12 influential, impactful Black sports figures in Philadelphia history

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From the mid-19th Century, when it was of the earliest hubs of baseball’s Negro Leagues, through the modern age, when Allen Iverson would dazzle us with his unique blend of hip-hop culture and basketball artistry, Philadelphia has always been a place where sports excellence and Black history have met.In honor of Black History Month, we celebrate those who’ve made an impact on Black lives through sports in Philadelphia.The 12 men and women we showcase here are just a small fraction of the teachers, coaches, athletes, counselors and volunteers who have influenced countless lives by fighting for racial equality, emphasizing the importance of education and giving hope to those who have none.

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Dick Allen was one of baseball’s greatest sluggers during his seven initial years with the Phillies, averaging 30 homers, hitting .299 and making three All-Star teams from 1963 through 1969. But he was never embraced by a fan base that in those days preferred its athletes to fit a certain mold. Allen, the Phillies’ first prominent Black player, was outspoken and controversial during an era of tremendous racial tension in the United States, and Philadelphia wasn’t ready for a Black athlete who spoke his mind.

Consequently, he was constantly booed and derided by Phillies fans despite having a higher OPS during his stay in Philly than Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron. Things got so bad he was forced to wear a batting helmet when he played in the field. Allen may not have faced the same pressure as Jackie Robinson a couple of decades earlier, but it was similar and the racial slurs, hate mail and constant boos eventually drove him out of town after the 1969 season.

Allen made three more All-Star teams and was the 1972 AL MVP for the White Sox before returning to the Phillies near the end of his career. Allen, who died last year, is still inexplicably omitted from the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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When he was a youngster in Norristown, Charles Blockson’s 5th-grade teacher insisted that Black people never contributed to American history. That set Blockson on a lifelong search for the truth.

Blockson was a star athlete at Norristown High School and Penn State in the 1950s — he blocked for Hall of Famer Lenny Moore when they were teammates at Penn State — and he had a chance to continue his football career with the Giants. But he had a deeper calling and he devoted his life to a search for books, letters, photographs and other artifacts documenting Black and African history and culture.

Blockson is one of the world’s leading experts on the Underground Railroad. He has written numerous books and lectured on Black history, is the founder and curator of the Afro-American Collection at Temple, and has developed countless museum exhibits and school programs focused on Black history.

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Catto was born in South Carolina in 1839 but soon moved with his family to Philadelphia, where he studied Latin, Greek, English and math at the Institute for Colored Youth, which many years later became Cheyney University. Catto was a noted cricket and baseball player as a youth in Philadelphia and was instrumental in turning Philadelphia into a mecca for Black baseball in the 1860s.

Catto founded — and played shortstop for — the Pythian Baseball Club, one of the city’s first Black baseball teams. The Pythian club played its home games in Camden since they weren’t able to get permits to play in Philadelphia. Catto devoted his life to education — he became a teacher and later the principal at the Institute for Colored Youth after graduating — and to fighting for equal rights for Black people in the years after the Civil War.

Catto worked tirelessly in Philadelphia for equal voting rights and educational opportunities for Black people before he was murdered during election-day violence in Philadelphia in October of 1871. A 12-foot statue of Catto now stands outside City Hall.

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It seems just about everybody in Philadelphia has a story about John Chaney and the positive effect he had on their lives. Chaney influenced literally thousands of lives in Philadelphia during his 44 years coaching at William Sayre Junior High, Gratz, Cheyney State and Temple.

Chaney coached at Cheyney for 11 years, averaging a 21-5 record and winning the 1978 NCAA Division II national championship, and then for 25 years at Temple, winning over 500 games, reaching the NCAA tournament 17 times and the Elite Eight five times. But Chaney wasn’t just about basketball. He taught crucial life lessons in discipline, dedication and determination to generations of inner-city boys in desperate need of direction. He sent numerous players to the NBA, including long-time veterans Eddie Jones, Aaron McKie, Tim Perry and Mark Strickland.

But for every NBA player, there were 100 young men who went on to succeed in life because of the lessons they learned during their time at Cheyney or Temple. Chaney was an unparalleled teacher, and basketball was only a small part of the lesson.

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His friends called him "Tick" because he was such a good athlete he could get the job done in ... a few ticks of the clock. Frank "Tick" Coleman grew up in the Point Breeze section of South Philadelphia and during the summer would go swimming in the Schuylkill River because the local swim clubs didn't allow Blacks.

He was a trailblazer from a young age. He became an Eagle Scout as a freshman at Central High, one of the first handful of Black Eagle Scouts on record. He was the first Black quarterback at Central, leading the Lancers to the 1929 and 1930 Public League titles and earning all-city honors. This was such an impressive achievement his helmet and cleats are on display today at the Philadelphia African American Museum.

Coleman went on to study at Lincoln University, where he was class president and played football and wrestled. After graduating, he went to work for the Philadelphia School District as a youth counselor, mentoring Black youth in Philly for more than three decades and also volunteering at countless community organizations, many of which he founded. Coleman was considered the oldest living Eagle Scout when he died at 96 years old in 2008.

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Bill Ellerbee is probably best known as the high school basketball coach who got players like Rasheed Wallace and Aaron McKie started on the path to the NBA. But for every player he sent off to college or professional basketball, there were 1,000 young men at Simon Gratz High School whose life he helped shape as a coach, a mentor, a counselor and a math teacher.

