This article is a part of Blavity U Spirit Week 2023.

HBCUs are revered for providing a space for Black students to earn an education during a time when white institutions denied them the opportunity.

While academic advancement was the initial focus, the significance of the schools extends beyond the classroom. HBCU fields, courts and tracks were the first places where some Black athletes could compete and excel.

According to the College Football Hall of Fame, the first HBCU football game occurred on Dec. 27, 1892, in North Carolina. Biddle College (now known as Johnson C. Smith University) played Livingstone College at Livingstone. The game was a historical marker in the world of Black college sports.

As Black educational institutions increased around the country, the availability for Black athletes to showcase their talents also increased. However, the rest of the nation was slow to realize their abilities. For years, HBCU athletics received less coverage than their counterparts.

A 1971 football game between Grambling and Morgan State was the first HBCU game to receive national coverage. ABC Network included the game as the opener in its weekly college sports series.

Despite the lack of coverage, HBCUs continued to produce some of the best athletes to grace professional sports, including tennis pioneer Althea Gibson (Florida A&M), 1967 NBA Rookie of the Year Earl Monroe (Winston-Salem State University) and three-time Super Bowl winner Jerry Rice.

Recently, the spotlight has shifted to HBCUs with the increase in enrollment and notable high school athletes choosing to attend them over larger, predominantly white institutions.

As a new school year kicks off, athletes are lacing up and ready to show the world what they’ve got. Here are some contenders for the top HBCU athletes from around the nation. 

Destiny Howell - Howard University Women's Basketball

Destiny Howell’s big game during the 2022 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament resulted in the Howard Bison winning their first championship since 2001. As the MEAC’s leading scorer during the regular season, Howell kept that same energy, scoring 25 of the team’s 61 points.

Shaqir O'Neal - Texas Southern University Men's Basketball

Shaqir O’Neal is the 6’7″ forward son of prolific NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal. Although his lineage could lend to special treatment, O’Neal has earned his spot on the court. He was redshirted his first year but appeared in 20 of the Texas Southern University Tigers’ first 34 games during the 2022-23 season.

To date, he gave his best performance on Dec. 11, 2022, shooting 5-for-9, finishing with 12 points, seven rebounds and four assists in 28 minutes.


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Davius Richard - North Carolina Central University Football

North Carolina Central University quarterback Davius Richard was a significant component of the team’s national championship run in the 2022 season. He won the 2022 MEAC Offensive Player of the Year award as he helped the school grab its fourth Black College national championship (1954, 2005 and 2006).

Richard was named the MEAC offensive player of the week seven times throughout the 2022 season and could be the first NC Central player to hear his name in the NFL Draft if he keeps it up this season.

Jada Griffin - North Carolina A&T University Women's Track & Field

Graduate sprinter Jada Griffin earned the honor of being North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University’s June Pepsi Athlete of the Month for her domination on the track in May. Griffin won individual outdoor titles at the 2023 Colonial Athletic Association Track and Field Championships in the women’s 400-meter and 200.

She automatically qualified for her first NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championship by finishing third in her heat of the quarterfinals. Griffin ran a 52.61, which was the seventh-fastest time overall. She is the first women’s national qualifier from the CAA in the 400m since 2011.

Kenyon Johnson - Tennessee State University Men's Track & Field

Tennessee State University’s triple-jumper Kenyon Johnson secured a Top 20 finish out of 48 jumpers with a 15.36m jump at the NCAA Championship in May. This stellar performance followed Johnson clutching the Ohio Valley Conference Championship in the triple jump as he took home first place with a leap of 15.39m.

Ty Jackson - Florida A&M University Baseball

FAMU has one of the strongest baseball programs of any HBCU, with eight MEAC championships and four NCAA regional appearances. The Rattlers won the 2023 Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship with the help of senior outfielder Ty Jackson.

Jackson had an impressive hitting season for the Rattlers, leading the team with a .373 batting average in 2023. Jackson represented FAMU in the inaugural HBCU Swingman Classic.


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Jaelyn Jackson - Claflin University Softball

The 2023 softball season was a memorable one for Claflin University pitcher Jaelyn Jackson. The rising senior finished the season as the 2023 Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association pitcher of the year, leading the conference in earned run average with a 1.48 average, 171 strikeouts and just two home runs allowed. She accomplished all that while finishing the season ranked second with 142.0 innings pitched. She closed the season by earning a spot on the 2023 CIAA Softball All-Tournament Team.


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