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REMEMBERING ALICE COACHMAN – DAVIS
THE FIRST BLACK FEMALE OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST
By Gary Norris Gray, BASN Staff Reporter
OAKLAND (BASN) – The first black woman from any nation to win a gold medal in the Olympics, an American, Alice Coachman Davis, who accomplished that feat in the high jump in London Games in 1948, passed away at age 90 on July 13 in Georgia. Competing as Alice Coachman, her maiden name, she also was the only American woman to win gold in the 1948 Games.
Her death brought review of how and what she accomplished as a 24-year-old black woman from Georgia 66 years ago, 12 years after Jesse Owens became the first black man to compete in the modern Olympics in 1938, and her continuing accomplishments in the later decades of her life.
Coachman broke the Olympic record with a leap of 5 feet, 6 1/8 inches to take the gold medal. Her earlier qualifying jump of 5 feet, 4 inches broke a record that had stood for sixteen years. Coachman’s record remained until the 1956 games in Melbourne, Australia, when it was broken by another jumper from Tuskegee Institute, Mildred McDaniel.
Glory Abroad, Separation at Home
Born in 1923, the fifth of ten children, Coachman overcame the bars of segregation and cultural opposition to women participating in sports. Even after besting the world in London, glory was constrained upon returning to Georgia.
She had received her gold medal from King George VI, father of the present Queen Elizabeth; was congratulated by President Harry S. Truman at the White House; Count Basie gave a party for her; and she was honored by a motorcade that rolled 175 miles from Atlanta to her hometown of Albany. However, her return was to a still-segregated south: blacks and whites were seated separately in an Albany auditorium, the mayor sat on the stage with her but would not shake the hand of the woman who had shaken hands with a king and a president and a count, and she had to leave by a side door.
As a youth, training facilities had been closed to her because of her race, and she was unable to compete in organized open sporting events because of the strict enforcement of segregation, she could not use athletic fields. No formal track was available to her. She practiced sprinting by running barefoot in fields and dirt roads near her home. She practiced high jumping with improvised equipment of sticks, rags, and ropes that she assembled herself to create a bar to leap over.
Her talents were spotted in grade school and high school, and she competed on and against all-black teams in the segregated south. Greater success came when she competed beyond the bounds of the old Confederacy. In 1939 at age 16, just prior to attending a high school program at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Coachman traveled out of the south to enter the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Women’s National Championships and broke both the collegiate and national high jump records. She jumped barefoot, just as she had at home.
While attending Tuskegee, Coachman ran in the 4x100m women’s relay teams which were national champions in 1941 and 1942. Known as “the Tuskegee Flash,” she also won the AAU Nationals in 1943 in the 50-yard dash and the high jump competitions; she held the 50-yard dash title another four times, and won ten consecutive national high jump titles between 1939 and 1948 competing for Tuskegee and later Albany State College. She also played on Tuskegee’s women’s basketball team which won three championship titles in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) of historically black colleges and universities. She also won national championships in the 100-meter dash.
A Place in History
Coachman retired from competition after her 1948 success, which had occurred before the era of mass media, particularly television, and thereafter lived mostly quietly, as a mother, schoolteacher, and coach. Coachman was thus not as well-known as more famous black female athletes from later times.
Indeed, she had been strangely forgotten, according to Jennifer H. Lansbury, author of “A Spectacular Leap: Black Women Athletes in Twentieth Century America,” published by University of Arkansas Press. Lansbury speculates that even as a “first” for her race and gender, Coachman’s fame was marginalized in the late 1940s by a white society and its media unprepared for this “first” on three counts: as an African-American, a woman, and a track and field athlete.
Only later did greater attention go to others. The Team USA website, sponsored by the United States Olympic Committee, states that Coachman paved the way for later champions such as Wilma Rudolph and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and current Olympians Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards-Ross. “I sure did, I paved the way for all of them,” Coachman had agreed. She had also been the first black woman to get an endorsement deal, from Coca-Cola in the early 1950s.
Fred Whitted, CEO of The Black College Sports Encyclopedia and a staunch advocate and archivist for Historically Black Colleges and Universities provided a statement re the passing of Alice Coachman Davis:
“This is a great loss to HBCU and American history. Mrs. Davis was one of the women who helped start the US Olympic Movement for women. Trained at Tuskegee, she helped prove many of the myths about women wrong. Again, this was one of those things that whites preached as gospel that was totally wrong. Her efforts led to the Tigerbelles. Years later, we have what we now know as women’s track and field. Mrs. Davis led the way.”
Coachman remained proud of what she had accomplished, as she recounted at age 73 in a 1997 interview with the Birmingham News. “Go anyplace and people will tell you Wilma Rudolph was the first black woman to win a medal — it’s not true,” she declared, referring to Rudolph’s three sprint gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics. “She came on the scene 12 years later. But she was on television.”
Coachman’s son, Richard Davis, agreed about the influence of television and sports history. “We’re a very visual nation, and visually the one that comes to mind is still Wilma,” Davis said. Without media coverage, he believes, people forgot about Coachman and the other women athletes competing from Tuskegee. The Team USA site states Coachman had been “rediscovered” in the run-up to the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.
Coachman had been inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1975, and when Atlanta hosted the 1996 Olympics, she was honored as one of the top 100 greatest Olympic athletes. Sports Illustrated named her as one of the top 100 female athletes of the 20th century.
Coachman’s place in history is nevertheless secure. In 1994, at age 70, she founded the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation in Akron, Ohio, to give young athletes assistance in their careers and to help athletes returning from the Olympics adjust to life after the games. Coachman was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2004, at age 80. She was thrilled.
”Going into the USOC Hall of Fame is as good as it gets,” she told The Associated Press. ”It’s like Cooperstown, Springfield, and Canton.”
Arthur R. George contributed to this story.
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