Ellerbee was head coach at Gratz from 1982 through 2002, going 452-100, winning six Public League titles and in 1993 earning national Coach of the Year honors, leading Gratz to the mythical national prep championship. He later coached under John Chaney for several years at Temple. No matter how much national attention Gratz got, Ellerbee always emphasized education first. Before every practice and game, the team sat and did homework or got tutoring for an hour. Ellerbee also worked for decades with the Philadelphia Department of Recreation organizing youth programs.

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Tina Sloan Green grew up in the Eastwick section of Southwest Philly and attended Philadelphia High School for Girls, where she was a gifted student and a star athlete. Sloan Green played a variety of sports as a youth, but it was in field hockey and lacrosse that she broke new ground for Black women. After graduating from West Chester, where she first was introduced to lacrosse, she became the first Black woman on the U.S. women's national field hockey team.

In 1975, she began an 18-year run as head coach of Temple's lacrosse team, which she led to three AIAW national championships while also serving as a professor of sports and culture at Temple. She also co-founded the Black Women in Sport Foundation, which supported Black women interested in careers in coaching and sports administration.

Sloan Green was a pioneer in opening doors for Black girls and women to play field hockey and lacrosse, sports that traditionally hadn't embraced minority participation. Sloan Green has been inducted into the Lacrosse Hall of Fame, the Temple and West Chester Halls of Fame and the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame.

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Not only was Allen Iverson one of the greatest basketball players ever — a fearless 6-foot, 165-pound guard who averaged 27 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds in a brilliant 14-year Hall of Fame career — he was a trailblazer whose personal style changed the look of the league. With his signature cornrows, chains, baggy pants, do-rags and tattoos, Iverson brought hip-hop culture to the NBA and influenced a generation of young Black kids who admired not just his ability on the court but his self-expression off the court.

A.I. was such a threat to the NBA's traditional (white) way of doing things, then-commissioner David Stern in 2005 even instituted a conservative dress code for players, at the height of Iverson's popularity.

Iverson grew up in Hampton, Va., but very few athletes have made as much of an impact in Philadelphia both on the court and off as A.I.

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During his six years with the Eagles, Malcolm Jenkins made a name for himself not just for his outstanding play on the field — he made three Pro Bowls and was one of the stars on the 2017 Super Bowl championship team — but also with his activism and work in the community. Jenkins, a North Jersey native, has used his platform to raise awareness of racial inequality and draw attention to social justice issues facing Black America. Jenkins co-founded the Players Coalition, a group of NFL players working to effect change, and his Malcolm Jenkins Foundation serves to empower youth in underserved communities.

Jenkins has become such a powerful voice for racial equality that he appears regularly on CNN and has met with lawmakers in Washington about criminal justice reform. He was the 2017 winner of the Byron "Whizzer" White Award for his charitable work and is currently developing a documentary on the 1921 Tulsa Massacre.

 

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When Lurline Jones was a high school student at William Penn in the late 1950s, she didn't understand why there wasn't a girls basketball team. Being denied an opportunity to play the game she loved inspired her to devote her life to providing those opportunities she was denied to inner-city girls in Philadelphia. Jones coached girls high school basketball in Philly for over 35 years, mainly at William Penn.

Jones became active in the civil rights movement while a student and basketball player at Morgan State in Baltimore and remained active for decades in providing opportunities — mainly for underprivileged minority girls in Philadelphia — through athletics. Jones estimates that she sent more than 300 girls to college on athletic scholarships. In 1973, she and Gratz coach Ina Newman founded the Philadelphia Developmental Basketball League, which for nearly half a century has given area girls a two-month summer league to hone their skills.

 

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Earl Monroe, a South Philly native and Bartram High graduate, was 22 years old and already one of the greatest basketball players in the world when he learned that he had been left off the U.S. national team that would play in the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg. It was a pivotal moment for Monroe, who wrote in his autobiography, "Earl the Pearl: My Story," that the omission was racially motivated because coach Jim Gudger thought his game was "too Black."

He wrote: "Not making the Pan Am team hurt a lot, left a scar that lasts to this day. The incident changed me fundamentally. It made me more aware of what I did as a Black man and how the country treated Blacks. It turned me from a pacifist to an activist."

Monroe has used lessons such as that one his whole life to fight equality and use his platform to make sure his voice is heard. Monroe, who scored nearly 20,000 points in a 13-year Hall of Fame career, has been widely honored for his work in the community, notably in the area of fitness and health for Black youths.

 

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Dawn Staley has been inspiring young girls in Philadelphia and around the country since she first emerged as a basketball star at Dobbins Tech at 22nd and Lehigh in North Philadelphia in the 1980s. Staley led the Mustangs to three Public League championships and by her senior year, she was national Player of the Year. She went on to a brilliant career at Virginia, leading the Cavaliers to three Final 4 appearances and earning National Player of the Year honors in 1992. She played overseas before spending 11 years in the WNBA, where she inspired many -- despite standing just 5-foot-5, she has been named one of the greatest players in WNBA history.

Staley was still actively playing pro ball when she became Temple's coach in 2000, and for her eight years on North Broad Street she led Temple to a 172-80 record, four Atlantic 10 titles and six NCAA tournament appearances. She's coached several U.S. teams in international competition and was an assistant on the 2016 U.S. team that won the gold medal in Brazil. She;s currently the head coach at the University of South Carolina, where she led her team to a national championship in 2017.

 

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