderman elected to the Common Council of Milwaukee, the first woman judge in Milwaukee County and the first African American to serve in Wisconsin’s judiciary. She’s the first woman and first African American to be elected to the statewide office of Secretary of State in Wisconsin.
In honor of Black History Month, the Bucks are shining light on prominent figures in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.
Vel Phillips was the first African-American woman to win a seat on the Milwaukee Common Council. pic.twitter.com/gT2aVGUz6X
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) February 12, 2023
Josie Robinson Johnson, civil rights activist and educator
The “First Lady of Minnesota Civil Rights,” Johnson helped pass Minnesota’s anti-discrimination laws in 1956. By 1971, she was asked to serve as the first Black person to sit on the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents after her efforts to develop the school’s department of African American and African Studies. While she spent a short amount of time in the department, Johnson’s efforts helped steer courses of diversity, equity and inclusion throughout the school that still benefit students today.
Dr. Norman C. Francis, educator and first Black president at Xavier University of Louisiana
Louisiana native and pioneer destined to transform the city of New Orleans, Dr. Francis was the first Black student to graduate from Loyola University New Orleans where he attended Law School. Dr. Francis then served time in the army before spending a number of years in the U.S. Attorney’s office where he helped desegregate federal agencies. He became the first Black president at Xavier University of Louisiana from 1968 to 2015. During that time, Francis also served as the chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority and was instrumental in the planning and recovery of rebuilding the state of Louisiana post Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.
Dr. Hazel N. Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference
For over seven decades, Dr. Dukes has dedicated her work to tackling racial equality, civic engagement and supportive policies for all marginalized people. After relocating to New York in 1955, where she made an instant impact in the fight against housing discrimination in Long Island, Dr. Dukes became the first Black employee in the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office in 1966. As the current president of the NAACP New York State Conference, Dr. Dukes continues to serve the people of New York and better the lives of Black Americans across the country.
Clara Shepard Luper, educator and civil rights pioneer
Known as the Mother of Civil Rights in Oklahoma, Luper graduated from the state’s only HBCU, Langston University. She pursued a master’s degree at the University of Oklahoma, becoming the first Black student to enroll in the school’s history department in 1951.
On Aug. 19, 1958, Luper, her children and a group of NAACP Youth Council members led the first successful sit-in for desegregation in the country at Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City. Two days later, the company desegregated its lunch counters in three states. Luper’s inspirational legacy continues through human rights and advocacy projects and dozens of naming honors reflecting the lasting influence she had in Oklahoma and nationwide.
Oklahoma civil rights pioneer Clara Luper would have turned 100 later this year. As we celebrate Black History Month, voices within the Thunder reflect on Mrs. Luper's impact on our city, state and nation. pic.twitter.com/c0pbsA6dkK
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) February 24, 2023
David Ayala, activist and organizer
Ayala relocated to Central Florida after spending 21 years in and out of the criminal justice system. Since his release from federal prison in 2006, Ayala has earned multiple degrees and served various organizational roles to end discrimination against people with criminal convictions. A voting rights champion, Ayala helped develop the preliminary work for Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative in 2018, which “restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.”
Charisse McGill, entrepreneur and founder of Lokal Artisan Foods
McGill became the first Black woman to own and operate a food establishment at Cherry Street Pier and Spruce Street Harbor Park on Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia, PA. She made a significant impact as an employer, supporting a young workforce with fair wages, professional guidance and open communication, fostering a positive work environment. McGill was also a teacher and mentor and coached high school basketball.
Charisse McGill was a champion. Not only was she the winner and advocate of our Buy Black program, she was a champion mother, business owner, friend, mentor, role model, and so much more. Her impact on the community and our organization has been immeasurable. We will remember her… pic.twitter.com/iPmNu5FI3u
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) January 19, 2024
Lincoln Ragsdale, advocate for desegregation in Phoenix public schools
A Tuskegee airman, Ragsdale joined the fight against racism upon settling in Phoenix in 1946, becoming a devoted leader in the local NAACP chapter and several other civic organizations. In 1953, one year before the transformative Brown v. Board of Education case, Ragsdale funded a lawsuit on behalf of school-aged children that eventually led to the desegregation of the Encanto District, an affluent and segregated neighborhood, as well as high schools throughout Phoenix.
