Alice Coachman dies; first African American woman to win Olympic gold
As the gold medal winner in the high jump at the 1948 Olympics in London, Alice Coachman came home to a celebratory welcome, including a parade in her home town of Albany, Ga.
But Coachman was not permitted to speak at the ceremony. And the mayor did not shake her hand.
The town’s problem with Coachman had nothing to do with her athletic achievement or her character. It was the color of her skin.
Coachman, who was the first African American woman to win an Olympic gold medal, died Monday in Albany, said her son, Richmond Davis, who said she had been undergoing treatment for a stroke. She was believed to be 90.
Coachman, whose married name was Davis, was not surprised at the behavior of city officials during the era of segregation in the South. She was all too familiar with unjust treatment.
As a girl, she was not permitted to use public sports facilities, forcing her to improvise. She used rope or tied rags together to substitute for proper crossbars when she practiced high-jumping. And instead of running on a track, Coachman ran on rural trails, usually barefoot because her family could not afford sports shoes.
Still, when Albany officials snubbed her after her victory, it hurt, especially in light of the fact that she was received her medal in London from King George VI.
“To come back home to your own country, your own state and your own city, and you can’t get a handshake from the mayor?” she said in an interview several years ago for the National Visionary Leadership Project. “Wasn’t a good feeling.”
Some whites in the city were supportive, but not publicly. At a party at her godfather’s house, she received many gifts and flowers from well wishers but many of the packages arrived with no cards or names attached. Coachman said those came from white people.
“They couldn’t let people know they were sending flowers to this black woman,” she said. “That’s the way it was, then.”
Coachman was born in Albany on Nov. 9, 1923, according to some published reports, although her son said the exact date is uncertain; he said tax documents put the year at 1922.
Her parents had 10 children, with Alice early on showing signs of being an athlete. On walks with her great-grandmother along dirt roads “I would skip ahead of her and run from her,” Coachman said in a 1997 interview with the Birmingham News. “This was way before I became school age. I just had so much fun running.
“I never stopped.”
By the time she was in seventh grade, she was high jumping more than 5 feet, a towering distance for her age at the time.
Before entering high school, she participated in a track and field meet at Tuskegee Institute, one of the best-known black educational institutions, where she shattered the high school and college high-jump records. Tuskegee’s famed coach, Cleve Abbott, recruited her.
Coachman won the national championship in high jump in 1939, and went on to win it nine more times in a row. She would have probably competed at the Olympic Games in 1940 and 1944, but they were canceled because of World War II. “I know I would have won in 1944, at least,” she said. “I was starting to peak then.”
Finally, she made it to the Olympics in 1948 and found herself staying, for the first time in her life, in integrated housing.
“It was a beautiful thing to be around that camp,” Coachman told the Associated Press in 1996. “All those people from different countries doing their thing, singing and dancing.”
The high jump was one of the last events of the Games. On her first jump, she cleared the bar at just over 51/2 feet, an Olympic and U.S. record.
Coachman retired from competitions after the Games. She had earned her undergraduate degree from what is now Albany State University, and went on to teach and coach. But there were also hard times — a breakup with her fiance, a bad marriage and a series of dead-end jobs, including working as a housekeeper.
But by the early 1990s, her life was coming back together. She married her former fiance (coincidentally, both her husbands had the last name of Davis) and she began teaching again.
After years of living quietly, she also was ready to set the sports world straight on a misconception.
“You go anyplace and people will tell you Wilma Rudolph was the first black woman to win a medal,” Coachman said in the Birmingham News, speaking of the runner who won three gold medals at the 1960 Olympic Games. “It’s not true, She came on the scene 12 years later.
“But she was on television.”
In addition to her son, who lives in Akron, Ohio, Coachman is survived by a daughter, Evelyn Jones of Albany; one grandchild, two great-grandchildren and a sister.
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