Obit of the Day: The 1st Black Woman to Win Gold at the Olympics
Alice Coachman stood alone atop the podium at the 1948 London Olympics. The 24-year-old form Albany, Georgia had won the women’s high jump, clearing 5’ 6 1/8” (1.68 m) on the bar, a new Olympic record. This made her the only woman on the U.S. track and field team to medal, and more importantly, the first black woman to win gold in Olympic history.
Ms. Coachman* was the greatest high jumper of her time but 1948 was her only Olympic appearance because of the cancellation of the previous two games due to World War II. Ms. Coachman won ten straight AAU high jump titles (1939-1948) - the first when she was only 15. She also won five straight AAU 50 meter outdoor sprints from 1943 to 1947 and was a national champion in the 100 meter sprint and 4 x 100m relay.
Growing up in rural Georgia, Ms. Coachman was always attracted to athletic pursuits, something her father disliked intensely. She told of receiving beatings when he caught her running and jumping like a boy around town. But she continued to train and found support from her fifth grade teacher, Cora Bailey and her aunt, Carrie Spry. She eventually enrolled at Tuskegee University where she became a national track and field star.
Following the Olympics, Ms. Coachman was appropriately lauded as a champion. She joined other Olympians meeting President Truman at the White House, and legendary musician Count Basie threw her a party. Her hometown of Albany held a ceremony and parade for her. But as a black woman in the South she couldn’t escape the segregation that permeated the culture: the mayor of Albany would not shake her hand and she was not allowed to enter or exit through the front door of the auditorium.
She earned a teaching degree from Albany State College, where she transferred after the Olympic games. Ms. Coachman taught elementary and high school students while continuing to encourage young men and women to pursue athletics. She founded the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation which provides financial assistance to young Olympic hopefuls as well as Olympic veterans.
In 1952, Ms. Coachman was offered an endorsement deal from Coca-Cola. When she accepted she became the first black woman paid to advertise a national product.
Ms. Coachman is still honored annually with the Alice Coachman Track Invitational held at Albany State, established in 1992. She is a member of nine halls of fame including the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame (1975) and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame (2004). Her hometown also named an elementary school in her honor.
Alice Coachman, who was the subject of a 2012 children’s book titled Touch the Sky, died on July 14, 2014 at the age of 90.
* Ms. Coachman married twice, both times to men with the surname Daivs, but in all articles she was referred to by her maiden name, so I have chosen to do the same.
Sources: NY Times, Albany (GA) Herald, WALB-TV, National Women’s History Month
(Image of the 1948 Olympics high jump medal ceremony with Alice Coachman winning gold, Dorothy Tyler of Great Britain taking silver, and Micheline Ostermeyer earning bronze. It is courtesy of www.filmsnotdead.com)’
Other 1948 Olympians featured on Obit of the Day:
Ann Curtis - U.S. swimmer who won two gold medals at the games
Moose Thompson - Gold medal-winning shot putter
Walter Walsh - Member of the U.S. pistol team, also the oldest living Marine and FBI agent
and one pioneer…
Halet Cambel - The 1st Muslim woman to compete at the Olympics (1936)