Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we’re paying tribute to American athlete Alice Coachman, who made history at the 1948 Olympic Games.
When she completed her first high jump at the 1948 Olympic Games, Alice Coachman became the first black woman to win an Olympic gold. But despite being a celebrity when she returned to the United States, meeting with the president and appearing in parades around the country, the white mayor of her hometown still refused to shake her hand.
Born in Albany, Georgia, in 1923, Coachman joined the track team in high school. She practised barefoot, using sticks as makeshift jumps, as she couldn’t afford equipment and wasn’t allowed to train on the sports field with white children due to widespread segregation in the South.
But her hard work paid off, and she received a scholarship to the Tuskegee Institute – a renowned black university founded by two former slaves in 1881 and a centre of excellence for women’s track and field.
Coachman shone at Tuskegee and began competing at Amateur Athletic Union meets. In 1939 she broke the high school and college high jump records. All in all, she won 10 consecutive high jump championships between 1939 and 1948, five consecutive 50-metre championships and three basketball championships.
By then she was so good that she should have been sweeping the Olympics, but the Second World War meant that the 1940 and 1944 games were cancelled. In 1946, peace was declared and Coachman’s Olympiad dreams were back on track: she qualified for the US team and was on her way to London.
The 1948 London Games saw black women come to the fore for the first time in Olympic history. First, sprinter Audrey Patterson became the first black woman to win a medal when she took 200m bronze.
Then Coachman’s turn came. On her first attempt, she jumped a record-breaking 1.68m, instantly making her the first black woman to win Olympic gold. It was an incredible, historic achievement.
What was her legacy?
When she got back to the US, Coachman met with President Truman at the White House and parades were held in her honour around the country.
Returning to Georgia, she appeared in a motorcade despite the widespread racism there – at the official ceremony in Albany the audience was segregated and Coachman was snubbed by the mayor.
“We had segregation, but it wasn’t any problem for me because I had won,” she said. “It was up to them whether they accepted it or not.”
Coachman decided to end her career there. “I had accomplished what I wanted to,” she said. “That was the climax. I won the gold medal. I proved to my mother, my father, my coach and everybody else that I had gone to the end of my rope.”
She retired as an athlete and devoted the rest of her life to athletics coaching. She continued to be regarded as a black sporting icon, and was declared one of the 100 greatest Olympic athletes in history at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Georgia.
Main illustration: Bijou Karman. Other images: Getty Images