It isn’t often that this column is devoted to either the living or the recently departed, but it would be absolutely criminal not to suspend the usual guidelines and give the space to a woman who holds a unique place in African-American history, Alice Coachman.

Never heard of her? Well, there was a time in the 1940s when her name, if not a household one, certainly had meaning in the athletic world. At the 1948 London Summer Olympics Coachman was the first African-American woman to win a gold medal.


Find out more: Perhaps the most reliable source about Alice Coachman is Coachman herself. Her oral history video excerpts can be found at the National Visionary Leadership Project.

Discussion: It would be highly useful to research and discuss Coachman’s pioneering spirit and the prominent athletes, particularly African-American females, who followed through the doors she opened.

Place in context: While there is no direct mention of her participation in the Civil Rights Movement, she, in her own quiet way, hurtled some barriers on her way to fame. Likewise, living in Georgia and attending school in Alabama made it impossible for her to ignore the Jim Crow restrictions.

Though she was capable of competing in a number of events, she bested the field in the high jump, clearing a record height of 5 feet 61/8 inches despite a bad back. King George VI presented her with the medal. Many sports writers and track and field coaches believe she would have won the event at an earlier Olympics. However both the 1940 and the 1944 Olympic Games were cancelled because of World War II.

Born in Albany, Ga., Nov. 9, 1923, Coachman was one of 10 children and grew up at a time when Jim Crow restrictions kept Blacks moored in a second-class citizenship. Furthermore, because of her race, she was barred from using public sports facilities. However, a segregated society merely meant she had to exercise all of her creative ingenuity in perfecting her athletic skills. Even so, it was obviously a daunting experience to be largely restricted from using the equipment and venues available to her White competitors when she was allowed to contest them.

“You had to run up and down the red roads and the dirt roads,” she told the Kansas City Star. “You went out there in the fields, where there was a lot of grass and no track. No nothing.”

Thanks to encouragement from her teacher Cora Bailey and especially her aunt, Carrie Spry, Coachman was able to circumvent the opposition posed by her parents. Her father wanted her to be more “lady-like,” and participating in sports, from his perspective, was for boys. When she enrolled in Madison High School, she went directly to the track team. There, her budding talent was noticed by the coach Harry Lash, who took time to refine it.

Her success at meets drew the attention of scouts from several Black colleges. She was recruited by the Tuskegee Institute, and in 1939, she enrolled in the Institute’s high school program. Coachman was eager to compete long before she was officially enrolled in the school and immediately began to establish her prowess in the high jump, winning her first Amateur Athletic Union national championship in the event.

But her abilities were not limited to the high jump. In the early 1940s, she collected a batch of trophies in the various dashes and relays. Her speed was clearly an asset on the basketball court, and as a member of Tuskegee’s team, she helped the school win three championships. Coachman was named to five All-American teams, and she was the only African-American.

She was no slouch in the classroom either. In 1946, she graduated with a degree in dressmaking. Three years later, she received a B.A. in home economics from Albany State College, now Albany State University. She was an honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, inducted in 1998 during the sorority’s international conference.

Upon her return from the Olympics in 1948, she was feted by Count Basie and personally congratulated by President Harry S. Truman at the White House. Most illustriously, she was celebrated with a motorcade that traveled from Atlanta to Albany, a little over 180 miles. The ceremony in Albany, however, was segregated.

This Week in Black History

July 19, 1940: Dr. Louis Wright is awarded the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. He was among the first Black doctors to integrate Harlem Hospital. He was born on July 23, 1891.

July 21, 1959: Pumpsie Green becomes the first Black player for the Boston Red Sox, the last major league team to integrate.

July 23, 1984: Suzette Charles, Miss New Jersey, was named the runner-up to Vanessa Williams, but she gained the title on this date when Williams resigned after reports of a nude appearance in a magazine.

The Olympics would spell an end to her athletic career, though she was only 25 and in excellent shape. She wanted to raise a family and married N.F. Davis, with whom she had two children. She and Davis later divorced, and she married Frank Davis.

Her income from coaching and teaching was supplemented by endorsements, and she began her long association with a number of foundations, most notably her own, the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation. It was ostensibly established to prepare young athletes for competition and to help former Olympians adjust to life after sports.

In Atlanta, at the 1996 Olympics, she was honored as one of the 100 greatest Olympic athletes in history. In 2004, she was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. Among her tributes and legacy, an elementary school in Albany is named in her honor.

Last week, July 14, Coachman died in Albany. She was 90.