The story of black British sportswomen - from early pioneers through to current day

Rob Bagchi
·8 min read
Icons of black British Sport - Getty Images
Icons of black British Sport - Getty Images

Historical discrimination against women and black people in sport and society makes identifying and celebrating female pioneers a key virtue of Black History Month. Unlike the United States, Britain does not have a past polluted by segregation in sport but nor does it have the vibrant, separate culture that black leagues were forced to foster in America and furnishes it with a richness of stories and research reaching back to the 19th century. Our trailblazers are more recent, emerging and then flourishing as the descendants of the Windrush generation came of age. British sport has been radically transformed by their influence.

Emma Clarke, football, 1895

We know from a photograph and contemporary press clippings of the British Ladies FC team of 1895 that there was seemingly a woman of colour playing football in the 1890s, but her identity - despite research by sports historians and those wishing to honour her - cannot yet be conclusively established. She was originally identified as Clara Berry, then Carrie Boustead, then Emma Clarke of Liverpool and now, persuasively, Emma Clarke of Plumstead. Because of a lack of primary sources, it has so far been impossible to determine her precise heritage or whether claims that she can continue to be described as ‘Britain’s first black female footballer’ are plausible. Until more facts are discovered, it is perhaps her fate to endure as much as a symbol of the institutional and cultural neglect of women in sport, particularly black women, until shamefully recently.

Emma Clarke (back row, second from left) who became Britains first ever black women's football player in the 1890's
Emma Clarke (back row, second from left) who became Britains first ever black women's football player in the 1890's

Anita Neil, high jump, 1966

Anita Neil was born in Wellingborough in 1950, the daughter of a US Army staff sergeant and a British mother, and won three bronze medals in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay at the 1969 European Championships. A year earlier she had become the first black British woman Olympian, running 11.6sec in the first and second rounds of the 100m, the latter earning her sixth place behind the defending and eventual champion Wyomia Tyus of the USA.

Neil returned in 1972 at Munich and was again eliminated in the second round. A member of London Olympiades, she was also an accomplished long-jumper and still lives in Wellingborough where a striking oil portrait of her hangs in the town’s museum.

Anita Neil
Anita Neil

 Heather Hunte, Beverley Goddard and Sonia Lanaman, 4x100m relay team, 1980

Anita Neil, Verona Bernard and Andrea Lynch made the breakthrough for black British athletes at the Olympics but it took 12 years from Neil’s debut at Mexico for a medallist. As if to prove a point, three came on the same day when Heather Hunte, Beverley Goddard and Sonia Lanaman, stalwarts of the team from the mid-1970s, combined with Kathy Smallwood to win bronze in the 4x100m at the Moscow Games.

It was truly a watershed moment on the track: later that day Joslyn Hoyte-Smith stepped on to the same podium for her part in the 4x400m bronze quartet and in 1984 Beverley, Heather and Kathy came third again, this time with Simmone Jacobs.

Heather Hunte, Kathy Cook, Beverley Goddard and Sonia Lannaman at the 4x100m relay presentation in 1980 - Shutterstock
Heather Hunte, Kathy Cook, Beverley Goddard and Sonia Lannaman at the 4x100m relay presentation in 1980 - Shutterstock

Kerry Davis, football, 1980

The ban on women's football ended in 1971, but it took until 1983 for the Football Association to allow the Women’s FA to affiliate and a further 10 years to assume administrative control of the women’s game. Before the latter date records are patchy but it is acknowledged that against Northern Ireland in 1982 at the age of 20 Kerry Davis, whose father was of Jamiacan heritage, was the first black woman to play for England.

The Crewe Alexandra forward scored 44 goals in 82 appearances over 16 years and was among the first wave of women’s players to earn wages from the sport in the modern era. Davis spent a four-year stint as a pro in Italy including spells at the best side, Trani, and Napoli when Diego Maradona ruled the city. Only Kelly Smith has scored more goals for the national team but at a significantly lower rate per game than the prolific Davis.

Kerry Davis, whose father was of Jamiacan heritage, was the first black woman to play for England - Popperfoto
Kerry Davis, whose father was of Jamiacan heritage, was the first black woman to play for England - Popperfoto

Tessa Sanderson, javelin, 1984

Britain’s first black woman Olympic gold medallist arrived in Wolverhampton from Jamaica at the age of six in 1962 and first represented Great Britain in 1973. She competed in six Olympic Games, winning the javelin by breaking the Olympic record in 1984, and also won three Commonwealth golds in a remarkable 24-year international career.

