Monday, February 17, 2014

First Black Female Olympic Gold, Alice Coachman

Alice Coachman was the first African American female gold medal winner in Olympics history.

Alice Coachman first African American woman Olympic gold medal winner
Alice Coachman, 1948 High Jump Winner
Track and Field

Alice Coachman 

Alice Coachman won a gold medal at the 1948 Olympics, becoming the first black American woman to win gold, just days after Audrey Patterson became the first African American woman to win a medal of any kind in the Olympics.

Alice Coachman, 1948 London Olympics High Jump Winner

1948 U.S. Female Olympic Track and Field Team

1948 U.S. Female Olympic Track & Field

The last Olympics held before World War II was in Berlin 1936. Black male track and field star, Jesse Owens, who won four gold track and field medals and tried to turn his victory into a victory for civil rights. In spite of Jesse Owens' impressive results, race relations in the United States remained oppressive.

Nearly two decades would pass before Brown v the Board of Education in 1954 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1954-55, led by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, would cause changes in federal law would remove Jim Crow law from the nation's books. However, it takes more than the stroke of a pen to remove racism from society.

Historical background- Females in the Olympics

Black women in that 1936 Olympics, Tydie Pickett and Louise Stokes, had been removed from the track and field roster as they had been in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932. They were replaced by white teammates they had previously defeated. Because the world was involved in WWII, the Olympics were cancelled in 1940 and 1944. The next Olympics were held in 1948 in London, in which African American women track and field stars, comprising the greater proportion of the 1948 U.S. Female Olympic Track and Field Team, set records that year and won medals.

Since 1948, black female gold medal Olympians--from Coachman, the first, to Gabby Douglas in the 2012 London Olympics, most recent of the African American female gold medal winners--have been making Olympic history and showing the world who they were. Each occasion that black women win medals or make other significant accomplishments to society, the world sees African American women in a different and more positive light, and re-evaluates changing standards of American beauty.

Athletics and civil rights helped set new standards of American beauty. Beauty standards of have changed along with images of black women. 

Rosa Parks & Martin Luther King Montgomery Bus Boycott
Rosa Parks & Martin Luther King
Montgomery Bus Boycott
The image of black female beauty ushered in by the Civil Rights Movement was very different from the old images of black women during the days of Jim Crow laws. 

During the days of Jim Crow laws, women with darker skin were considered less attractive than women with lighter skin. And that was true even in the African American community. Therefore, dark-skinned women were viewed on television shows and in Hollywood movies as less valuable in society than their white counterparts. And black women with light skin remained out of work because producers hesitated in casting them as maids and risking a confusion that white women were playing roles as maids. In other words the roles the public saw black and white women playing were the reflection of the public estimation of them in real life. 

The Olympics helped to show black women as winners, raised their value in society and opened the door for Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King and the modern Civil Rights Movement. Early accomplishments, victories and contributions by Alice Coachman and others laid the foundation for a future generation of black female activists like Rosa Parks to continue building a road to equality. The Civil Rights Movement seized upon Alice Coachman's glory in hopes of creating another African American hero to symbolize racial equality and close the door on the black codes of slavery that created Jim Crow laws and racial injustice in American society. 

By nearly a decade, Alice Coachman's era preceded Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Dr. Martin Luther King, both credited with igniting the modern Civil Rights Movement. King, Parks and a little known female civil rights activist named Joanne Robinson worked to hold the Montgomery Bus Boycott together. However, Alice Coachman's victory at the 1948 Olympics had opened doors toward racial justice, which made the efforts of King, Parks, Robinson and other civil rights activists. 

Alice Coachman represented Tuskegee Institute, the school that started women's track and field training for the Olympics, and became the first African American woman to win a gold medal in the Olympics. In fact, Coachman was the only U.S. female athlete of any race to win a medal of any kind at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. Alice Coachman, other participants in the Olympics and the rest of the African Americans in the United States wanted the same things as other Americans. They wanted a chance to be Americans. They wanted good jobs, homes and education for their children. And that's what winning in the Olympics, attending Tuskegee Institute and other universities, and the Civil Rights Movement meant to them.

Alice Coachman, High Winner Jump
Alice Coachman
High Jump Winner (AP Photo)

Alice Coachman--born in 1923 in Albany, Georgia--was one of 10 children. She attended Tuskegee Institute in high school and college at the time of Tuskegee Airmen fame. At Tuskegee, Coachman won several national track and field titles, but due to World War II, the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were cancelled. Before Alice Coachman won her gold medal, Audrey Patterson of Tennessee State had already won a bronze medal, becoming the first African American female in Olympic history to win a medal.

Alice Coachman (center) at Wembley Stadium, Wembley, England, August 7, 1948, London Olympics, receiving gold medal for winning the women's high jump; left is D.J. Tyler, Great Britain, second; and right is M.O.M. Ostermeyer, France, third.

Athletics and civil rights helped to change America.

A. Philip Randolph & Eleanor Roosevelt

A. Philip Randolph 
Eleanor Roosevelt

National unrest and growing racial and social tension in the military community, led by A. Philip Randolph, brought civil rights to the forefront of the Roosevelt administration, primarily through sympathies of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, leading to the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black U.S. trained black pilots, who helped America win WWII and were instrumental in the desegregation of the U.S. Army. On July 26, 1948, the President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 to desegregate the U.S. Army, just days before the London Olympics began on July 29, 1948 and Coachman's victory for the gold medal in the high jump.

Alice Coachman's victory fueled the struggle against Jim Crow laws in America and the world.

President Truman & African American Female Olympians  (l-r) Emma Reed, Theresa Manuel, Audrey Patterson,  Nell Jackson, Alice Coachman and Mabel Walker
President Truman & African American Female Olympians
(l-r) Emma Reed, Theresa Manuel, Audrey Patterson,
Nell Jackson, Alice Coachman and Mabel Walker
(l-r) Emma Reed, Theresa Manuel, Audrey Patterson,
Nell Jackson, Alice Coachman and Mabel Walker
After returning from London in 1948 and hanging up her Olympic shoes, Alice Coachman became a symbol of freedom to many African Americans who heard on radio that Coachman was inducted into eight athletic Halls of Fame. These are honors no black women before her had ever earned. Since that time, many black women had earned these and additional Olympic and other honors. 

Alice Coachman opened the door for the fastest woman in the world in 1960, Wilma Rudolph, until Florence "FloJo" Joyner broke her record in 1988, becoming the fastest woman on earth.

After winning her world honors, she founded the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation, a non-profit organization to help train young athletes for Olympic competition, to find funds for their college education and to prepare for professional careers after returning from the Olympics.

    Bigmama Didn’t Shop  At Woolworth’s  Sunny Nash

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Sunny Nash author of bigmama didn't shop at woolworth's

Sunny Nash is an author, producer, photographer and leading writer on U.S. race relations. 

Sunny Nash writes books, blogs, articles and reviews, and produces media and images on U.S. history and contemporary American topics, ranging from Jim Crow laws to social media networking. Sunny Nash is the author of Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's (Texas A&M University Press), about life with her part-Comanche grandmother during the Civil Rights Movement.

Sunny Nash’s book is recognized by the Association of American University Presses as essential for understanding U.S. race relations. Nash's book is also listed in the Bibliographic Guide for black studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida. Nash uses her book to write articles and blogs on race relations in America through topics relating to her life--from music, film, early radio and television, entertainment, social media, Internet technology, publishing, journalism, sports, education, employment, the military, fashion, performing arts, literature, women's issues, adolescence and childhood, equal rights, social and political movements--past and present—to today's post-racism.

© 2015 Sunny Nash. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. 
~Thank You~

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