It’s been a week of celebrating black women’s firsts at the Olympics, with Gabby Douglas joining former Olympian Dominique Dawes as pioneers in gymnastics, so there’s no better time to profile Alice Coachman who, in 1948, became the first black woman to ever earn a gold medal in any Olympic sport. Coachman’s event was the high jump, at which she excelled for nine straight years in the AAU outdoor high jump championship from 1939 to 1948. The Olympics were a venue that eluded her during that time; the 1940 and 1944 games were canceled due to World War II.
In the ’48 Summer Olympics, Coachman soared 5 ft, six and an eighth inches into the air on her first try. Not only was she the first black woman ever to win gold, she was the only American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in athletics that year. A Tuskegee Institute graduate, Coachman also ran the indoor and outdoor 50 m dash and the outdoor 100 m dash. In addition, she competed on the national champion 4 x 100-meter relay team in 1941 and 1942.
Coachman was the daughter of sharecroppers, born near Albany, GA in 1923. Her father was unsupportive of her athletic ambitions, punishing her whenever he caught her playing basketball or running. Despite her natural aptitude for both, Alice Coachman’s father believed athletics weren’t feminine pursuits. She found allies in her fifth grade teacher and her aunt, who encouraged her to continue training. Though she was denied access to regular training facilities due to Jim Crow laws, she fashioned her own practice hurdles. The tide turned for her when she was admitted to Tuskegee Institute in 1943. She entered under the pretense of studying dressmaking and did, in fact, earn a degree in the same. But her real interests were in sports, which she played on a competitive level each year. Coachman continued her studies at Albany State College and earned a B.S. in home economics with a science minor in 1949. She became a home ec teacher and track and field instructor.
During her career, she won thirty-four national titles, ten for the high jump. She was also inducted into nine halls of fame. In 1952, Coachman became the first black woman to endorse an international product when Coca-Cola signed her in 1952. In 1994, she founded the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation to provide assistance to young athletes and former Olympic competitors.
She’s truly an example of determination and preparation leading to astounding success. Three cheers for Alice Coachman, a great American heroine!