Winta Yohannes, community organizer
Yohannes is the executive director of the Albina Vision Trust (AVT), a nonprofit organization stewarding the thoughtful reinvention and transformation of the 94-acre historic lower Albina neighborhood. She leads AVT, which has earned recognition for its leadership in counteracting anti-Black racism in the urban form, including awards for design excellence in its groundbreaking master plan.
In her previous role at Portland City Hall, Yohannes supported the development of Portland’s first immigrant legal defense program and co-established the Social Equity Program in the Cannabis Licensing Office to support entrepreneurs of color.
Dr. William H. Lee, founder of Sacramento’s first Black newspaper
A Sacramento native, Dr. Lee established The Sacramento Observer in 1962 to uplift the voices and narratives of the local African American community. Serving as the publisher for 50 years, Dr. Lee was dedicated to highlighting stories often overlooked.
Today, The Observer stands as one of the foremost African American newspapers in the U.S., earning the prestigious John B. Russwurm trophy seven times from the National Newspaper Publishers Association, solidifying its status as the nation’s top Black newspaper.
Salt Lake City
Mignon Barker Richmond, educator and civic leader
A Salt Lake City native and the child of a father born into slavery, Richmond made history in 1921 as the first Black woman to graduate from college in Utah. She earned a degree in home living, textiles and foods from Utah State Agriculture College, now known as Utah State University. Despite her credentials, racism prevented Richmond from being awarded work opportunities in her field of study. Finally, in 1948, Richmond started Utah’s first school lunch program.
Aaronetta Pierce, advocate for African American arts
For more than four decades, Pierce has been recognized for her dedicated efforts in advancing the visual and performing arts. Pierce broke barriers as the first Black woman appointed to a six-year term as a commissioner for the Texas Commission on the Arts, aiming to enrich her community by acknowledging and celebrating the artistic contributions of Black artists.
By the end of 1974, the Pierce family made history as early investors and Black owners of a professional basketball team, later evolving into a legendary franchise in San Antonio. Recognizing her impactful contributions, Pierce was inducted into the Texas University Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. Currently, Mrs. Pierce serves as the Tri-Chair for the Alamo Planning Committee, demonstrating a steadfast commitment to the comprehensive inclusion of the story of slavery in the revitalization of the Alamo in San Antonio.
San Francisco Bay Area
Julian and Raye Gilbert Richardson, founders of the country’s oldest remaining Black-owned bookstore
The Richardson couple relocated to San Francisco in 1946, where husband Julian launched the publishing company Success Printing Co. in the Fillmore District. Meanwhile, Raye studied at UC Berkeley, where she earned a literature degree and went on to preside over the Black Studies department at San Francisco University. In 1960, the couple opened Marcus Books in San Francisco, named after Black nationalist and author Marcus Garvey. A second location in Oakland opened in 1976, which today stands as the oldest remaining Black-owned bookstore in the United States.
— Golden State Warriors (@warriors) February 20, 2018
Lincoln Alexander, Canadian politician
Alexander made history as Canada’s first Black Member of Parliament in 1968. Later, he achieved another milestone as the first Black Canadian to serve as a federal cabinet minister, contributing significantly to Canadian politics and civil rights throughout his distinguished career.
An advocate for the equal treatment of Black Canadians and a trailblazer in the fight for racial equality throughout the country, the impact of Alexander’s work remains today. In recognition of his efforts, Jan. 21 has been celebrated as Lincoln Alexander Day across Canada since 2015.
Today, we recognize the legacy of Lincoln Alexander. Lincoln was a trailblazer in the fight for racial equality in Canada. He was the first Black Member of Parliament, the first Black Federal Minister, and the first Black Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. He consistently advocated… pic.twitter.com/QS13wHv8nr
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) January 21, 2024
Benjamin Banneker, astronomer, mathematician and almanac author
Considered the first Black American man of science, Banneker helped to map out the boundaries for the new federal capital after the 1790 Resident Act allowed President George Washington to locate a 10-mile diamond plat of land donated from Maryland and Virginia along the Potomac River to form the new nation’s capital. Beginning in 1791, Banneker and a team of surveyors placed forty stone markers to line the original boundary of Washington D.C. The boundary stones were the first monuments purchased by the U.S. government.
The Washington Wizards’ 2023-24 City Edition uniforms are dedicated and highlight the work of Banneker.
— Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) November 1, 2023