Alice Coachman (1923-)
“Few athletes have dominated a sport like Alice Coachman dominated the high jump,” writes the New Georgia Encyclopedia. In 1948, at the age of 25, she became the first African-American woman to win a gold medal at the Olympics. She paved the way for millions of black female athletes reaching for the gold.
Alice Coachman was born on November 9, 1923 to Fred and Evelyn Coachman in Albany, Georgia. The young Alice not only had to deal with her nine other siblings, but also with segregation. Because of her race, Coachman was barred from public training facilities and forced to use whatever she could to train. She ran and jumped barefoot on dirt roads and playgrounds.
Her parents had hesitations about encouraging a girl to be athletic, but she found support in her fifth grade teacher at Monroe Street Elementary School, Cora Bailey. Outside of school, her aunt, Carrie Spry, helped her to look beyond her obstacles.
Coachman immediately joined the track team of Madison High School when she enrolled in 1938, and soon was noticed by Harry Lash, the boys’ track and field coach. He fostered her talent and encouraged her dreams. In 1939, at the age of 16, she was granted a scholarship to Alabama’s prestigious Tuskegee Institute. Even before classes started, she took part in the Amateur Athlete Union (AAU) national championship’s track and field competition -- she broke the high school and collegiate high jump records barefoot.
There had been an international furor in 1936, when African-American Jesse Owens became the first black man to compete in the modern Olympics. No black woman had yet made that leap – and the 1940 Olympics, when women might have followed Owens’ precedent, were cancelled when World War II began in 1939. The war still raged in 1944, the next year when the games should have occurred. Sadly, these years also coincided with Alice Coachman’s young adulthood, when she probably was at the peak of her athletic ability.
Instead, she competed for Tuskegee during the war years and won the AAU nationals in the high jump and 50 yard dash. She won national championships in the 50meter, 100meter, and high jump competitions and ran on the national championship relay team. Alice Coachman was the only African American to be named to the five All-American teams.
Alice Coachman received her degree from Tuskegee Institute in 1946 and enrolled in Albany State University. Despite a back injury just prior to the 1948 Olympics, she easily qualified for the London Olympics in 1948. Coachman joined the team with a record breaking 5’4” jump (the previous record was set in 1932 and was 5’3¼”). With an opening jump of 5’ 6”, she crushed all competition and was awarded an Olympic Gold Medal for her feat.
She was the first woman of color in the world to win an Olympic Gold Medal and was awarded the medal by Britain’s King George VI, the father of modern Queen Elizabeth. Her record would not be broken until two Olympiads later.
When Coachman returned to the United States, she stopped training and began to support other athletes -- but even after she stopped competing, she continued to break records. She benefited from endorsement deals and was the first African-American female athlete to do so. In later years, she formed the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation to support young athletes and provide help for Olympic veterans. When Atlanta hosted the 1996 Olympics, she was honored as one of the top 100 greatest Olympic athletes. Since the end of her career, she has been inducted into eight different halls of fame and currently resides in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Taken from Young and Brave: Girls Changing History
- Wiggins, David K. Out of the shadows : a biographical history of African American athletes. Fayetteville : University of Arkansas Press, 2006.
- “Alice Coachman” AETNA.. <http://www.aetna.com/foundation/aahcalendar/1991coachman.html>.
- The New Georgia Encyclopedia. Lisa A. Ennis. <http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Home.jsp>.