Women You Missed in History Class: Alice Coachman

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Alice Coachman (1923-2014)

You might have learned the names of a few great African American athletes who broke barriers and challenged segregation in sports, but it’s unlikely that Alice Coachman was one of them.  In fact, until her death in 2014, most people had forgotten about the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal.  Alice Coachman was born November 9, 1923 in Albany, Georgia, the fifth of ten children.  She was an active child who showed great athletic promise early on, and enjoyed playing baseball with the boys.  At the time, opposition to girls playing sports was not at all uncommon, and the Coachmans discouraged their young daughter from participating in athletics.  Coachman recalled that they wanted her to “sit on the porch and act like a lady.  And I couldn’t do that.”

Growing up in the heart of the segregated South, Coachman was often barred from participating in organized sports or using athletic training facilities.  She trained by running barefoot along unpaved roads.  In one interview, she remembered, “You had to run up and down the red roads and the dirt roads.  You went out there in the fields, where there was a lot of grass and no track.  No nothing.”  A gifted high jumper, she improvised training equipment by jumping over bars and fences and building her own hurdles out of sticks.  Impressed with her performance on her high school track team, the Tuskegee Institute offered Coachman an athletic scholarship.  She enrolled in their college program in 1943, where she played basketball and competed in track and field.  She won four national championships for sprinting and high jump.

During the first half of the 1940s, Coachman was most likely in her athletic prime, but she didn’t get the chance to compete in the Olympics during that time.  The games were cancelled in 1940 and 1944 because of World War II, but at least one sports writer believes that “Had she competed in those canceled Olympics, we would probably be talking about her as the No. 1 female athlete of all time.”  She finally got her chance to compete at the 1948 Olympics in London, where she jumped 5 feet 6 1/8 inches (That’s only half an inch shorter than I am!) and set a new Olympic record.  King George VI presented her with the Olympic gold medal for high jump, making her the first black woman from any country to win a gold medal.  She was also the only American woman to win a gold medal for track and field in the 1948 Games.

When she returned home after the Olympics, she was treated like a celebrity.  She was welcomed home with parades all over her home state of Georgia.  President Harry Truman invited her to the White House, and jazz legend Count Basie threw a party for her.  In 1952, although she had already retired from athletic competitions, Coca-Cola signed her as a spokeswoman, making her the first African American athlete to get an endorsement deal.  Later in her life, she founded the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation to provide assistance to aspiring young Olympians.  By the time of her death at the age of 90 in 2014, Alice Coachman had been inducted into nine different halls of fame, and had paved the way for future generations of black female athletes.

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