“CBS This Morning” is honoring African-American icons who broke new ground and inspired others with our “Trailblazers” series in celebration of Black History Month.
Two black professional athletes who overcame obstacles to reshape their sports – at two very different points in U.S. history – met recently in Washington, D.C., and discussed their historic journeys and the work that is still to be done.
Willie O’Ree, a retired professional hockey player, broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958 when he played as a winger for the Boston Bruins. Born in Canada, O’Ree inspired the league’s annual Willie O’Ree Hero Award, which recognizes “the individual who has worked to make a positive impact on his or her community, culture, or society to make people better through hockey.”
Fast forward to 2015, when Brooklyn, New York, native Nzingha Prescod became the first African-American woman to win an individual medal at the World Fencing Championships. Prescod, a foil fencer, earned a bronze medal that year after competing in the 2012 Summer Olympics as part of team USA.
In Washington, the two discussed what made them reach for their dreams – and more:
Willie O’Ree: When I stepped on the ice, I didn’t realize I was breaking the color barrier or opening doors. I read it in the paper the next day.
Nzingha Prescod: For me in my sport, in fencing, I’ve been one of few, but I can’t imagine what it’s like to be the only person that looks like you. So how did it make you feel?
O’Ree: I was thrilled to be on the team at that time. I was faced with some racism, but I kept it in my mind that I’m just here to be the best hockey player I can be and to represent the hockey club to the best of my ability.
Prescod: I feel like it’s an extra feat you have to overcome – I don’t feel that, I know that. I started fencing through the Peter Westbook foundation in New York. Peter is a six-time Olympian, he’s African-American, and he wanted to bring fencing to more minority youth in New York, and so he started this program. He sponsored my training because fencing is super expensive, which excludes a lot of the population. I think he sent seven or eight fencers to the Olympics. And so I had this community of black fencers that made it really fun and exciting, but I don’t know what it would’ve been like to not have that buffer.
O’Ree: The name-calling and the racial remarks were there. I had cotton balls thrown on the ice, I’ve had black cats thrown on the ice, you know, in different cities. But I always kept it on the ice. I had one thought in mind – to play hockey and be the best hockey player I can be.
Prescod: To this day systematically, even if it’s not by saying, “You’re black. You’re not allowed,” I think there’s other constructs that have been developed to exclude black people. It’s wrong that you can only access certain sports if you have a certain amount of money.
O’Ree: It’s true.
Prescod: Do you think Jackie Robinson impacted your decision to stay in sport?
O’Ree: Yes, he did. He made a big impact. I met Jackie Robinson on two occasions; I met him when I was 14, went down to the dugout and shook hands with him, and I told Mr. Robinson that I not only played baseball but I played hockey. And he didn’t realize that there were any black kids playing hockey at that time.
Prescod: I get that a lot, I get that all the time.
O’Ree: Then in 1962, the NAACP had a luncheon for Mr. Robinson. Mr. Robinson turned and he says, “Willie O’Ree?” He says, “Aren’t you the young fella I met in Brooklyn?”
Prescod: Wow, he remembered you! That’s awesome.
O’Ree: Now he remembered me from 1949 to 1962, and I was in awe. He made a big impact.
Prescod: He knew how important it was, what you were doing, ’cause he’d done it too.
O’Ree: And now I’m called the Jackie Robinson of hockey. The media gave me that name. I don’t feel like a trailblazer. I just feel like–
Prescod: But you are.
O’Ree: –an individual that excelled in the game that he loved. And then to be the first in anything is great.
Prescod: Nice to meet you.
O’Ree: I want to show you, I got these Friday in the mail.
Prescod: Oh wow, what is it?
O’Ree: A Canadian mint has made a $20 silver. On the other side is the queen.
Prescod: How can you say you’re not a trailblazer? That’s amazing. You’re on some money. It’s really respectful what you’re doing with the NHL – to change that structure in the sports world here.
O’Ree: After I had finished playing my career I wanted to give back to the sport. And I came with the NHL and worked with the diversity program, helping kids play hockey and learning how to skate. I’ve been doing it now for 20, going on 23 years.
Prescod: That’s awesome.
O’Ree: It’s just a second love.
Prescod: I’m with you. I want to share my sport. I don’t want to be one few, I want to be one of many.
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