Twenty-second in our series to appear on the first Friday of each month: Boston Firsts Fridays. #BostonFirsts
First Realty Management Corp. was founded in Boston over 50 years ago. We are proud to call this wonderful city our home, and call focus to some of the events & innovations that happened FIRST in Boston.
BF#22 Bill Russell & Many More African-American History Firsts
We’re starting to wind down our two-year series on Boston Firsts. It’s been a great run but there are other projects we’d like to focus on. So for these last few articles we’ll likely group a number of firsts together – Boston has so many!
In honor of African-American History Month (http://www.africanamericanhistorymonth.gov/) our Boston Firsts Friday for February is focusing on many of the notable firsts in African-American history that occurred in Boston. Last February we highlighted the First African-American Meeting House & First Public School for African-American Children: the Abiel Smith School. But picking just a few of these important firsts is very hard; you could fill a book and barely cover everything.
In the end, we are focusing primarily on one of Boston’s greatest heroes for two important reasons:
- Today, February 12th is his 81st birthday
- The statue that was installed barely more than a year ago up the road by City Hall is truly inspiring and we wanted to feature some pictures of it in hopes this will become a “must-see” Boston destination.
We’re talking, of course, about Bill Russell, one of the greatest basketball players who ever lived.
William “Bill” Felton Russell & Boston Sports
To say that Boston has a difficult history on race, in and out of sport, is to indulge in the most extreme of understatements. Boston’s sports history alone is riddled with “what ifs”, complicated with mixed reactions and stained with ugly incidents. But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that Boston does have an impressive complement of accomplishments.
Willie O’Ree broke hockey’s color barrier in 1958 when he laced up for the Bruins (Sadly, while the Bruins were at the front of the line, this was 18 months before the Red Sox became the last major league baseball team with an African-American player; told you it’s complicated…)
The Patriots have always had diverse rosters dating back to their inception in 1959. In fact, when they made Rommie Loudd the linebackers coach in 1966 it marked the first hiring of an African-American coach in the history of the AFL.
But the Boston Celtics led them all. Run by the color-blind Red Auerbach, the Celtics were the first team to draft an African-American player, first to field an all African-American starting lineup and first to hire an African-American coach.
In 1950, Chuck Cooper made history by being the first African-American drafted and, along with Nat Clifton & Earl Lloyd, first to play in the NBA. Cooper played on the Celtics for four years under Auerbach as the team assembled the pieces for a dynasty.
Excellence would arrive with Bill Russell. By any objective measure he is one of the most accomplished and successful athletes in history. (Christopher L. Gasper of the Boston Globe recently suggested that Russell may be the greatest athlete in the modern history of Boston professional sports.) Of course, Russell’s greatness extended off the court, as a leader and tireless advocate for equality.
With a lot of maneuvering by Auerbach, Russell would be drafted in 1956, beginning his Hall of Fame professional career by leading the Celtics to the first of the 11 championships they won in his 13 years as a player. (He also won Olympic Gold that year.) In 1964 he was part of the first African-American starting five (along with Willie Naulls, Tom ‘Satch’ Sanders, K.C. Jones & Sam Jones).
In 1966 he became the first African-American coach in the NBA (or in any US major professional sport) when he took on player/coach responsibilities. In his second season at the helm he would become the first African-American coach to win NBA Championship.
His career ended at the end of the 1969 championship-winning season, but Russell had one more first in him: in 1975 he became the first African-American inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player.
In 2013 a long-overdue honor was bestowed on Russell when a statue by sculptor Ann Hirsch was installed on Boston’s City Hall Plaza. The statue is surrounded by 11 plinthes (for the 11 championships) focusing on his accomplishments.
Other Significant African-American Firsts in Boston:
- 1773: First known African-American woman to publish a book: Phillis Wheatley (Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral)
- 1845: First African American licensed to practice law in the U.S.: Macon Allen from the Boston bar
- 1859: First novel published by an African American in the United States: Harriet Wilson (Our Nig, or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black)
- 1864: First African American woman to become a physician in the United States: Rebecca Lee Crumpler, New England Female Medical College
- 1865: First African-American attorney admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court: John Stewart Rock
- 1962 – First African-American attorney general of a state: Edward Brooke (Massachusetts)
In keeping with the basketball theme, in 1902 Dracut, MA native Harry Lew became the first African-American professional basketball player with the Lowell, MA Pawtucketville Athletic Club of the New England Professional Basketball League.
Fun fact #2:
All of these amazing individuals deserve their own article, but John Rock in particular seems to need more space than we have. In addition to the aforementioned first, (first African-American attorney admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court) Rock was one of the first African-American men to earn a medical degree, practiced and taught as a physician and dentist, and was an outspoken abolitionist credited with coining the phrase “black is beautiful” (or some variation thereof) before becoming a practicing attorney, admitted to the Massachusetts Bar and finally the Supreme Court Bar. Where, for good measure, he became the first African-American to be received on the floor of the United States House of Representatives.
Fun fact #3:
And we’re not even counting firsts from across the river in Cambridge, or else we’d want to highlight such luminaries as William H. Lewis (first African-American college football player, also first All-American in the sport; first African American to be appointed as an Assistant United States Attorney; first to be appointed as one of the five United States Assistant Attorney Generals; and first African American to be admitted to the American Bar Association).