A campaigner for equality of opportunity and pay, Sanderson has worked relentlessly in sports administration and charity ever since she retired. “I feel that I have helped to achieve a piece of some of the things that have happened now for black people,” she said this year. “But our voice is just as important now as it ever has been.”

Tessa Sanderson in action at the 1984 Olympic Games - Getty Images
Tessa Sanderson in action at the 1984 Olympic Games - Getty Images

Andrea Congreaves, basketball, 1997

A scholarship to Mercer College in Georgia after leaving Carshalton High School put Andrea Congreaves on the road to a career in professional basketball and, after an All-American season, she played professionally and won titles in Italy and Spain. Congreaves became the first British woman to play in the WNBA in 1997 when drafted by the Charlotte Sting.

Britain’s finest woman basketball player came of age in an era when women rarely had the height, leap or confidence to dunk. Congreaves had the athleticism to do it all and became the driving force of the serially successful teams she served.   

Congreaves became the first British woman to play in the WNBA in 1997 - Getty Images
Congreaves became the first British woman to play in the WNBA in 1997 - Getty Images

Maxine Edwards, rugby, 2003

A World Cup-winner in 1994 alongside her sister Jacquie who scored the winning try, Maxine Edwards was appointed England captain in 2003, the pinnacle of a 25-year career during which she earned 45 caps, and led the side out in a momentous first ever match at Twickenham. She and her predecessor Paula George blazed a trail for Maggie Alphonsi and her successors as the game grew into a global phenomenon in fewer than three decades. Like many of her fellow pioneers, Edwards is a teacher and speaks inspirationally about the injustices she and others endured and the battle to erase it for good.  

Maxine Edwards was appointed England captain in 2003 - Getty Images
Maxine Edwards was appointed England captain in 2003 - Getty Images

Anne Wafula Strike, wheelchair racer, 2006

Anne Wafula Strike became the first Paralympian from sub-Saharan Africa to compete in the Games at Athens in 2004 when she raced for Kenya, the land of her birth. But the girl who had contracted polio at the age of two, and overcome astounding obstacles merely to survive before qualifying as a teacher, had long been a British resident and she switched to Team GB before the Beijing Games.

Her classification was changed in controversial and, she maintains, dubious circumstances and after a six-year battle she was unable to overturn her move into T54 which destroyed her chances of competing for medals in 2008 and 2012. Appointed MBE and to non-executive directorships of the BOA and British Athletics, she uses her platform to fight against prejudice - from the barriers disabled people face on public transport, to the lack of black representation in sport.

Anne Wafula Strike in action in 2012 - Getty Images
Anne Wafula Strike in action in 2012 - Getty Images

Ebony Rainford-Brent, cricket, 2009

Ebony Rainford-Brent, England’s first black woman cricketer, stood on the shoulders of a giant, the late Jenny Wostrack, to fulfil her potential and become a World Cup and World T20 winner. Wostrack, a niece of Sir Frank Worrell, West Indies’ first long-term black captain, played for Surrey Ladies in the 1970s and in her role at the club and the London Community Cricket Association gave her all to offer practical help and mentorship.

Rainford-Brent flourished under her tutelage and the moving contribution last summer in her second career as a commentator to Sky’s film about the black experience in cricket and society were a fitting testament to her and Wostrack’s achievements.

Ebony Rainford-Brent was England’s first black woman cricketer - Getty Images
Ebony Rainford-Brent was England’s first black woman cricketer - Getty Images

Hope Powell, football, 2013

A pioneer in every sense, starting as a player for Millwall and England in the early Eighties, her CV is unsurpassable: she captained a Double-winning side, scored 35 times in 66 appearances for England, helped found a club, became England’s first woman manager - and England's first black manager in the men or women's game - as well as the first woman anywhere to earn a Uefa Pro Licence and nurtured two generations of women’s players.

Hope Powell became England's first black manager in the men or women's game - Getty Images
Hope Powell became England's first black manager in the men or women's game - Getty Images

Appointed OBE and CBE, she has been manager of the WSL’s Brighton since 2017. Every revolution needs a vanguard: Powell was the standard bearer for the women’s game in England.