Alice Coachman should have been one of the most famous female athletes of all time. She was the 1948 Olympic high jump champion and the winner of 25 national track and field championships, including ten consecutive U.S. high jump championships and five national outdoor 50 meter sprint championships, and was the star guard on Tuskegee Institute’s women’s basketball team that won three conference championships. She was denied a greater place in track and field history because the Olympic Games that would have occurred during her prime, 1940 and 1944, were canceled because of World War II.
Childhood and Athletic Progression
Coachman was born in 1923 in Albany, Georgia, the fifth of ten children. That was an era when schools almost never had sports programs for any girls, and of course all programs were completely segregated; however, a fifth grade teacher encouraged her and when she reached high school in 1938, she joined the track team. The boys’ track team coach recognized her talent and helped to train her. She ran barefooted and at age 15, she was so much more gifted than everyone else that she broke the national record for the high jump at the Amateur Athletic Union’s (AAU) Women’s National Championship. This brought her to the attention of coaches at Tuskegee Institute and she received a scholarship to their preparatory school at age 16, and from there went on to the Tuskegee Institute College team. Her scholarship stipulated that she had to help clean the gym and repair uniforms.
Coachman dominated women’s high jumping from 1939-1948 and won ten national championships, but the opportunities for international competition were gone during the years of World War II. In an article for Black Athlete (April 6, 2006), sports writer Eric Williams said, “Had she competed in those canceled Olympics, we would probably be talking about her as the No. 1 female athlete of all time.”
At the 1948 Olympic Games in London, she broke the previous world record with her qualifying jump of 5’4,” and went on to win the gold medal with a jump of 5’6 1/8″ on her first try. Her medal was presented by King George IV. On her return to the U.S., she and her teammates were congratulated by President Truman and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Long Life of Teaching and Coaching
Coachman had graduated Tuskegee Institute in 1946 and went on to Albany State College, where she received a B.S. degree in home economics with a minor in science in 1949. She stopped competing at age 24 and spent the rest of her life mostly teaching and coaching track and field.
In 1952, the Coca-Cola Company made her the first African-American woman to be paid for endorsing international products, featuring her along with 1936 Olympic hero Jesse Owens on Coca-Cola billboards.
Death and Legacy
Coachman was inducted into nine halls of fame. In 1975 at age 52, she was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame and in 2004 at age 81, into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame. She was honored as one of the 100 greatest Olympians during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, and was an honoree of the National Women’s History Project in 2002. A street and an elementary school were named after her in her home town of Albany, Georgia. At age 90, she suffered a stroke that was followed by severe breathing problems and she died on July 14, 2014.
Some of the world’s most successful people get there by overcoming severe hardships. Coachman dealt with the obstacles of poverty and the incredible ignorance of racial prejudice, practicing on her own by running barefoot and jumping over obstacles that she made herself. Her obituary in the New York Times noted that she had not been allowed to train at athletic fields with whites. “You had to run up and down the red roads and the dirt roads,” Coachman told an interviewer. “You went out there in the fields, where there was a lot of grass and no track. No nothing.” Now she is recognized as the first in a long succession of great African-American female athletes. She said, “I think I opened the gate for all of them. Whether they think that or not, they should be grateful to someone in the black race who was able to do these things.”
Alice Coachman Davis
November 9, 1923 – July 14, 2014