Becoming a pioneer for Black American women in track and field wasn’t initially on the radar for Alice Coachman, but that’s exactly what happened in 1948 when Coachman became the first Black woman ever – from any country – to win an Olympic gold medal.
This summer marks the 75th anniversary of Coachman’s historic win at the 1948 Olympics in London, where she competed in high jump and cleared 5 feet 6 1/8-inches on her first attempt to set an Olympic record. As Black Heritage Month comes to a close and we look ahead to Women’s History Month in March, On Her Turf looks back at Coachman’s trail-blazing journey.
“I didn’t know I had won,” Coachman told Team USA in an interview ahead of the 2012 London Olympics. “I was on my way to receive the medal and I saw my name on the board. And, of course, I glanced over into the stands where my coach was, and she was clapping her hands.”
But it was no easy route to the top of the Olympic podium for Coachman, who grew up in southwest Georgia – the fifth of 10 children — during an era of racial segregation. The discriminatory Jim Crow laws left Coachman with little access to athletic facilities, so she took to running on dirt roads, sometimes barefoot, and built her own hurdles to practice jumping — even creating a high jump crossbar with rope and sticks.
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Despite not having the support of her parents, Coachman persevered. It was while attending Madison High School in Albany, Ga., that she joined the boys’ track team, and coach Harry E. Lash recognized and nurtured her talent. When Coachman broke the high school high-jump record while competing barefoot at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national championships as a freshman, she caught the attention of the athletic department at Tuskegee Institute (now known as Tuskegee University) in Tuskegee, Alabama. She was just 16 years old when she was offered a scholarship in 1939.
Coachman would go on to win 10 consecutive AAU outdoor high jump titles from 1939-1948. In addition to her high jump success, she won national championships in the 50 meter dash, the 100 meters and as part of the 400-meter relay team while studying at Tuskegee Institute. She also won three conference championships playing guard on the Tuskegee women’s basketball team, all while fulfilling scholarship requirements that stipulated she work while studying and training. Duties included cleaning and maintaining sports facilities and even mending uniforms.
In 1943, Coachman entered Tuskegee’s college division to study dressmaking while continuing to compete, graduating in 1946. The following year she continued her studies at Albany State College, where she earned a degree in home economics with a minor in science in 1949.
Those undoubtedly were bittersweet years for Coachman, who was at the peak of her athletic form but had no opportunity to pursue an Olympic career. World War II had forced the cancellation of both the 1940 and 1944 Games, but Coachman would finally get her golden opportunity in 1948.
But earlier in 1948, it appeared that Coachman might miss the Olympic Games altogether. Doctors discovered she had a tilted uterus and recommended that she not compete, but a determined Coachman — knowing she was the only gold-medal prospect on the women’s track and field team — had surgery to insert a rod in her back just before leaving for London.
“I didn’t want to let my country down, or my family and school,” she said. “Everyone was pushing me, but they knew how stubborn and mean I was, so it was only so far they could push me.”
Thanks to her experience as an All-American, Coachman said she wasn’t nervous when she entered Wembley Stadium in front of 83,000 fans on Aug. 7, 1948. She treated it just like any other meet, but Coachman noted she also had a secret weapon to combat any unexpected case of cottonmouth: lemons.
“The thing about the lemon, there wasn’t a lot of juice,” explained Coachman, who bested Great Britain’s Dorothy Tyler for the Olympic title. “You just take the lemon and wash your mouth with it; it’s not like an orange, that you eat it and feel heavy. I didn’t want anything heavy on my stomach to go over that bar.”
King George VI awarded Coachman her gold medal, and she got more royal treatment upon her return to the U.S.: Count Basie, the famous jazz musician, threw her a party. She met with President Harry Truman at the White House and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and she was the guest of honor at a banquet held by the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Upon arriving back in Georgia, she was honored with “Alice Coachman Day” and a 175-mile motorcade from Atlanta to Albany, where she was greeted by the Florida A&M band.
Yet, those hometown celebrations were marked by the racial segregation that still existed at the time. In the Albany auditorium where she was honored, Blacks had to sit separately from whites. The white mayor of Albany sat on the stage with Coachman but refused to shake her hand. She had to leave her own celebration by a side door.
“The mayor, he didn’t shake my hand, and that was what everybody was talking about, how this woman was coming from England with this gold medal and the mayor didn’t shake her hand,” she remembered of the day. “I understood where the mayor stood, but to me, just to be home from across the water was fine with me, just to see my mama.”
Following her Olympic triumph, Coachman returned to Albany State to compete her education and surprised everyone when she announced her retirement at age 24. She made headlines again in 1952, when she was tapped by Coca Cola to become their spokesperson – also becoming the first Black woman athlete to earn an endorsement deal. She was featured prominently on billboards alongside 1936 four-time Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens. In her hometown, Alice Avenue and Coachman Elementary School were named in her honor.
“She opened doors that no one else could open,” 1968 gold medalist Tommie Smith told Team USA. “She literally started the liberation of women in sport. … Had it not been for the Alice Coachmans of society, especially in our sport [of] track and field, I could have never been because I would have no portal to come through.”
“I made a difference among the blacks, being one of the leaders,” Coachman told The New York Times in 1996. “If I had gone to the Games and failed, there wouldn’t be anyone to follow in my footsteps. It encouraged the rest of the women to work harder and fight harder.”
She dedicated the rest of her life to education, becoming an elementary and high school teacher. She married twice, having two children with her first husband, N.F. Davis. She was widowed by her second husband, Frank Davis. In 1994, she founded the Alice Coachmen Track and Field Foundation, a nonprofit foundation based in Akron, Ohio, that assisted young athletes and retired Olympians (the foundation was dissolved in 2017).
Coachman passed away in 2014 at the age of 90. She’s been inducted into nine different halls of Fame, including the National Track and Field Hall of Fame (1975) and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame (2004). She was honored at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as one of the 100 greatest ever Olympic athletes, and two children’s books have been written about her: “Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper” and “Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman, Olympic High-Jump Champion.”
Learn more about the legendary women who blazed athletic trails in this five-part series, “Remembering History,” as On Her Turf celebrates Black Heritage Month and Women’s History Month with features on Alice Coachman, the 1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup champion U.S. Women’s National Team, tennis great Althea Gibson, race car driver Janet Guthrie and the 50th anniversary of Billie Jean King‘s win over Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes.”
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